In the next few days, the moderate Democrats of the San Joaquin Valley will cast one of the most momentous and politically fraught votes of their legislative careers.
The choice before them could not be more stark: to stand with Big Oil and other powerful industries that have become their political benefactors in the short term or to create a new California that will stand as a global leader in a post-industrial green economy.
In deciding whether to vote “yes” or “no” on two bills that will greatly restrict greenhouse-gas emissions over the next half-century, they will be choosing, quite simply, between our past and our future.
I know their dilemma well. A decade ago, in the dog days of August, at the end of my first term as a state senator representing the southern San Joaquin Valley, the very same choice confronted me. The eleventh hour had come. No more dodging; no more equivocation. It was time to vote on a landmark bill known as Assembly Bill 32, a comprehensive program to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent from all statewide sources by the year 2020.
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I had heard all the doomsday scenarios in the weeks before. Into my office had trudged the big boys of Chevron, Western States Petroleum, PG&E and the California Farm Bureau. AB 32 would spell disaster for the state, they insisted. Its goals were impossible to achieve. Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost in the trying.
And just so I knew they cared, they left me to ponder this scenario: The law would fall most harshly on my people, the poor of the Valley, the farmworkers who, faced with higher energy costs, would have to choose between food and gasoline.
Before the vote, I headed home to Kern County. I was facing re-election. No opponent had emerged, but the threat was there. The foes of AB 32 were bombarding radio and print media with their fear. My son and daughter, 15 and 6 at the time, were in Shafter to greet me. Like so many children in those schools carved out of farm fields, they were struggling to breathe. Our Valley had become the most polluted air region in the United States. Every third kid was on an inhaler.
My political advisers fretted. I had already angered the oil and farm lobbies with my clean-air bills that had recently become law. Why risk industry’s wrath even more?
Decision day in Sacramento, as it turned out, wasn’t difficult in the least. As soon as I grasped AB 32 as a commitment to my children and their children and generations of Californians to come, voting “yes” became simple. First, we had to imagine a future free of fossil fuels. Then once a standard was set, we had to allow innovation to find its way to meet it.
A decade later, that day of doom has never arrived. Instead, the state’s renewable-energy standard has become a catalyst for creation. Hundreds of new companies in every part of the state are bringing clean, affordable power to our energy grid. Over the past decade, California has cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 100 million tons, well on our way to meeting AB 32’s standards.
Now it’s time not to rest on laurels but to reach for even more. Senate Bill 350, authored by Sen. Kevin de León, calls for 50 percent reduction in petroleum, 50 percent increase in renewable energy and 50 percent increase in the energy efficiencies of new buildings – by 2030. SB 32, authored by Sen. Fran Pavley, sets a 40 percent reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2030 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
Once again, industry is sowing doubt and fear. Once again, the lobbyists are squeezing moderate Democrats, whose votes will tip consequence one way or the other. I imagine no one is feeling more pressure than my former Senate staffer, Assemblyman Rudy Salas of Bakersfield, or his colleague, Henry T. Perea of Fresno.
If I could pull them aside, I would keep my advice simple, father to father: This is why you are there. Not for the 300 votes of modest consequence put forward throughout the legislative session, but for the two votes on a dog day of summer that will change everything. For the past or for the future?
Dean Florez is a former member of the Assembly and Senate. He is CEO of Balance Inc. An earlier version of this commentary identified him in error as president/CEO of the 20 Million Million Minds Foundation.