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Does California Need A ‘Green New Deal’ Of Its Own?

Billy Wilson / Flickr

The world has just 12 years to limit global warming to moderate levels, according to a recent United Nations report. In response, Democrats  Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey laid out a grand plan for the nation to address climate change: the Green New Deal.

"We must be as ambitious and innovative in our solution as possible,” Ocasio-Cortez said at the February press conference announcing the proposal.

The goal of the House Resolution is to make the United States a carbon-neutral economy by 2030. It’s a framework that the authors say is in tune with the scientific consensus of what needs to be done in order to avoid catastrophic effects of climate change — floods, wildfire, drought and other severe weather events.

The Green New Deal draws from California's existing climate laws and goals. But even after leading the country in enacting policy that addresses climate change, does California need a new Green New Deal of its own?

Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner says California already has a Green New Deal. Think of cap-and-trade, the state’s system where pollution credits are bought and sold, and the goal of 100 percent clean electric power by 2045.

"It's a good green deal, but it needs to be even stronger within that window that science is telling us is a must,” Skinner announced at a January press conference calling for a Green New Deal in California.

The federal Green New Deal isn't specific, but instead aspirational, alluding to a total reworking of the energy, transportation and manufacturing sectors.

“Our existing green deal programs are oriented to a longer timeframe,” Skinner explained of the state climate goals, which are targeted within the 2040 and 2050 timeframe. “So, part of the challenge is can we accelerate some of those? Can we decarbonize our climate faster?”

Democratic state Sen. Henry Stern says California’s efforts are not stringent enough.

"There are things that we got to do, but we just got to do them fast,” Stern said. “If you plugged in and didn't fill up, you'd spend half as much money."

Stern’s working on a plan for the state to invest $100 billion to reduce carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels by 2030.

“This is an emergency declaration ... When people are dying in nursing homes in a ball of fire, that’s an emergency,” said Stern, recalling recent California wildfires in Paradise, Redding and the wine country.

Criticizing The Deal

But not everybody thinks California should fast-track a Green New Deal.

"We do not need to change the path,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable. “You're talking about transforming our entire economy through energy policy and you don't do that overnight.”

He says California needs time to evaluate whether its current climate plans are working, and if they benefit all residents or just a few.

“When you look at what the potential cost impacts are for average Californians, it's going to make California absolutely unaffordable if we don’t do it the right way. We have a defined path and we need to stick to that path,” Lapsley said.

In a recent opinion piece, Lapsley wrote that parts of the Green New Deal have slowed housing construction, robbed “California’s lower- and middle-class families of the wealth accumulation they might achieve through homeownership” and forced “many state residents to live farther from work while simultaneously increasing the price they pay for gas and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”

California also has not seen a strong return on an investment on green jobs. That’s according to a new study showing that green or clean energy jobs are between 1 and 2 percent of the state’s non-farm jobs. Lapsley says that is lower than the 500,000 jobs frequently cited since 2007.

Others say the Green New Deal is out of touch with reality. Northern California Congressman Doug LaMalfa wrote in a Facebook post that the proposal cannot be taken seriously, and that “the costs associated with this plan would be completely unreachable.”

The Congressional Western Caucus denounces the plan, as well, calling it a “utopian Green New Deal” and a “trojan horse for socialism.”  

The group says the resolution’s promises “of new jobs, free college and prosperity … will bankrupt our economy, destroy jobs, impede innovation in the free-market, and destabilize our great nation.”

Republican Riverside Congressman Ken Calvert was equally critical of the federal resolution, referring to it as “socialism disguised as radical environmentalism.” He says he will vote against it, and that “the only conceivable way to fund the Democrat’s Green New Deal government-state is through tax increases on all Americans, including the middle-class.”

The main goal of the Green New deal is to ward off climate change. But it also addresses economic inequality and racial injustice.

When the federal resolution was laid out in February, Ocasio-Cortez said fighting climate change cannot happen without including disadvantaged communities.

“There is no fixing our economy without addressing the racial wealth gap,” she said. “That means we are not going to transition to renewable energies without transitioning frontline communities and coal communities into economic opportunity, as well.”

California didn't necessarily focus on equity when it initiated its climate policies, says Miya Yoshitani with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

"It's not a mistake that the Green New Deal is learning from some of those mistakes in California, because environmental-justice communities fought really hard,” Yoshitani said.

She says her environmental justice group is still defending communities that don't benefit from California policies, such as cap-and-trade, which she argues was implemented without considering the impacts and benefits for low-income communities and residents of color.

“We were told directly energy policy is not social policy,” Yoshitani said. “We fought for things like solar on multifamily affordable housing ... that will directly benefit renters instead of just property owners.”

But some say there's been a switch in mindset. The state's goal of 5 million electric vehicles on roads by 2030 is a good example, according Austin Brown with the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy.

"Like any new technology, the adopters of these vehicles tended to be higher-income,” Brown said. “Since then, the Air Resources Board has updated the approach.”

There's now an income cap for electric vehicle subsidies and increased rebates for lower-income buyers. But as of December 2018, consumers have only bought enough electric vehicles to make up about 6 percent of that goal, according to the California Center for Jobs and the Economy.

That means Californians will have to buy five times the number of zero-emission vehicles before 2030. To reach the state’s electric vehicle goal, Brown says the state will need to look to policies that will push the envelope even further.

“We have the technologies to get to these kind of emission reductions, but they require a kind of a pace of change that our energy, transportation and land use sectors are really just not accustomed to,” Brown said.

The assumption is that California's climate policies benefit disadvantaged communities: making the air cleaner, generating affordable housing, creating “green jobs.” But Bakersfield Democratic Assembly member Rudy Salas questions that notion.

In early March, Salas asked the California Air Resources Board to provide answers to 29 questions regarding its policies. During the meeting, a CARB official said it would take at least a month to get responses even though a lot of the information is public.

Salas’ main question: What are we doing for communities that bear the brunt of the state’s pollution?

“We have the lofty goals, but I want to have the analytics and look at how we're making those differences in those most polluted communities,” Salas said.

He thinks future dollars should be put toward meeting the state’s goals and addressing disadvantaged communities.

“I represent a region where children have to look at a flag. If that flag’s red and the air is sensitive, that means they can’t play [outside],” said Salas of his district, which often frequently does not meet the state’s air pollution standards. “I just want to make sure that we’re having the most impact for the most vulnerable.”

That’s all too real for Inland Empire resident Allen Hernandez, who is also executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. For two straight years, counties like Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino had the highest number of days with unhealthy ozone pollution.

He says the disparity he witnesses is why he is excited about the federal resolution, and is a reason that California needs a Green New Deal of its own.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of really hardcore pollutants in the air that are causing asthma and cancer in our communities, and it’s not like it’s happening in Beverly Hills. It’s happening in communities like San Bernardino, these majority Latino communities,” Hernandez said.

Agencies like CARB and local air districts aren’t doing enough to curb emissions that are “inflicting harm and pain” on communities of color, according to Hernandez.

This sentiment is why some civil rights leaders are suing the state over its climate policies. They argue that CARB’s most recent draft scoping plan — its strategy for achieving California’s 2030 GHG target — is unlawful and disproportionately harms low-income Californians.

The lawsuit, by the environmental advocacy group The Two Hundred, claims that the state’s climate policies “guarantee that housing, transportation and electricity prices will continue to rise while ‘gateway’ jobs to the middle class for those without college degrees, such as manufacturing and logistics, will continue to locate in other states.”

The group’s attorney, Jennifer Hernandez of the law firm Holland and Knight, says the costs associated with climate-friendly housing and urban-growth boundaries push minority communities to live farther from jobs and leave them bearing the brunt of the negative impacts of climate change.

“CARB’s approach to disadvantaged communities is in part laudable because they have at least recognized that disparate effects occur in disadvantaged communities,” Jennifer Hernandez said, “but their approach to housing in particular has been to just load up more and more costs and obstacles.”

CARB spokesperson Dave Clegern says The Two Hundred’s claim that the draft plan contributes to the affordable housing shortage “is simply not correct.”

He says the agency doesn’t deny “long commutes create an extra pollution burden, and negative public health impacts, particularly for low-income communities.” But he says the state has worked to make sure that climate policies “make progress on these challenges.”

Clegern also notes cap-and-trade funding has “provided nearly a billion dollars for affordable housing. That money has built more than 6,000 affordable homes, with more on the way.”

Even in the unlikelihood of Congress approving the Green New Deal, the ideas in the proposal wouldn't become law. That's because the resolution is nonbinding.

And while California has a head start, many argue there are still gaps in the states climate policies.

In the 2019-20 legislative session, California lawmakers are discussing more than 40 bills that align with the goals in the Green New Deal and aim to close some of these gaps.

One idea lawmakers are exploring is how to tax products based on the amount of carbon emitted during production.

“Some products will cost quite a bit less as a result of the implementation of this and others will cost more,” said Santa Monica Democratic state Sen. Ben Allen, who authored the bill, which would study how the state could implement a carbon tax.

If Senate Bill 43 becomes law, it’ll require CARB, with aid from the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, to submit a report to the Legislature by 2021.

“If we don't figure out a way to [combine] our environmental goals into our capitalist structure we will not do what we need to do to scale the environmental message that California is sending to the rest of the world,” Allen said of the state’s ambitious climate goals.

State Sen. Skinner introduced a bill that would phase out diesel trucks by requiring a 40 percent reduction in diesel emissions by 2030, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

“Diesel is responsible for 33 percent of the emissions that causes smog in California ... California still has dirty air,” Skinner said.

She also says addressing emissions and energy use from housing should be part of the state’s goals. “The lack of housing near jobs is driving those transportation emissions and it’s very, very inequitable,” Skinner said. “The scarcity of housing has driven up costs for people, has caused them to live further away, created super commutes and caused pollution.”

Lawmakers are discussing bills to increase the use of electric vehicles, to help coastal communities adapt to rising sea levels and to factor in smoke from wildfires in the state's emission-reduction goals.

There are also at least two bills encouraging Congress to run with the Green New Deal. San Diego Democrat Todd Gloria is the author of one, and he says supporting the national movement is important.  

"Communities up and down my district are grappling with sea level rise,” Gloria said. “I think a part of these statewide and national policies could help these smaller communities to understand what they need to do navigate this challenge."

But even with the state's existing laws and goals, Riverside Democratic Assembly member Eduardo Garcia says more needs to be done.

“Exploring what we've been doing is a starting point. The question really is, ‘Is that enough?’"

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio