California’s environment — which shows signs of degradation after more than a decade of progress — has been largely ignored by the candidates in the recall debate.
Air pollution is up this summer to levels not seen for more than six years, and asthma is on the rise, with one in three children in Fresno suffering from the chronic disease. Californians face waterborne illnesses lurking in the surf from urban runoff, and towns have lost their drinking water due to contamination. Motorists are paying record prices at the pump because the state’s oil industry can barely supply enough fuel for the growing number of gas-guzzler sport utility vehicles on the road. Signs warn grocery shoppers of mercury poisoning in fish.
“California’s environment is at a critical stage right now,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director of Environment California, an arm of the California Public Interest Research Group. “It’s one of the top five issues people think about.”
Given the level of interest, you might think the candidates would be tripping over themselves to get their views known on environmental issues. Think again. “I don’t hear anything about the environment in the media,” said Liz Burch, assistant professor of communications studies at Sonoma State University. “I don’t know if anyone is asking those questions.”
Whoever Californians elect will command the largest environmental program in the nation, short of the federal government’s, and will confront tough issues, including how to fund programs and how to carry out some of the most ambitious laws in the world — from limiting global-warming gas emissions from cars, to producing 20 percent of the state’s electricity with wind, solar and other renewable resources by 2017.
“The stakes are very, very high,” said Rico Mastrodonato, interim executive director of the California League of Conservation Voters, which rates lawmakers based on their environmental voting records.
The field of candidates offers voters a wide array of choices, from conservative Republican Senator Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, who favors a rollback of environmental rules, to Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, with his $2.5 billion plan to jump-start the state’s economy by backing the solar-energy industry.
Arnold Schwarzenegger likes a good Hummer. After spotting a convoy of Humvees while filming the movie Kindergarten Cop in 1990, the tough-guy icon convinced American General to make a consumer version of the military vehicle. Seeing the potential, General Motors bought the Hummer name and has donated the vehicles, which get about 10 miles to the gallon, to help raise money for Schwarzenegger’s charity organization, the Inner-City Games Foundation. In a quintessential moment of branding the Hummer image onto the public’s imagination, Schwarzenegger drove former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to ABC’s studios in a sunset-orange Hummer H2, leading a convoy down Broadway to kick off the New York Auto Show for GM in 2001. “With four Hummers he has embodied the worldview of total domination of the planet,” said Tyler Snortum-Phelps, director of the Green Party’s Camejo for California Governor campaign.
In an environmental statement released late last month, however, Schwarzenegger broke ranks with President Bush on relaxing clean-air standards for new and expanded power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities, saying that he would direct the state Air Resources Board “to propose state regulations to ensure that new facilities do not worsen our air quality.” Schwarzenegger called for the state to “fully enforce” laws to protect water resources and called on the federal government to “purchase the remaining offshore oil leases” back from oil companies to prevent future offshore drilling, as in Florida. He further pledged to promote hydrogen vehicles in California.
McClintock — who has a rating of 0 out of 100 from the League of Conservation Voters — backs the Bush administration’s recent move to rescind mandatory air-pollution controls for major industries when they upgrade, expand or build new plants. He views the historic requirement under the federal Clean Air Act as a disincentive to build new facilities, said John Stoos, deputy director of the Republican’s campaign. “Senator McClintock is in strong support of Bush,” he said.
So far state environmental organizations strongly back Governor Gray Davis, despite the fact that air pollution and other problems may be worsening. They laud him for his appointments to the state’s environmental boards and commissions and for signing legislation that sets the state at the forefront of the environmental movement, such as the bill to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from autos.
“Gray Davis, arguably, has been one of the best governors on the environment this state has ever had,” said Mastrodonato of the California League of Conservation Voters, which is urging a no vote on recall and a yes vote on Bustamante. He also has signed bills to clean up diesel trucks and buses, acquire more parkland, protect children’s health from environmental pollution, and encourage the use of renewable energy. However, growth and countervailing forces, such as the state budget crisis and relaxation of federal standards by the Bush administration, have undercut environmental quality at the same time. “Results on the ground cannot be clearly shouldered by the governor. There’s a lot that’s beyond control of the governor,” said Mastrodonato.
Independent Arianna Huffington agrees that Davis has done some good things on the environment. However, she criticizes the incumbent for not moving quickly enough, particularly when it comes to controlling greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and promoting renewable energy in California. “I would use the governor’s bully pulpit to engage the public in achieving energy independence,” said Huffington, who backs a more aggressive state program to develop wind and solar power, improve transmission lines, and increase energy efficiency, especially by requiring automakers to make more hybrid electric vehicles.
Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante earned a league rating of 100 during 1997 and 1998, voting in favor of such measures as strengthening disclosure of environmental contamination, including bilingual warnings, tougher enforcement of regulations, and funding for cleanup of diesel pollution and green buildings. He also voted to protect watersheds and the ocean environment and has fought to maintain and improve public access to beaches, particularly in the Malibu area, according to Lorena Gonzalez, his senior adviser on the environment.
“He started out a little weak until he became speaker of the Assembly,” said David Allgood, Southern California director of the League of Conservation Voters. A record compiled by Huffington’s campaign shows he cast a number of anti-environmental votes in 1995 and 1996. Bustamante, for instance, voted to weaken the state Clean Air Act by removing a requirement that pollution be reduced by 5 percent a year until health standards are met. Among many other issues, the Democrat voted to ease enforcement of water-pollution standards, sided with agribusiness and the chemical industry on relaxing controls on pesticides, backed weakening state trash-recycling requirements, and favored diluting restrictions on developing land that serves as habitats to endangered species.
Camejo favors placing a “carbon tax” on fossil fuel and then using the proceeds to subsidize renewable energy. “If we had leadership that pushed it, I think it would be met in California with great enthusiasm,” he said. To step up the state’s bid to move toward renewable energy, Camejo has proposed a plan to make production of solar-energy equipment a key industry in California over the next seven years, backed by $150 million a year in direct subsidies, plus a $1.5 billion loan-guarantee fund. Under the plan, California manufacturers would almost triple worldwide production of photovoltaic panels within that period and increase the number of panels sixfold by 2010. The plan could foster an industry that rivals the computer industry in California, say its advocates. Camejo further said he would seek to close down the state’s two nuclear-power plants and ban any further cutting of California’s remaining patches of ancient forest. Finally, he would adopt state requirements that more manufactured goods be produced to be recyclable so that companies could take them back at the end of their useful lives and reuse them.
As California voters size up the gubernatorial candidates, smog has increased, gasoline supplies are less certain, and people keep learning about more toxic chemicals in their food, water and air. While the media have been largely silent on these issues and how they relate to the election, surely many Californians will consider them when they punch their ballots on October 7.