Juice: Science, Policy & Public Opinion

By Published On: August 10, 2007

Instead of responding to concerns about the fate of coal miners trapped underground this week, the president of Utah’s Crandall Canyon Mine company used a dangerous, diversionary tactic. He railed against environmental laws and labor unions in place of working to address the problem. His tactic reminds me of Republican lawmakers’ recent rants about the California Attorney General’s actions against San Bernardino County and other local agencies to pressure them to address the growing threat of greenhouse gases in their backyards. Instead of working to find a solution to the problem of climate change, conservative lawmakers are holding up California’s state budget. They insist that Attorney General Jerry Brown be legislatively barred from suing to enforce state law requiring local agencies to assess the environmental impacts of rising carbon emissions from more sprawl and more roads (Circuit, Aug. 3, 2007). This is despite the fact the state’s Republican governor was key to AB 32’s enactment, which aims to protect the state, its citizens, economy, and environment from the fallout of global warming. That includes heat waves that kill people, loss of precious water supplies, a rise in sea level, and loss of valuable coastal regions and cropland. The senators claim a legislative prohibition is needed because Brown’s call for evaluating the greenhouse gas impacts of long-term land use plans is legally flawed. They assert California’s new global warming law, AB 32, governs the issue and state agencies are still in the midst of crafting regulations to implement it. “There are no regulations to comply with,” Senator Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) told me. Ackerman represents the minority leadership. The lawmaker was one of 14 Republican senators to vote against AB 32 last year. His position is little more than a continuation of the fight against the groundbreaking law. It is also likely that neither Ackerman nor his brethren have read the legal complaint filed against San Bernardino County, nor the comment letters the AG sent to several local agencies. Brown is not seeking enforcement of AB 32 but the decades-old California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). That state law’s forte is mitigating foreseeable damage to the environment. CEQA specifically requires disclosure of the possible impacts of local agency action–be it approval of new housing or business developments, or a transportation or general plan. If a thorough evaluation shows a local government’s action may lead to significant impacts to the air, water, soil, the economy, critters, and/or lead to more traffic or noise, then mitigation is mandatory with few exceptions. While the AG’s legal argument is based under CEQA, the suit, however, takes a bold and much needed step by expanding its reach to cover the impacts of excess carbon gases. It aims to force local agencies to move away from doing business as usual, something that the months of global warming headline news or passage of AB 32 have failed to do. The AG notes that the risk of climate change motivated legislators to pass this unprecedented law to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. The attorney general’s argument that carbon emission impacts must be analyzed and mitigated under CEQA also represents the convergence of science, politics and public opinion. In addition, it is an example of how current knowledge and events shape environmental–and other–laws and vice versa. Consider the tobacco litigation or other successful suits against pollutants discovered to wreck havoc on human and other life. The attorney general’s suit against San Bernardino County is a well-aimed arrow at the climate change target. It has generated needed and overdue attention on the need to connect what we know about global warming to our actions. And the Southern California county is an egregious example of the consequences of too much sprawl and too many cars–horrendous air pollution. It is also overall a very conservative region, thus Brown risks losing few friends. San Bernardino’s land use plan notes that it is aimed at accommodating a 25 percent increase in the population over the next quarter of a century, which would mean a population of two and one-half million by 2030. According to Brown’s suit, there is no required mitigation of the carbon fallout–be it mandating housing density, energy efficiency, alternative energy, or offset measures. “The large size of the county, coupled with the rates at which its residents drive, guarantee that increased population will bring in major increases in driving, and concomitant increases in emission of air pollutants,” states the suit. Also facing possible legal action from the state attorney general for failing to carefully consider the greenhouse gas impacts of land use decisions are the cities of San Jose and Richmond, and Contra Costa, Orange, San Diego and Yuba counties. In the comments filed in the last few months, Brown points out their failure to mitigate CO2 impacts of the plans designed to accommodate growth–be they large transportation projects as in the case of San Diego or a planned oil refinery expansion in Richmond. In the early 1980s, there was a statewide brawl over the simple requirement that munis create a plan for development. Any plan as long as it was vetted in the community pretty much held up. Before then, local agencies blithely voted to do whatever they wanted, and often, whatever the developers who contributed to their coffers wanted (not that there’s much of a change there). Adding greenhouse gas considerations to plans isn’t a stretch at all, it’s simply progress.

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