The author of California's "Green New Deal" legislation, which aimed to tackle climate change with a focus on environmental, health and economic justice for low-income, immigrant and communities of color, says the COVID-19 crisis was likely the final blow for the bill this year.
“I can't tell you it was going to be the law this year, but certainly COVID made it much more difficult,” said its lead author, Oakland Democratic Assembly member Rob Bonta.
With the legislature focusing on fewer bills because of a greatly reduced state budget, Assembly Bill 1839 didn’t get a hearing. Bonta says that meant the bill won’t continue on this year, but the ideas baked into it could remain.
“The California Green New Deal is alive and well ... I thought it was important for us to move a bill and to show that it can happen,” Bonta said. “If it can happen in the fifth-largest economy in the world, it can happen anywhere.”
Fourteen Democratic lawmakers pushed for a California Green New Deal in January. It was supposed to be bold and big, accelerating the state’s climate goals amid the threat of drought, sea-level rise and deadly wildfires. Many environmental advocates valued the broad bill that was supposed to get fleshed out this session because it aimed to tackle climate change equitably.
In response to the pandemic, the authors turned the bill into a California COVID-19 Recovery Deal with a focus on stimulating the economy justly as the pandemic lingers. Part of the goal was to make sure communities disproportionately impacted by climate change continue to recieve support as threats (pollution, warming, wildfires and seas level rise) to lives worsen.
The bill was a spinoff of the national Green New Deal — which was sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) — that failed to pass.
Bonta says the bill was important because it safeguards disadvantaged communities and people of color who “have been an afterthought with respect to the fossil fuel economy and the harm it caused for them,” Bonta said.
But Bonta notes just because the bill isn’t moving forward this year doesn’t mean its tenets can’t live on in legislation that moves forward.
“It doesn't stop the values that animate and give life to that bill from continuing to exist in the other action that is happening now, including the California Economic Recovery Task Force's Work,” Bonta said.
He says the values could live on within the state task force aimed at stimulating the economy or as part of a climate resiliency bond, AB 3256. It’s focused on economic recovery, wildfire prevention, safe drinking water, drought preparation and flood protection. The bill would authorize bonds for the November statewide ballot to help pay for costs associated with the state’s changing climate.
“You have to combine equity and support for vulnerable, disadvantaged communities with the work to address our existential threat of the climate crisis,” Bonta said.
Environmental groups that lobbied for the bill say they are disappointed, but even though “we didn't win this time,” it was worth it, said Sylvia Chi, policy director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.
She says the original bill was going to be challenging on its own politically, but says COVID-19 mobilized a coalition of environmental, health and public advocacy groups around the ideals of the Green New Deal.
“[The pandemic] has made it almost undeniable that equity in our society is a huge problem,” Chi said. “I think that is an idea that's really being lifted up and people are more willing to see that now.”
She says the coalition will release a letter asking for legislation, the budget and executive orders to make equity and climate change a priority. Their main goal is a just recovery. This includes setting aside funds for communities that are the most impacted by COVID-19.
“We want recovery resources to go to workers and communities and to the people,” Chi said. “As opposed to just corporations and investors, we just hope that the benefits trickle down to people.”
In Chi’s opinion, the Green New Deal isn’t dead, and will take a new form next year.
“We are going to continue pushing for this bill … and probably also bring along more ideas,” she noted.
A bill touted as a “Republican Green New Deal,” AB 1848, is most likely facing a similar fate. It also has not received a hearing yet.
The focus of Palmdale Assemblymember Tom Lackey’s bill is to provide $4 billion to the Southern California Regional Rail Authority from the High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Fund to fund improvements to the Metrolink commuter rail system. He wants to change commute patterns in his region where he says 35% of people have a two-hour commute and 91% of people drive to work.
“This Republican Green New Deal is a commonsense solution to get cars off the road without spending new taxpayer dollars,” said Lackey in January. “High-speed rail is a disaster. It’s time to put that money towards projects that will actually do some good.”
The bill remains in the California Assembly Transportation Committee, and Lackey said earlier this year it may likely never make it further.
“We know that there's only going to be a minuscule amount of the bills moving forward,” Lackey said. “So we don't really know what the status is going to be. We believe we have a good argument, but we'll be reasonable.”
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