In an apocalyptic summer, a historic step to fight climate change

Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia and Speaker Anthony Rendón discuss Tuesday’s historic passage of SB 32.
Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia and Speaker Anthony Rendón discuss Tuesday’s historic passage of SB 32. AP

Amid biblical flooding in Baton Rouge and an apocalyptic fire in Monterey County, the Assembly voted narrowly on Tuesday to redouble California’s fight against climate change.

They’re to be thanked. Despite daily signs from God and Mother Nature, it hasn’t been easy to extend the landmark 2006 law forcing California to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions.

Employers from small businesses to the oil industry have had to shell out for cleaner fleets and equipment. And with only about 1 percent of worldwide emissions arising from California, opponents have had a point in asking why we do so much while the rest of the world does so little.

As recently as three weeks ago, it was unclear whether the votes were there to extend the existing law past its 2020 expiration. The extension, Senate Bill 32, had to be stripped to its essentials, calling for a 40 percent reduction of emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, with no mention of the cap-and-trade system currently being used to ensure compliance. And it had to be linked to a second bill, Assembly Bill 197, prioritizing disadvantaged communities in climate regulations and increasing accountability at the California Air Resources Board, the appointed body that critics feel has had too much enforcement power.

It took guts for lawmakers to step up, and grit on the part of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendón and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, and Coachella freshman Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, who carried Sen. Fran Pavley’s bill in the Assembly.

East Bay Republican Assemblywoman Catharine Baker bravely crossed the aisle to vote aye, though she’s a target in a swing district. Moderate Democrats like Ken Cooley, Luis Alejo, Mike Gipson and Bill Dodd – running for Senate in a district that includes liberal Davis – did an about-face from last year, when their cohort argued the law gave the ARB too much clout, at too much cost.

So the people who made Tuesday’s vote happen – including Gov. Jerry Brown, members of the Obama administration, who made calls, and the billionaire activist Tom Steyer – deserve credit. But seeing this climate package through is only a first step.

Resistance, including a court challenge, has helped fuel doubts about cap and trade, which essentially levies fees on major polluters. That, in turn, has threatened to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As the Assembly voted, more subpar results arrived from the latest state-run auction of cap-and-trade carbon emissions credits, which are running hundreds of millions of dollars behind last year, partly because of uncertainty about the program’s future.

Passing SB 32 should help make it clear that California hasn’t waned in its climate commitment, and perhaps thus shore up the program. But what would also send a message is spending some of the $1.4 billion in unspent cap-and-trade proceeds.

From clean-car rebates to cutting port pollution to getting rid of the dying trees kindling devastating brush fires, plenty can, and should, be done now to reduce California’s carbon footprint. Hoarding the money may have made political sense before this week, when proponents expected to need leverage to get SB 32 passed, but that need has waned.

The Senate has a plan; other lawmakers should take a look and get some of that money out the door and into action. Historic votes are fine, but God will help those who help themselves survive climate change.