Greens Vs. Big Oil and Prop. 23 

To save California's global-warming law, a 23-year-old finds his rage — and 60,000 friends

Thursday, Oct 28 2010

The charged-up crowd of baby-faced 20-somethings, gray-haired activists and a few parents comes marching through the streets of downtown Los Angeles and into the tree-lined plaza next to City Hall on a bright Sunday afternoon. Drums banging, fists flying, people chant, "No on 23!" Actress Ellen Page (Juno) even shows up to throw in her two cents on why Proposition 23 should be defeated, standing solemnly at a podium and telling people that it's "absolutely illogical to not have a sustainable future, and the politicians know that."

Gabe Elsner, a 23-year-old activist who gets little pay and only five or six hours of sleep each night as he works seven days a week to defeat the November ballot measure, smiles at the turnout. Liza Heavener, his 24-year-old girlfriend, who once worked for a U.S. senator, is a little more skeptical.

"It's great to bring people into this rally," she says, "but I wonder how it translates to getting change done. We've seen how isolated lawmakers are, and what I see that speaks is money."

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - UCLA students slam Proposition 23 in Westwood.

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Elsner, the intense, good-natured campaign director for the California Student Sustainability Coalition, suddenly gets serious. "If it gets big enough and loud enough," he says of the effort to stop the measure, which would place a years-long hold on California's greenhouse gas–reduction law, "then [we] can trump the money."

In fact, that's something he's betting on.

Through social media, face-to-face networking and pavement pounding, Elsner leads a key grassroots effort to reach California's nearly 3 million college students and persuade as many as possible to vote against Proposition 23 on Nov. 2.

Largely funded by major oil corporations such as Tesoro, Valero and the agricultural-energy giant Koch Industries, Proposition 23 would suspend California's strict greenhouse gas–reduction standards until the state's unemployment rate falls to 5.5 percent or lower for four straight quarters. Unemployment now stands at 12.4 percent and, since 1980, it has rarely stayed below 5.5 percent for a full year.

Organized opponents of Proposition 23, including environmentalists, labor unions and "clean tech" companies, say the measure would deal a big setback to anti-warming efforts and the state's burgeoning but still tiny "clean energy" economy: 500,000 future green jobs jeopardized and per-person energy costs boosted by $650 a year, thanks to our addiction to oil.

"I hate them," Elsner says of Charles and David Koch, the outspoken libertarian brothers who run Kansas-based Koch Industries. The Kochs, who are worth about $35 billion, have helped fund the Tea Party and have given $1 million in support of Proposition 23. "They do not care about my generation. They do not care about the environment. They're only about themselves. They fire me up. They get me angry."

In a war over statistics, however, the "Yes on 23" campaign counters that 1.1 million jobs will be wiped out by the restrictions approved under Assembly Bill 32, the state's climate-change law, further damaging California's wounded economy. And, the campaign charges, Californians will endure years of higher electricity rates and gas prices.

But Big Green has poured huge sums into defeating Big Oil, with environmental groups and their friends surprising many by outspending the Kochs, Valero and the rest.

Maplight.org, a political-contribution tracking site, reports that Big Green is outspending Big Oil by a staggering 3-to-1, and even traditional utility PG&E gave $500,000 to "No on 23," positioning itself on the side with the momentum. Ultra-rich asset manager Thomas Steyer, who funded the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy at Stanford University, poured in more than $5 million, making the $2.1 million given by legendary Silicon Valley couple John and Ann Doerr seem modest. A key nonpartisan poll shows the measure now badly trailing, 48 percent to 37 percent, with a large bloc of voters on the fence.

The question comes down to something startlingly simple: What do worried California voters, fearful over a sagging economy, see as best for their personal futures: traditional industry, or clean-energy firms?

"Proposition 23 will pass only if voters believe that [the greenhouse gas–reduction] law will hurt job growth," says Tony Quinn, a Sacramento political consultant whose California Target Book closely tracks the state's races. "Voters generally ask of themselves with these kinds of ballot measures, 'What's in it for me?' "

Into this war between monied adults — also on the "No" side, Bill Gates gave $700,000, James Cameron gave $1 million, and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla gave $1.04 million — steps the most under-employed, and unemployed, generation of young Californians in decades. They were widely praised — and highly criticized in some circles — for surging to the polls to help put Barack Obama in the White House.

Proposition 23 is a high-profile test of whether they will continue what they started — prodded by young leaders like Elsner and a single ballot measure affecting jobs, environmental issues and Big Oil.

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