A new coalition launching in the coming weeks is mobilizing groups with deep roots in their communities to take on Proposition 23, a measure on the November ballot that seeks to overturn AB32, California’s landmark greenhouse gas regulation bill. Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Proposition represents those who suffer the worst effects of greenhouse gases but often have the most trouble being heard.
The contrast could hardly be sharper. In one corner, there are the big Texas oil companies who are Prop 23’s most prominent backers. In the other, you have groups like the Green the Rez Campaign, a project
of the Bishop Paiute Tribe in the Eastern Sierra that promotes renewable
energy and sustainable living on the local reservation.
The oily Texans trying to roll back AB32 already face opposition from a number of mainstream politicians and environmental groups. Now they’re about to get clobbered by a concerted effort that pulls together organizations with strong ties to Asian, Latino, African American, and Native communities. The connections they make between their health needs and the economy call into question the stale jobs versus environmental rhetoric and will give the No on Proposition 23 campaign loads of street cred.
“Prop 23 is a dirty oil industry trick to try to undo a major California environmental law, and if passed, will put all people at risk from more pollution, especially low-income and people of color, who bear a huge and disproportionate burden of fossil fuel and industrial pollution,” said Bradley Angel, Executive Director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a member of the new coalition. “The health of our state’s most vulnerable communities is more important than dirty oil company profits.”
Greenaction has been in the thick of the struggle to stop expansion of a waste dump in Kettleman City, where residents have reported a cluster of birth defects they attribute to the current dump already nearby.
Prop 23 “suspends air pollution control laws requiring major polluters to report and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming until unemployment drops below specified level for full year,” according to the official ballot description. The campaign’s website calls Prop 23 the “California Jobs Initiative,” declaring that “The fight for our jobs is on!” Its list of endorsers includes politicians, businesses, and various Black and Latino chambers of commerce. Co-optation of conservative groups of color is an old tactic to give right-wing campaigns a veneer of credibility.
Curiously missing from the site of the “Jobs Initiative” are any endorsers from organized labor. That may be because the workers for those jobs are all on the other side. The California Labor Federation and several individual unions such as the Teamsters, Steelworkers, and California Nurses Association have already joined Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs, another earlier pro-AB32 coalition that has some overlap in community membership with the newly launching one. This more mainstream group lists dozens of respected backers like the League of Women Voters, but it also includes names like honorary co-chair George Shultz, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
When the mainstream media anoint Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Gavin Newsom as green heroes, never questioning their actions in gutting public transportation or Newsom’s connections to investments in oil companies (since divested when they were revealed in print), the struggle at the grassroots can get lost. Perhaps all the conservative and moderate voices against Prop 23 will help to defeat it, but the poor communities represented by the new coalition have little in common with the Shultzes, Newsoms, and Schwarzeneggers of the world.
Their issues are more personal and deeply connected. Communities United Against the Dirty Energy Proposition declares on its pre-launch website: “California is a ‘majority-minority’ state, and people of color represent 37 percent of independent voters. . . . We need to counter Big Oil’s deceptions. We need to make sure our communities know that their health, their jobs, and their incomes depend on stopping the Dirty Energy Proposition.”
About 60 organizations from throughout the state have signed onto the new coalition, including the Asia Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Cesar Chavez Institute, Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, and Oakland Rising. Oakland’s Ella Baker Center, which is known for its work on youth incarceration, green jobs, and street violence, was one of the spark plugs of the new coalition. Veteran local groups TransForm and Urban Habitat, fresh from the fight to move money from the Oakland Airport Connector to local transit agencies for starving bus service, are also on board.
Evidently, voters have been slow to succumb to Prop 23’s charms. A Field Poll released in early July showed the measure trailing 48 percent to 36 percent, with 16 percent undecided. The San Francisco Chronicle story on the poll quoted Stephen Nicholson of UC Merced, who linked the public’s negative views to the backers of the proposition. “If word gets out that big oil is behind this, it might very well go down to defeat,” he said.
The big money is behind Prop 23, but as the defeat of PG&E’s Prop 16 in the June election showed, money can’t always buy its way out of negative perceptions, especially when real people with real roots dig in to fight it.
APEN, which is also already a part of the Asia Pacific American Climate Coalition, sums up the connections for one of the communities gearing up to defend AB32: “We have an extraordinary opportunity to influence how our cities are built, how public funding gets prioritized, and help shape a new greener economy. It is imperative that APA communities engage to ensure that the benefits and impacts of climate programs can be distributed equitably. . . . With a significant California APA population, we are a critical sector in influencing climate programs not just in our state but across the country.”