Inside Climate News: California’s Climate Reputation Tarnished by Inaction and Oil Money

March 16, 2022

By Liza Gross

For the first time since a watchdog group awarded scores for environmental action, California received a near failing grade for its lack of progress on climate change.

As California struggles to adapt to historic droughts and wildfires fueled by the climate crisis, state legislators are taking money from fossil fuel companies and dragging their feet on climate action, activists and members of a legislative climate caucus said during a press call Tuesday.

California’s woeful progress on climate solutions earned the state a near failing grade from an environmental group that evaluates politicians’ voting records, budgets and policies in order to hold government officials accountable.

The state’s failure to pass meaningful climate measures last year prompted the California Environmental Voters, or EnviroVoters, to give the state its first “D” since the group began issuing its annual scorecard in 1973. 

“This is the first time in history we’ve ever given California a score this low,” said Mary Creasman, CEO of EnviroVoters, formerly the California League of Conservation Voters.

“This is unacceptable in a state like California,” she said. “Everybody is paying attention to what California does, and looking at us to create the models for action.”

The group didn’t give California an F, Creasman said, only because the state made “significant investments” related to climate in the budget last year.

California legislators haven’t enacted significant climate legislation since 2018, she said, when they passed a law requiring 100 percent of retail sale of electricity to come from renewable energy and zero-carbon sources by 2045.

That year, the state’s Environmental Protection Agency released a report warning of an increasingly stark future under climate change. The report came on the heels of several years of record-setting temperatures, the historic 2012-2016 drought and the largest, deadliest wildfires on record at the time. Last year’s wildfires were even worse. 

“From record temperatures to proliferating wildfires and rising seas, climate change poses an immediate and escalating threat to California’s environment, public health, and economic vitality,” the report noted.

The slow action on climate change is partly a consequence of the nature of representative democracies, said Assemblymember Steve Bennett (D-Ventura), who authored and passed a bill that holds the oil and gas industry liable for the costs of cleaning up abandoned wells.

“Politicians don’t get popular by asking people to make sacrifices today to solve the problems that come 15 or 20 years down the road,” said Bennett, a member of what EnviroVoters calls the Climate Action Caucus for its “bold action” to address the climate crisis.

But the magnitude of the climate crisis and consequences in store for California demand a sense of urgency, Bennett added. “We’ve already passed so many deadlines that have been out there. But we have to have a sense of fire in us that there is not time to waste.”

Working for Change

State Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach) represents a community besieged by pollution from industries like metal processing plants and diesel emissions from the second-busiest container port in the United States. 

“There is a lot that folks in my district specifically are dealing with and why I don’t have the luxury myself to wait as a legislator on these climate policies,” Gonzalez said. “And so my big question is, what are we waiting for?”

Gonzalez sponsored a bill to add environmental justice representatives to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, but the bill failed to pass the Senate. 

“We’ll continue to push to ensure that we see environmental justice representatives in some of our largest air quality management districts,” Gonzalez said. “That’s exactly what we need, the voice of those who live and work in these areas to lift up the issues of climate justice.”

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