Four years ago, the passage of Assembly Bill 32 made California an international beacon of climate change legislation. Not only would it forestall some of global warming's projected effects on a local scale, but it paved the way for other states, even countries, to follow suit. Yet when the US economy fell to its knees in 2008, opponents of the act called it misguided to impose strict environmental mandates upon California's distressed job sectors. Thus was born Proposition 23 — funded by Texas oil companies Valero and Tesoro along with Tea Party bankrollers Koch Industries — which aims to put AB 32 on hold until California experiences four contiguous quarters of unemployment below 5.5 percent, which has happened only three times in the last thirty-five years. Supporters couch the issue as jobs versus environment, but opponents contend that's a false choice.
Given its green credentials and diversified economy, the East Bay is no Prop 23 battleground. Yet there's plenty of attention being paid it here, from grassroots campaigns fighting the proposition to academic analyses of its potential effects. In an ironic twist, Berkeley also is home to the very study that the opponents of AB 32 have used to support their claims regarding its threat to California jobs. UC Berkeley researcher Carol Zabin, who coauthored the 2008 study, is none too pleased.
"It's just so absurd," said Zabin, who helped identify three million California jobs in what were deemed "heavy-emitting industries." Prop 23 advocates soon latched onto that number to suggest that AB 32 had put that many jobs — more than 15 percent of California's workforce — in harm's way. "There's no way that three million jobs are at risk, and our paper didn't say that," Zabin said.
"We were arguing for increased job training," she continued. "That was our point, and it's really been politicized and misinterpreted. They're just wrong in how they're using it." In fact, she said, evidence exists that AB 32 could contribute to a net job increase, not a decrease, due to its stimulation of the state's emerging green economy — especially in the beleaguered building and construction sectors.
Still, proponents of Proposition 23 have been successful enough in shaping the debate that environmentalists throughout the state, and well beyond, have come together to campaign against it. "This is the frontline of all environmental fights," said Claire Still, one of two East Bay-based organizers for the CREDO Action Crush Prop 23 campaign. "Every environmental group has come to California to work on this."
Operating out of downtown Berkeley, Still and her partner have been tasked with what she calls "mobilizing the base." Running a grassroots campaign — phone calls, rallies, the works — designed to reach liberal East Bay voters who already are inclined to oppose the proposition, Still has sought to raise awareness, not change minds. "The oil companies are really smart," she said. "So the best time to put it on the ballot was mid-term when people might not do the research or get out to vote." The campaign's biggest moment yet came last Saturday, when a rally brought seventy people and Berkeley councilman Kris Worthington to a downtown Berkeley Valero station.
Elsewhere in the East Bay, the spoils are a bit more contested. Oakland's Ella Baker Center is home to another wing of the central No on 23 campaign: Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Prop campaign manager Ian Kim, who also directs the Ella Baker Center's green jobs program, leads a coalition of eighty community-based organizations. They're focused on reaching communities of color and low-income neighborhoods — particularly in hard-hit Central Valley farming towns, Prop 23's front lines.
Two-thirds of the coalition's efforts are focused in Southern and Central California, Kim said, but the movement is well-rooted, both logistically and spiritually, in the East Bay. "The green economy really is an economic driver," he said. "A lot of the plants and businesses and educational and career pathways that people have been building throughout the East Bay for years now, all of that is going to get choked off if we lose to Proposition 23."
Meanwhile, research continues into climate legislation at UC Berkeley. Early last month, the law school's Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment released a nonpartisan white paper on the potential ramifications of Proposition 23 called "California at the Crossroads." Many of its findings echo arguments made by opponents of the proposition.
"We concluded that Prop 23, by damaging the clean energy economy growing in California, would cost the state not only jobs, but also the flow of venture capital into our dynamic clean energy sector," explained coauthor and UC Berkeley professor Dan Kammen. "This is a loss that the state cannot afford."