California’s bold climate law gets green light

EDF helps the Golden State lead the way to a clean energy future

Californians turned out to stop Prop 23.

California citizens, businesses and environmental advocates united to stop Prop 23 in 2010.

Credit: Peter Bennett/Greenstock

When national climate legislation stalled in the Senate in 2010, all eyes turned to California.

The same special interests that thwarted progress on the federal level set their sights on California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32). They spared no expense trying to kill it.

That fall, the battle focused on Proposition 23, an industry-backed ballot initiative that would have blocked the Golden State’s innovative law. We helped build a powerful coalition to defend the law, including nonprofit groups, businesses ranging from PG&E to Nike, and political leaders of both parties.

California voters soundly defeated the proposition. It marked the first time a global warming law was put before voters.

Oil lobbyists vs. clean air

Misleadingly labeled the “California Jobs Initiative,” the campaign to derail AB 32 was funded primarily by Valero and Tesoro, Texas-based oil companies that operate huge, polluting refineries in California. EDF and allies exposed the ruse, revealing that 97% of Prop. 23’s contributions came from oil-related companies.

The companies ran a scare campaign, warning voters in a state reeling with 12% unemployment that AB 32 would drive up energy prices and cost jobs. To counter these false claims, our sister organization, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, ran TV and radio advertising. (Contributions to the Action Fund are not tax-deductible, so the organization can use donations for lobbying activities.) “This was essential to spread the truth to voters,” said Derek Walker, EDF’s director of Strategic Climate Initiatives.

People power helped tip the balance. In the closing days of the campaign, 3,200 volunteers went door-to-door to urge voters to reject Prop. 23. They told the real jobs story. California has 500,000 jobs in the clean-tech sector, which is growing up to ten times faster than the rest of the state’s economy.

Big win for clean energy

By a stunning 61% to 39%, Californians endorsed a clean energy future and preserved the momentum for global warming action by rejecting Prop. 23.

[Defeating Prop 23] is a monumental victory for energy independence and national security.

EDF played a key role with its partners in making it possible.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz
Co-chair of “No on 23” campaign

“With the world’s eighth largest economy, California can influence not just national climate policy, but global policy as well,” said Steve Cochran, EDF’s former vice president for climate.

Legislative Confirmation of the Commitment to AB 32 and Investing in California’s future

In 2012, the California state legislature passed, and the governor signed two bills—AB 1532 and SB 535—aimed at implementing California’s landmark climate legislation by guiding the allocation of proceeds from the planned cap-and-trade auction. These bills are an unquestioned restatement of California’s commitment to AB 32’s opportunity to spur innovation and invest in a clean and efficient economy while also benefiting the state’s most disadvantaged communities.

Targeted investments of AB 32 proceeds to reduce greenhouse gases through renewable energy, energy efficiency, natural resource protection, and R & D will catalyze growth in California’s growing clean energy economy and can multiply the economic and environmental benefits of AB 32 as a whole. Under AB 1532 and SB 535, California now has a comprehensive framework to guide investment of cap and trade proceeds.

Clean tech continues to take off in California

Venture capital flows to clean tech

California is on the path to a clean and efficiency economy and AB 32 is central to both private and public investment in the Golden State’s sustained economic growth.

Since AB 32 was enacted in 2006, clean tech enterprises have received more venture capital in California than in the other 49 states combined. The sector has received more than $9 billion in venture capital investment, including $1.5 billion in the first quarter of 2011 alone.

Next steps for California’s model policy

California’s bold climate law uses a cap-and-trade program to keep costs low, spur economic growth, and ensure the environmental integrity of the state’s GHG emissions reduction efforts.

The comprehensive cap-and-trade program, coupled with other complementary measures, will inspire improvements in the way utilities generate electricity, automakers design cars and refineries make fuel, and will provide a model for national action. In 2015, California will also integrate transportation fuels under the cap-and-trade program—an unprecedented policy that will multiply incentives for cleaner cars and create healthier air across the state. Our experts provide technical advice and work with industry and academic researchers to devise strict environmental standards for biofuels and other aspects of program design.

Challenges remain

Despite the progress made thus far, continued work remains to track AB 32 progress and respond to challenges in Congress, in Sacramento and in the courts. Certain members of Congress agitate to revoke EPA’s authority to cut pollution under the Clean Air Act. In California, various groups continue to challenge the state’s decision and authority to institute cap and trade. California’s Governor continues to support strong climate policy, though, and the state’s authority to move forward with cap and trade was upheld in an August 2012 decision by a state court of Appeals.

As challenges emerge, we will vigorously defend both the state’s and EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment. The lesson of Prop. 23 is not only that clean energy is essential for our environmental and economic future, but that, with informed voters, it is also a political winner. A 2012 poll shows an overwhelming 71% of Californians support AB 32 and the state’s clean economy is growing at an unprecedented rate.


  • EDF helped pass a bold law to cut global warming pollution.
  • Polluting companies attacked the law, and we helped build a coalition to defend it.
  • Voters soundly defeated the attack, affirming a future of clean energy.

More policy information

  • Overview: Our work on climate change in California
  • AB 32: More about the law