Editorials

An initiative war won’t solve climate change

Gov. Jerry Brown wants a two-thirds supermajority to approve an extension of the landmark 2006 legislation that requires steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It expires in 2020.
Gov. Jerry Brown wants a two-thirds supermajority to approve an extension of the landmark 2006 legislation that requires steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It expires in 2020. Associated Press file

With three weeks left in the legislative session, Gov. Jerry Brown engaged in brinkmanship Thursday, sending word that the effort to extend California’s landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may need to wait.

The issue could be put off until 2018 when, on his way out of office, Brown could ask voters to approve an initiative. That would be unfortunate. A ballot fight should be the last resort. The Legislature should find a way, if not now then after the election, to extend Assembly Bill 32, the landmark 2006 legislation that requires steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions but expires in 2020.

In implementing the 2006 law, the California Air Resources Board created a cap-and-trade system. Cap-and-trade generates billions of dollars by imposing charges on polluters, including motorists who drive gasoline-powered cars. Revenue from it funds all manner of environmental programs, not the least of which is one of Brown’s legacy projects, high-speed rail.

By law, the Legislature must approve taxes by a two-thirds majority. Legislators and the governor disagree over whether the extension – Senate Bill 32 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills – requires a two-thirds vote.

Brown wants a two-thirds supermajority, a high hurdle. The Legislature’s attorneys believe a simple majority would suffice, although there might not be 41 votes in the 80-seat Assembly to approve the extension, given opposition from the oil industry and other interests.

In a tweet Thursday, Nancy McFadden, Brown’s chief aide, said: “Let’s be clear: We are going to extend our climate goals and cap-and-trade program – one way or another.” Brown, she added, “will continue working with the Legislature to get this done this year, next year or on the ballot in 2018.”

California voters have a history of supporting the environment, and overwhelmingly rejected an oil-industry backed initiative in 2010 that sought to roll back AB 32. But ballot fights are risky. Any initiative to extend cap-and-trade could become a referendum on high-speed rail, a long-delayed, costly and increasingly controversial project. The oil industry would spend tens of millions to oppose any measure by Brown, and probably would fund an initiative of its own.

By their nature, initiatives are not nuanced. Winners take all, and losers are left with nothing. Perhaps the AB 32 extension will come to that. But we hope calmer heads prevail, and that the governor’s brinkmanship will prompt the combatants to seek compromise for the benefit of the rapidly deteriorating environment.

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