More Than Just Hot Air: Are Campaigns Considering Emissions?

The state legislature faces continued work on climate change in the coming years.

During political campaign season, one issue can seem as invisible as the air we breathe — and that is the air we breathe. For anyone fortunate enough to escape respiratory ailments, air quality doesn’t feel as pressing as crime rates or potholes.

This year, however, priorities may be shifting. Air quality and related environmental issues have attracted the attention of deep-pocketed contributors and local constituents alike, as state legislative battles promise to carry over into the next two years.

“This is the first time I can recall where the environment was front and center,” enthused Mike Young, who’s responsible for campaigns and organizing for the California League of Conservation Voters. The environmental nonprofit endorses candidates for the state legislature after assessing them with a questionnaire and interview; this year, candidates were asked about expanding California’s role as a leader in climate change, and about priorities for spending revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gases. Young said issues like these were “top three” in at least six races around the state during the June primary elections.

Environmentalists aren’t the only ones paying close attention to climate change legislation and the candidates who may shape it. “Oil interests have always been represented, but this year oil is spending unprecedented amounts of money,” according to Young. Industry groups such as the Western States Petroleum Association lobbied hard against Senate Bill 32 (Pavley) and Assembly Bill 197 (E. Garcia), although both emissions mitigation laws still passed in August. Last year, however, the industry had some success against Senate Bill 350 (De León), working to eliminate one of the law’s three climate protection goals (reducing petroleum use by 50 percent by 2030).

The 2016 bills will give new and returning lawmakers more to do. SB 32, which requires California to cut emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, was tied to passage of AB 197, which grants the legislature greater authority to shape the plans of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to achieve emissions goals. In addition to establishing a legislative oversight committee, AB 197 also directs CARB to prioritize emissions reductions by focusing on large emitters like power plants and refineries; industry groups dislike this shift and may attempt to amend the process.

It’s not just state legislators who will be wrestling with these issues. More refinery emission regulations will also be considered during the next year by local elected officials sitting on the board of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The agency is concerned with the local allocation of cap-and-trade revenues as well. Tom Addison, a legislative analyst with the Air District, explained that although 25 percent of this money is earmarked for disadvantaged communities, “the Bay Area legislative delegation feels strongly that the tool used by the state misses many of our most disadvantaged communities.” He added, “This is a major issue for the region, as we try to ensure that our communities next to major stationary sources see the promised benefits of cap-and-trade funds.” He anticipates more bills focusing on ‘disadvantaged communities.’

This year, Air District legislative priorities included sponsoring two bills, one on commuter benefits and the other on unregistered vehicles. New legislative priorities, including positions on cap-and-trade revenue bills, will be the responsibility of next year’s board, which may include new members selected from winners in the November local elections. But leading up to those elections, to what extent will candidates — and their constituents — consider air quality on the campaign trail?

One problem is a lack of clarity about which local officials will serve on a regional board. Jenesse Miller, communications director for the California League of Conservation Voters, acknowledged that sometimes it’s hard to connect an issue to the correct decision maker, especially since officials aren’t directly elected to the boards of most regional agencies, but get appointed instead. “It depends on how savvy people are,” she noted, adding, “We really need civic education along with environmental education.”

Of course, even if a local official doesn’t end up on the Air District board — or on another regional board with responsibilities affecting air quality, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission — they may still make local and regional decisions related to air quality. For example, when considering where to build infill housing, city councilmembers must take into account the proximity of busy freeways. Other local actions that affect the regional and global environment include everything from tree planting and green building ordinances to carbon sequestration on rangelands.

Many of these types of actions move forward via ordinances, policies, and budget decisions. It’s safe to say, however, that many candidates — and many voters — are unaware of these possibilities. The same holds true in elections for transit district boards, despite a clear link between transit and improved air quality. Ports can have significant air quality impacts, particularly on neighboring communities, but the candidates who would be responsible for appointing port commissioners may never hear about that topic during a campaign.

Endorsement interviews and questionnaires may introduce candidates to air quality issues. Miller suggested voters can use organizations’ candidate rankings, as well as local meetings and forums, to inform themselves. However, many state and national environmental organizations don’t include local races in their endorsement process, unless they have local chapters which make endorsements, such as the Sierra Club.

In other encounters with voters, candidates may be asked about issues such as transit funding or bicycle lanes, but unless the air quality link is spelled out, the connection may be ignored. It’s often up to voters to be aware of the ways in which an official’s decision might affect air quality, and to bring up the topic with candidates. However, experience by local League of Women Voters groups around the region indicates that air quality questions at candidate forums are rare, although climate change questions are increasingly frequent. Members of LWV Diablo Valley, who coordinate televised candidate forums covering most Contra Costa County races, could not recall a single recent question on these issues.

Even if a question is asked, Young cautioned that candidates may deliberately dodge those for which they don’t feel they have the background. They might give information that is non-specific and hope the question doesn’t come up again, or they may say what they think the voter wants to hear. He recommended that voters check on candidates’ records if possible — “don’t just take the candidate’s word for it!”

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.