Friday, March 31, 2017

The Trump Regime and the War on California

It was heartening for millions of Californians to hear Gov. Jerry Brown warn President Trump that he had just made a “colossal mistake” in gutting the federal government’s effort to combat climate change. On Tuesday of this week, the Los Angeles Times provided readers with the fuller story: “It defies science itself,” Brown said in a call to The Times shortly after Trump signed an executive order that aims to bring an abrupt halt to the United States’ leadership on global warming. Brown vowed, predicting Trump’s actions will mobilize environmentalists in a way President Obama never could. “I have met with many heads of state, ambassadors. This is a growing movement. President Trump’s outrageous move will galvanize the contrary force. Things have been a bit tepid [in climate activism]. But this conflict, this sharpening of the contradiction, will energize those who believe climate change is an existential threat.”
At this juncture I paused and re-read the passage once more about climate activists, "Things have been a bit tepid?" Perhaps Governor Brown was glossing over the not-so-small issue that U.S. climate policy have presented little to celebrate. For numerous of Californiaʻs activists and advocates, both U.S. climate policies and the Paris accords (COP 21) have been largely underwhelming. Letʻs review where U.S. policy stood in 2016. 

In his final state of the Union, President Obama noted that the country was already pursuing a more constructive project, based on the largest federal support in the nationʻs history: to combine wind and solar power with a transition away from ʻdirty energy.ʻ While he was able to pinpoint specific clean energy projects already deployed across the nation, dismantling of dirty energy was more aspirational than real. “I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.” But when were such costs imposed on energy companies and where did these appear in federal law or policy?
It may be that the President Obama considered his partisan opponents the least of his problems. Obama hinted that the nub of difficulty was located among corporate lobbyists who held sway in both houses of Congress; “None of this will happen overnight, and yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo. But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, and the planet we’ll preserve — that’s the kind of future our kids and grand kids deserve.” If the President expected Congress to embrace a program based on the needs of grand kids over immediate profits, we were indeed facing a world of trouble. For a public that had placed much trust in a presidential candidate promising “hope,” many citizens re-kindled a much older political adage: hope is not a strategy.
To be sure, the Republican Congress represents a major obstacle to achieving anything resembling evidence-based policies. Only weeks prior to Obamaʻs speech before Congress, emphasizing the urgency of climate change measures, the House voted to block provisions of the Clean Power Plan set to curb greenhouse gas emissions, via two actions; the first would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing rules aimed at cutting emissions from new power plants; the second would prevent the agency from enforcing rules targeted at existing power plants. The Congressional action included an action blocking the Presidentʻs Green Climate Fund, a $3 billion commitment to assist developing countries with adopting green energy systems.  
The actions of the 2016 Republican Congress to defeat even the most modest steps to address a deteriorating climate reflected more than a partisan difference of opinion. It was, rather, the product of yet another concerted effort led by a host of fossil fuel companies, to forge a business-friendly political climate. What citizens and their leader had expressed, time and time again as “hope,” remained far from reality. Moreover, various of Obama’s actions were fraught with contradictions in achieving these ends - particularly with respect to trade negotiations and provisions for undermining the strict regulatory programs that had made California a leader in environmental policies. As one observer noted, “The conservative revolution transformed our countries into authoritarian pro-business states, which are not just undemocratic but inherently anti-democratic. The last thing these people want is to give democratic power to a state that they cannot control, manipulate, make irrelevant or buy.” By the 21st century, the promotion of states dominated by corporations and their markets moved well beyond the realm of democratic institutions and toward an ascendant market state.
Returning to this past week, we find Californiaʻs Governor rallying citizens to counter the proposals of a President and Congress enthralled with the world of unleashed corporate power. “I see Washington declining in influence, but the momentum being maintained by California and other states aligned with China and those who are willing to do something,” said Brown, who will be traveling to China soon for meetings on climate. “There is a growing activism on the part of millions of people who will not stand by and let Donald Trump effectively tear up the Paris agreement and destroy America’s climate leadership and jeopardize the health and well-being of so many people.” But there is a slippery slope in this message; the principal policy linkage between California, China and the Paris agreement (COP 21) is what has been touted as the Golden Stateʻs celebrated solution to the climate crisis: emissions trading (aka cap-and-trade or AB 32). While California possesses a large portfolio of climate change related laws, emission trading scheme has served in recent years as its export model. And what do we make of this solution, especially in the context of the Trump regime and his Congressional enablers?
Let me take you back to December 2015 and the conference hall in Paris where Governor Brown was in the midst of discussing Californiaʻs virtuous leadership in the fight against climate change. On this same evening at the same conference, a group of California activists raised their voices challenging Governor Brownʻs ʻsolutionʻ to a worsening climate. Among those rising in protest was a young organizer from Los Angeles, Rossmery Zayas, who attending on behalf of Communities for a Better Environment, stated: "Weʻre from California and let us tell you the truth about whatʻs happening in our communities." The essence of the message delivered by various activists including Rossmery was that Californiaʻs so-called solution represented a failure, particularly from the perspective of those living in the midst of refineries, cement plants, and other large emission sources. What was going on? Why had activists from the Golden State traveled all of the way to Paris to publicly challenge Governor Brown?
The problem confronting Governor Brown is very similar to that which faced President Obama: how to navigate the fossil-fueled conflicts orchestrated by corporate interests? The ʻsolutionʻ to this tension written into law more than a decade ago in California was to provide fossil fuel interests a flexibility to circumvent more restrictive regulatory laws. It is precisely this regulatory flexibility that protestors voiced opposition to in Paris and others would characterize as the essential failure of a vaguely concluded COP 21. The path of regulatory flexibility forged by moderate Democrats in California now poses a threat undermining precisely the decisive measures urgently necessary to address what Governor Brown and many Californians recognize as the massively worsening destruction brought about by fossil fuel interests.

Please visit again on Monday as the story unfolds.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fossil Fuels, Farmworkers and Environmental Justice

In the 1960s Nicholas C. Petris identified the plight of California’s

farm workers as a matter of injustice, and for much of his career regularly pursued

legislation surrounding the mistreatment of workers who were essential to

producing food for California and the nation. He fought for decades to eliminate

pesticides posing known health hazards to workplaces affecting hundreds of

thousands of farm workers became a decades-long battle. Like many of his

colleagues, my new found mentor felt that democratic practice meant to bring as

many different kinds of people to the table to participate in the making of laws as

possible, vesting them with broad latitude to guide the course of legislation. In

my own case, this involved “carrying bills” - meaning his staff would be

personally responsible, not simply following him around from committee to

committee, but actively participating in the legislative process.

As someone who had fought for farmworker rights for so long, the University’s

role of simply fostering agricultural production struck the Senator as wholly

inadequate. With so many pesticides with unknown effects being readily applied

to such vast acreage, what responsibility did the University leaders have for an

agricultural research system so apparently disinterested in the routine poisoning

of many thousands of farmworkers? While some university leaders suggested

that a solution would eventually emerge from the marketplace or agricultural

innovations, as many in the public demanded immediate legislative action to

address this social injustice, even if this meant venturing into the arenas of

private property or the proprietary claims of multinational corporations.

Returning to the arid Central Valley and the capitol from the misty, coastal

congestion of Berkeley, I was amazed by the temerity of university leaders who,

after receiving enormous public resources for so many years, now responded to a

legislative proposal to create a program on sustainable agricultural research with

a “fuck you very much” reply. If this was the response of a public university to

such a mild request from one of the most powerful legislative members: how in

the world did genuinely adversarial parties manage negotiations, especially

those lacking the manifest power, the hallowed-hall presence and public office?

In many important respects my academic training as a political scientist and my

tutelage in California’s capitol represented entirely different worlds of politics.

Whereas the former was conducted largely in isolation for many years, the

capitol environment demanded working in teams. Little did I know that,

venturing into the seemingly innocuous world of sustainable agriculture, I had

chosen to take on some of the largest forces in California politics. Agriculture

represented much more than simple production of food, if indeed that could be

regarded as simple. It rerouted water, with a byzantine politics much more

complex than even the film China Town could convey, with layers of competing

interests seeping into every facet.

Other corporate interests in agriculture included vast land holdings, machinery

and equipment manufacturers, as well as shipping, rail transport, and trucking.

Perhaps most important in all of this was an agrichemical complex, with

relationships ranging from petroleum refiners and specialty chemicals,

formulators of fertilizers, seed producers to the vast complex of finance. The

“simple” notion of asking the University of California to provide a program on

sustainable agriculture sparked the perfect opportunity to unite many of the

state’s most powerful forces against those least powerful.

Despite the asymmetry of power, public interest advocates pursued legislation to

restructure California’s agriculture for the simple reason that agribusiness no

longer appeared invincible. The sustainable agriculture bill followed from a 1984

victory of what seemed revolutionary at the time: a state law - the Birth Defects

Prevention Act -  requiring the testing of pesticide ingredients to determine the

hazards to farmworkers and others. The Act represented the crowning achievement

by a group of physicians, consumer groups, environmentalists and labor unions who,

in one step, placed California in an equivalent role to federal government and its

agencies ostensibly responsible for regulating pesticides. The Birth Defects Prevention

Act would become celebrated for eliminating many thousands of pesticide products

posing long-term health hazards.

At the heart of the California campaign to aggressively identify and regulate

pesticides were multiple groups working as teams. While representatives of the

agribusiness lobby strolled the corridors of power self-assured in controlling the

production of law, its hegemony was crumbling. Public interest advocates, in

contrast, expanded their coalition of supporters on a seemingly daily basis. By the

mid-1980s, farmworker activists became part of a broadening coalition of groups

challenging the stateʻs toxic economy.

The confrontations were telling. In hearing after hearing, the visuals juxtaposed

very different constituencies. Growers and agribusinesses were typically

represented by a group of too-well- fed, older white men defending their right to

conduct farming however they saw fit, even if this resulted in exposing hundreds

of thousands of workers annually to hazardous chemicals. Supporters of

farmworkers’ right to safe workplaces included organizations representing a

broad sweep of faces every legislator recognized as a reflection of their district.

As one public interest advocate of the time commented to me while observing a

hearing, nodding in the direction of a well-known agribusiness lobbyist across

the room, “The Dinosaurs don’t get it, but their hold over the Legislature is


Behind the various bills paving the way for a changed treatment of farmworkers

was a young pediatrician, Dr. Richard Jackson, one of the central figures in the

launch environmental health policies over many decades. While Dr. Jackson

would later serve as California’s first Public Health Officer and direct environmental

health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the 1980s Dick

moved largely unrecognized among the world of political movers and shakers.

Dr. Jackson actively orchestrated the work of fellow advocates spanning a wide

scope of public health issues. In the arena of toxic substances, he readily briefed

newspaper reporters and journalists, foundation boards and officers, members of

congress, state legislators, attorneys and legal activists, not to mention numerous

community, state, and international groups. In addition to these extracurricular

activities, Dr. Jackson and his colleagues gradually transformed an obscure post

at the foot of the University of California’s Berkeley campus into a internationally

recognized office that assessed environmental health hazards.

Despite efforts to remain anonymous, Dr. Jackson soon earned unending wrath

from a variety of corporate entities. Beginning in the late 1980s the corporate

lobby regularly advanced proposals for curtailing the budget, personnel, and

work of Dr. Jackson and colleagues. Eventually Dickʻs work, along with many

others, prompted the creation of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The price of his success resulted in a corporate demand: under no circumstances

would Dr. Jackson be allowed to assume any position of authority in the new agency.

In the meantime, Californiaʻs public interest advocates would expand their work

challenging the stateʻs reliance on fossil fuels and the growing number of studies

documenting an increasing array of hazards. Following a period of deregulation and

down-sized government, California would be presented with a new ʻsolutionʻ to the

 most recognized dimension of fossil-fuel induced hazards: a disrupted global climate

 posing catastrophic threats to the survival of civilization.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Outlawing the Internal Combustion Engine

“Weʻre not going to do any fucking hobby farming bill!” 

I had just joined the California Legislature after being selected as a ʻsenate fellowʻ to work for a year with a state senator. My real passion was teaching. Without any job prospects and our resources being largely nonexistent, my partner and I figured that a short stint working with the California Legislature wouldnʻt necessarily hurt my academic resume. I wondered again about my choice.

“Fucking hobby farming?” I repeated to myself. Born and raised in Oakland and having worked my early years in college as a Teamster, I was not easily shocked. Still, I found the statement somewhat stunning, particularly given the source. Just across the street from my cubicle in Californiaʻs state capitol, stood a suite of offices maintained by the University of California. As we both took a seat at an intimate conference table, and I opened my file to discuss proposed legislation, the vice president for one of the nationʻs largest agricultural research programs leaned across the table, displaying undisguised contempt; “Weʻre not going to do any fucking hobby farming bill!” The meeting ended as abruptly as his remarks.

One of the worldʻs most recognized names in academia refused to even discuss the bill. Crossing the street toward the major pedestrian walkway leading back to the capitol, I wondered again, “Is this how they make laws? Is this how laws should be made?” I found myself wrestling with this dilemma only because in late 1984 I landed an unusual temporary gig -- working for one of the more powerful members in the California Legislature, Senator Nicholas C. Petris, who represented a distinctive district ofttimes known as the Peopleʻs Republic of Berkeley. Though I had recently completed my doctorate in political science, I knew next to nothing about state politics. In truth, I regarded anything connected to American politics as a pursuit for the brain dead. My partner found it a constant source of amusement to now witness me deep in the belly of the beast.

Senator Petris, the elder statesman, with a mane of prematurely greying hair, was known for his oratorical flourishes. In the Senate chambers he would hold forth on many topics of the day, seeking to influence his colleagues about the right thing that must be done to protect poor communities and farm workers, to end the death penalty, and a myriad of other causes - including lavishly providing for the stateʻs premier institution of higher education, the University of California.

In a political career spanning four decades Senator Petris established a reputation for designing laws based on a dialogue about justice. During the 1960s, many of his peers characterized the Senatorʻs skill for problem-solving as predicated on a deep and abiding respect for social justice; and on frequently honoring otherwise unheralded voices at the legislative table. While based on a complex exchange, the Senator’s notion of justice contained two dominant strains: one a place, the other a principle. The first could be found when he was asked how he could author such an array of outrageous laws. He would quip: “the people of Berkeley made me do it!” Strangers might find such explanation off-putting, but staffers lauded his earnest belief in the virtues of democratic institutions and in decisions led by citizens.

This basic notion -- that citizens and their government exercised control over private sector activities -- characterized many of Californiaʻs representatives, especially among those who experienced World War II; government taking control of basic industries was simply a part of how things got done. It also explained a moment in the 1960s when the public was poised to turn a key fossil-fueled crisis in a wholly different direction. With Californiaʻs major metropolitan areas increasingly shrouded in smog, millions of constituents demanded to hear what elected leaders intended to do. A group of Southern California legislators responded by requiring Detroit to produce cleaner cars.  For a legislator representing the so-called Peopleʻs Republic, the answer was clear, as Senator Petris proposed a measure to outlaw the internal combustion engine.

The proposal immediately outraged car manufacturers, the business community and the oil industry. The oil industry reaction, according to Petris, argued that no viable alternatives were readily available or affordable. Despite the aggressive push-back, Petrisʻ suggestion to ban the internal combustion engine mobilized others to prompt Congress to consider federal funding for research into electric vehicles. The oil industry actively opposed the entire concept on the grounds that needed research into alternatives was already underway.

The push by Californians and their legislators set in motion a series of laws placing the state at odds with letting the market decide. “In 1961, the first automotive-control-technology in the United States was mandated by California to target hydrocarbon crankcase emissions. It went into effect in 1963 on all domestic passenger vehicles sold in California, which eventually meant everywhere, since California was, and remains, the biggest market for all new and used vehicle sales in the country. That was followed by tailpipe emission standards, established in 1966 -- also the first in the nation….The Federal Air Quality Act of 1967 included a waiver for California to set and enforce its own more stringent emissions standards for new vehicles sold in the state.”

Years later fuller exploration would reveal that even as industry dismissed Petrisʻ proposed ban, various oil companies gathered patents on technologies for reducing engine emissions. By 2016 a group of states’ attorneys general filed a massive lawsuit against the oil industry for having perpetrated what might be considered the most massive fraud against humanity.  Petroleum interests began mounting a decades-long campaign to perpetuate continued use of their lucrative product, despite their own recognition of the growing hazards associated with the burning of fossil fuels. 

By 1970, the state senator from Berkeley would be lauded as among a group of influential leaders who played a catalytic role in the passage of the Clean Air Act by Congress as well as the California Clean Air Act of 1988. Nicholas C. Petris, however, would dismiss the praise, citing his usual attribution that he was merely following the guidance provided by his constituents. His glib response did reflect a shared perspective among many of his colleagues; they too were not shy about placing citizensʻ demands above that of corporate lobbyists.
Oh, and the farming bill? Please return again on Wednesday.....

Friday, March 24, 2017

Get the Lead Out !

Following the last post on a hearing in Californiaʻs capitol to ʻget the leadʻ out of faucets, a member of the public interest team, Marlaigne Dumaine, recalled the drama and tension surrounding Randy Kanouseʻs role in that dayʻs committee hearing: "I will never forget that day. I was sitting in the front row of the committee room. The chair of the committee was relentless and tried every which way to get you to say that the parts of the bill taken on their own were not an issue and therefore the sum must surely be benign. But you were clear, no matter how the bill was parsed it was bad and no matter how you were asked, your message was clear. I felt extremely proud to be on your team as you hung in there for what turned out to be a very long and tense hearing. And you won. You won the battle that made the ultimate victory possible. The lead standard is now a landmark achievement for the entire nation."

A fuller history surrounding this particular victory of the public over a group of multinational corporations would reflect the multiple generations of advocates who battled with lead. This additive was a kind of poster-child for its inherent hazards to human health. Over many years, public interest advocates had made the California Legislature increasingly hostile to the proposition that lead was a useful ingredient in anything. The reality that lead needed to be immediately removed from faucets had many helping hands. Among its chief opponents was Randy Kanouse, whose early career with the State Water Resources Control Board shifted with his being named as the lead lobbyist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, one of the stateʻs major metropolitan water districts.

Early actions focused on the use of lead pipes and lead solders with a consensus among medical researchers that even infinitesimal exposures were a cause for concern. Attention grew to include water faucets that were previously regarded as a negligible source. With no hint of his usual  element of whimsy, guided by his group of utility engineers, Randy Kanouse and his team emphatically pressed this opportunity to eliminate a dangerous and unnecessary threat to public health. The political dynamic was similar to other poisons, be they pesticides, plastics or petroleum as pursued by Martha Argüello, Bill Magavern, and a supporting cast of thousands responsible for advancing dozens of laws over many decades. Anchored in the assurance that citizens had the right to place limits on corporate activities (whether involving hazardous products or money in politics) and reflecting the work of numerous public health professionals, legislators gradually learned to recognize the inherent peril of lead exposures; especially for children. The upshot was the enactment of a law protecting many millions in California and beyond.

For other advocates lacking the financial wherewithal, the engineering expertise, and the wide array of political connections, and such a skilled coalition of talented advocates, a similar effort might take years to reach even a muddled compromise. Randy’s approach to lobbying was always impeccably professional. Outside of committee hearings, it was no surprise that among Randy’s favorite venues was the middle of Market Street in San Francisco, marching at an annual gay pride parade - another team effort involving hundreds of thousands.  

Randy gained the support of metal workers and smaller metal manufacturers to demonstrate that practical technologies were already in place to eliminate lead in faucets. The story surrounding the passage of the new California lead standard for faucets could fill a separate book. A group of faucet manufacturers operating globally with revenues in the billions of dollars, who naively underestimated their opponents, were furious with the new California standard. Its pivotal role in international commerce compelled a retool of their operations around the world. As was always the case in the Legislature, the art of the possible fueled corporate lobbyists with new energies to fight another day, even when public advocates had delivered their client such a resounding defeat.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Climate of Conflict

While many readers may already be familiar with the rough and tumble of politics, it is helpful to remind one another of the climate of conflict that so often surrounds the making of law. Here is a brief description of a legislative hearing from a few years ago concerning a toxic substance recognized for the past thousand years or so. What does lead have to do with fossil fuels?  And who is Randy Kanouse? Read on..

What the [expletive deleted] is going on here?”  The comment directed at me was delivered by one of Californiaʻs state legislators serving on my committee: the Senateʻs Environmental Quality Committee.
Dashing back from another legislative meeting occurring simultaneously elsewhere in the capitol, the returning member was visibly stunned to find a fellow legislator’s bill on the verge of death. Returning my gaze, the legislator whose bill was near-death glared at me. Yet, for the audience of more than 100 people in the hearing room as well as countless others watching the closed circuit broadcast, it surely appeared as though the legislator and I were engaged in convivial conversation. As a matter of practice, I regularly moved about the dais as legislators entered from other committee meetings to let them know what was going on in the hearing. This situation, however, was a distinctly unfriendly chat.  

Temperatures flared, and not simply owing to the capitolʻs unrelenting August heat. The hearing now took an unscripted turn. The legislator returning to the crowded room clearly thought his vote would be key to the passage of yet another piece of legislation sponsored by a group of industries. The measure before us, however, needed more than his vote. Placing my hand over the microphone, I provided a cursory review; “We are hearing Senator Calderonʻs bill at the moment. And, as you can see, the other members on the committee have serious questions regarding the merits of his bill.” “Questions,” vastly understated what everyone in the hearing room sensed: the author and his bill were in trouble. And by the look on Senator Calderonʻs face, he too recognized that his cherished bill balanced on the precipice of defeat.

The six other members of the legislative committee sitting on either side already recognized the questionable nature of the measure before us. While we were often engaged in clarifying recently enacted legislation, the committee members agreed with my written review: the bill before us was purposely designed to unravel legislation signed into law only a year before. This recently enacted law established a new, more stringent California standard for lead in faucets - a hazardous material recognized for more than 2000 years. By further restricting lead, the new law promised to protect not only millions of Californians, but quite likely propel new national standards benefiting tens of millions of others.
Vigorously opposed by a group of multinational corporations, their corporate lobbyists actively pursued the reversal of a stringent California standard. The manufacturers were outraged when, during the previous year, their opposition to such a new limit had failed. They were now back in my committee, laboring to overturn the new, more restrictive standard. Sitting alongside the senator who was presenting their bill, the corporate lobbyists looked anxiously to the chair of the committee to save them from certain defeat.

Asking a group of legislators who had just last year instituted the new standard to reverse themselves struck many as an act of desperation. Even though a group of global manufacturers stood behind Senator Calderonʻs proposal to reverse an upgraded legal standard -- heralded by advocates for children, environmental health and others hoping to eliminate another substance recognized as unsafe at any level -- now captured the attention of everyone in the hearing room. As implausible as it appeared to outsiders, industry regularly demonstrated the sad truth for too many state legislatures across the nation. Given enough money, corporate lobbyists could package legislation extending the shelf-life of an inherently hazardous item as a compelling option. Generations of corporate lobbyists patiently explained to their clients that they confronted a common and powerful obstacle in Californiaʻs Legislature, the public interest lobby.

Senator Calderon, seeing that his bill was failing, quickly proposed an amendment that would establish an alternative standard, based on the review by an independent scientific body. Several members of the committee sought my thoughts on the proposed “independent body” offered by Senator Calderon. This body had been identified in academic literature as dominated by manufacturing firms, with little track record in achieving protections for public or worker health. At this point a key member of the committee, who would soon assume the leadership of the Senate, shook his head in disappointment, concluding, “Well...I don’t see how we can support this bill.”

As the votes were recorded by the committee secretary, it was evident that the attempt to dismantle the new California lead standard was going to fail. During the shuffle of the next legislator coming forward to present her bill, Senator Calderon approached the dais, signaling that he wanted a private word with me. If it was not apparent to others in the audience, the bill’s author bore no mistake about what had just happened. Standing across from me, he expressed his obvious displeasure in a somber tone, borrowed from the Godfather. “You killed my bill... I’m not going to forget what you’ve done.” With that, he turned and walked out of the hearing room. Much as I reveled in fights with those legislators who appeared to be serving as corporate handmaidens, the defeat of this bill had instead been largely brought about by a group of public interest lobbyists. 

With multiple proposals to be heard, we turned to the next bill on the agenda. My colleagues on the committee faced me, awaiting my reaction to the disgruntled state senator. Nodding his way, I met the knowing gaze of one particular lobbyist, Randy Kanouse, who had largely orchestrated the defeat of this bill. For his part, Randy was always quick to assign such victories to the actions of many others, including two fellow advocates typically present at the capitol: Martha Argüello, with Physicians for Social Responsibility and Bill Magavern, then representing the Sierra Club. Other public interest advocates not present in the hearing room that day had engaged similar struggles, extending over many decades.

Monday, March 20, 2017


The themes from last weekʻs postings explored the role of the nationʻs newly elected President and his undeclared war on California. Additional media coverage over the past weekend provides more evidence that the Presidentʻs proposed budget is worse than even initial assessments. Especially worrisome are projected impacts on health care costs facing the poor and elderly. Similarly negative assessments appear forthcoming with regard to housing the homeless, feeding the malnourished, educating children in poor neighborhoods, protecting the rights of immigrants, and so on. In this regard, Californiaʻs clashes with both Congress and the Oval Office are not isolated ones; most other states face the same or even worse negative consequences.  

Californiaʻs distinguishing trait is that many of its inhabitants are preparing for a fight with that ill-tempered autocrat seeking a larger army and a bigger balcony from which to rule the nation (inspirational credit to Jimmy Breslin). Beneath the calls for an indivisible campaign, however, are deep divisions. Even as President Trump is uniting his partisan opponents, a familiar fault line remains largely ignored: money in politics. 

One of the clearest manifestations of the money in politics rift operating in California is revealed by what would seem to be an arena of complete unity: protecting the Golden Stateʻs environment. Yet, scratch on this topic and you will discover an intense struggle stretching over decades. More astounding still, the heart of Californiaʻs conflict over the environment surfaces in a most unlikely place: the converging global crises brought about by fossil fuels. Among the most important agents of this destruction are the large and private financial interests, energy companies, affiliated industries, corporate lobbyists, and, of course, compromised politicians, the so-called business-friendly moderates.

This last category, the business-oriented moderates or corporados as I prefer to call them, play a crucial role in the political realm by often negotiating compromises to weaken, if not destroy, the ability of public interest lobbyists to achieve more sweeping changes. The prime example at the center of many stories in this book is Californiaʻs cap-and-trade law, the stateʻs pollution-trading scheme. Despite heroic, and quite long-standing resistance by a coalition of community-based advocates, the legal instrument giving polluters major flexibility in the ultra hazardous converging set of fossil-fueled crises - has undercut the publicʻs ability to expeditiously launch a new economy. With climate scientists issuing ever more alarming warnings against any further slowing of an immediate dismantle of fossil fuels, petroleros and corporados have recently set in motion a law perfectly designed to delay more decisive actions. From the perspective, it is compelling to frame Californiaʻs celebrated solution to this global apocalypse, cap-and-trade, as a clever deception. 

Within the corridors of power, however, there is another vantage on the so-called climate crisis. Intertwined with the destruction of our planet, is a parallel, no less astonishing story: the corporate war on democracy. Having observing pitched battles between public interest groups and the corporate lobby inside one of the worldʻs largest economies, the contours of this conflict are manifest. It is in this lesser recognized war where public interest advocates have often made their most important contributions, bolstering citizens to fight for their democratic rights as well as an economic transition to decent jobs which protects healthy communities. One need look no further than a statement issued by the executive director of the Los Angeles office of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Martha Dina Argüello, to illustrate the contemporary struggle: “The current system is not working. We need to do better. We need climate solutions that build in equity, and the unique needs of impacted communities, from the start. This means regulations that prioritize public health, neighborhood resiliency, and a just transition to a clean economy...and to fully explore alternatives to cap-and-trade.”

These words might as easily have been voiced by Strela Cervas, Jessie Marquez, Angela Johnson Meszaros, Bill Magavern or a multitude of other public interest advocates. Connecting many similar such discussions over the decades, these words outline the initial plans of action for for crafting a new economy that will transform neighborhoods, cities, states and beyond. The spark will be the current disaster unfolding in the nationʻs capitol. With time, in constructive response, the emphasis will turn from yet another critique of the dead-end and dangerous fossil fuel industries to the excitement in pursuit of an entirely different path. What groups have accomplished in San Francisco or San Diego will coalesces with what others are doing in Singapore, Copenhagen or Lagos. Early, outlandish calls to outlaw the internal combustion engine will gain widespread acceptance as a practical idea for moving beyond the obvious dysfunctions of fossil fuels.

The problem we confront is no longer an absence of alternatives. The petrolerosʻ insistence that fossil fuels will surely remain essential for decades to come has yielded to their early replacement by wind, solar and other clean energy sources. Even more exciting than the spread of clean energy is the expanding global resistance to oil and support for alternatives. It is, after all, the collective political muscle flexed by millions, if not billions, of individuals that will create a new future with the construction of an economy and bodies of governance serving a broad public interest, not one privately fashioned.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The War on California Part II: The Struggle for a New Economy

Todayʻs Los Angeles Times describes the latest threats to California by a President bent on undermining the legal basis for much of the progress achieved with both reducing air pollution and the larger threats of fossil fuels and climate change (see "Trumpʻs Push to Ease Vehicle Emissions…by Tony Barboza). While appearing to demarcate a very different presidency, closer examination reveals an agenda shared with many of his predecessors. The distinctive feature of this presidency is a renewed effort to undermine the decades of achievements by Californiaʻs public interest advocates as they approach crucial junctures to launch a new economy.

President Trump’s pursuit of the themes of earlier Republican administrations (e.g., downsizing government, reversing wide swaths of regulatory law, promoting the privatization of public services and education, increasing support for prisons, police, and the American military, expanding the ties between select religions and the state, and endorsing tax schemes benefitting corporations and the wealthy) contrasted with earlier proclamations of “draining the swamp” of corruption in D.C. His vows to represent “ordinary Americans” quickly morphed into an agenda designed by and for Americaʻs elite, featuring cabinet appointees soon to be recorded as the most wealthy in American history -- holding personal assets reaching into the many billions of dollars. Prominent among his cabinet picks,
Donald Trump named the chief executive for Exxon Corporation, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State.

This appointment occurred at a moment in history marked by the filing of legal actions by New Yorkʻs Attorney General, seeking further evidence as to whether Exxon had engaged in one of the largest acts of fraud in American history. This legal case rested on documented evidence of corporate deception regarding the extraordinary global threats posed by the burning of fossil fuels, even as Exxonʻs own scientists accumulated evidence underscoring explicit hazards. Exxonʻs initial cooperation with the New York Attorney General quickly shifted to a counter-suit blocking access to its files. Exxon’s recalcitrance was backed by sympathetic Attorneys General from eleven other states. ExxonMobil and its precursors were responsible for directly or indirectly emitting 20.3 billion metric tons of CO2 and 199 million metric tons of methane, or between 4.7 percent and 5.3 percent of all of humanity’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1882. With the business of burning fossil fuels representing a doomsday machine, Trump could not have chosen anyone to better personify a negative image of America than the chief executive officer of Exxon corporation.

Others in President Trumpʻs cabinet openly shared Tillersonʻs support for petroleum. Conventional news sources effectively missed the most important financial and environmental story of the day when they failed to highlight a President, his cabinet, and a Congress largely dismissive of the unfolding global disaster, incontrovertibly identified by scientists from around the world. In addition to a Congress held captive by fossil fuel interests and their corporate lobbyists, cabinet officials with serious personal conflicts of interest, and presidential support for a dangerously outdated industry, fossil fuels had otherwise been on the cusp of losing competitive price advantage over clean energy alternatives.

Just prior to the inauguration, a dry financial news service reported a remarkable transformation in energy prices: for much of the world, clean energy would soon be cheaper than either coal or petroleum. The team of energy analysts implicitly defeated central premises of Trumpʻs support for fossil fuels. No one expected to find Republicans abandoning support for oil simply because it was opposed by nearly every climate scientist in the world. The daunting news for elected leaders holding firm to a dollars-and-cents reasoning that coal and oil afforded humanity with the cheapest sources of energy was that “renewables are robustly entering an era of undercutting” fossil fuel prices around the world.

The problem facing renewables in the United States, according to Bloomberg News as well as other energy analysts, commenced with the cost advantage already held by billion dollar coal and gas plants. In unraveling the premise of cheap sources one could discern the house of cards built by fossil fueled interests. Arguments for deregulating fossil fuels, for easing their path with discretionary choices afforded by pollution trading schemes, for allowing subsidies in the form of tax relief, or funding and fighting foreign wars to maintain cheap oil -- all of these devices delaying the arrival of a new economy now took an image of a Potemkin village (built solely to make things look better than they are), and led by imbeciles.

Many in the public were awakening to the truth of an economy, political structure and public manipulated to achieve private purposes with one extraordinary twist on an old theme: this time the manipulation entails a level of destruction unparalleled in human history. The absence of discussion regarding either fossil-fueled crises or the viability of clean energy alternatives yielded a growing conflict reminiscent of an earlier war between the states. Parallel to the destructive economy based on slavery in the 1860s, the current insistence by petroleros to continue with Americaʻs archaic fossil-fueled economy poses an existential threat to humanity on a global scale. In 2017 the emerging clash over the direction of the U.S. economy had no better poster child for opposition than the roughly forty million Californians.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The War on California

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States appears as nothing short of a corporate coup d’etat, threatening to overturn decades of public interest advocacy. Before even taking the office, president-elect Trump’s earlier remarks on climate change as a hoax and his opposition to the Paris accords have been cemented with cabinet-level appointments of individuals dedicated to a major expansion of fossil fuel production while discouraging clean-energy innovations. Before completing his first 100 days in office, President Trump advanced a budget to eliminate major programs relating to environmental protection, alternative energy, and climate change. As stories in this work will reveal, California law poses a formidable challenge to such reversals. Whether President Trump, the Republican Congress and the corporate lobby can dismantle decades of public interest work is a question filled with uncertainty.

At first glance, the threat to California appears uniquely linked to the election of an unorthodox political maverick versus a left coast state whose voters delivered a majority of the popular vote to his opponent. With opposition to a federal dragnet of millions of immigrants, the judicial defeat of efforts to seal the nationʻs borders from Muslims by a federal appellate court based in California, and popular demonstrations across the state the gulf between the Golden State and Washington, D.C. deepens with each passing day. The notion of a “War on California” is only an appropriate description of our times.

Beyond todayʻs noted headlines, the history surrounding the fossil-fueled crisis of the 21st century goes back many decades. If you speak with political veterans from inside Californiaʻs capitol, you may unearth fascinating accounts about the nature of our current problems as well as what the public must do to address these crises. You are also likely to encounter untold stories centering not on political celebrities, but on a much larger cast of characters - public interest advocates and activists. While their work is increasingly recognized across a growing coalition of group as well as inside the corridors of power, they are less well known by the general public for their valuable contributions to California more generally. 

One of the purposes of my forthcoming writing is to feature the works of some of Californiaʻs notable advocates and the work of their partners in not just turning back Donald Trumpʻs efforts to extend an era of fossil fueled hazards, but to note their impressively positive works to forge a new economy. Those featured in my forthcoming writings including: Martha Arguello with the Physicians for Social Responsibility - LA, Strela Cervas with the California Environmental Justice Alliance, Bill Magavern with the Coalition for Clean Air, Angela Johnson Meszaros with EarthJustice, Brent Newell with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, Rossmery Zayas with Communities for a Better Environment, and many others. 

As a California legislator mentioned in a statement to the LA Times earlier this week, the public interest advocates are on the verge of playing a much greater role in the Golden State, perhaps influencing the course of policy for decades to come. We will soon begin a fuller examination of the role of Californiaʻs public interest lobby and their standing in a decadeʻs old fight to overcome oil, oligarchs and the new tyranny.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Most Important Story in the World

Welcome to Calpolitico, a blog focusing on California politics and hosted by Bruce H. Jennings. Some of you may recognize me as a former senior advisor (aka: political hack) with the California Legislature. While I draw on my political work spanning many years, much of what you will read about on Calpolitico concerns many other people and their impressive political works.

The purpose of this blog is three-fold: first, as a preview of my forthcoming book, The War on California. Second - and integrally related to the book, is to get your reactions and commentary on the stories and individuals who are the basis for my writings. Third - and most important - I am hoping to engage you in new forms of political action in the midst of the unfolding struggles in California.

The War on California, as everyone is learning by the actions of President Donald Trump, has many facets: immigration, health care, commerce, military, natural resources, transportation, and more. While I intend for Calpolitico to venture into many of these arenas, I will focus mainly on what the Guardian calls the most important story in the world: the climate crisis, a topic I prefer to label fossil-fueled crises.

In place of conventional accounts about powerful personalities, my approach is to display the crucial role of lesser known people in politics - public interest advocates. Although many readers may be unfamiliar with these individuals, I hope to introduce you to the wonderfully skilled people and organizations who have been serving you for many years. Beyond their impressive stories, I hope you will be inspired by their advocacy and political activism in your own political work.

This blog will be a bit bumpy as I gain my footing, but I hope you will hang with me and learn about the fascinating background to one of the most important stories in the world - the politics surrounding fossil fuels and the new conflicts facing the Golden State.