The fight over Proposition 23, the ballot initiative to suspend California’s global warming law, “will definitely be a David versus Goliath battle,” Steve Maviglio, spokesman for the opponents told a reporter in September. “Our slingshot versus their oily club.”
From the get-go, that’s how environmentalists characterized their struggle against Prop. 23 which, based on early returns, appears to be resoundingly defeated. (UPDATE 11:55 pm: The Prop 23 campaign conceded defeat, as with more than 3.5 million votes counted, the measure was being rejected by more than 59% of voters)
But it was pure spin. As they say in the movie, “Follow the money.”
Two Texas-based oil refiners, along with California business trade associations and anti-tax activists thought they could halt the nation’s most ambitious effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But they were able to raise only $10.6 million. Most of California’s biggest companies, including Chevron, Pacific Gas & Electric and Sempra Energy, stayed neutral or actively opposed the initiative.
Backers were steamrolled by a $31.2 million campaign funded by such wealthy philanthropists as San Francisco hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, such big environmental groups as the National Wildlife Federation and the ClimateWorks Foundation, and such Silicon Valley green-tech moguls as John Doerr and Vinod Khosla.
That money funded tough TV commercials urging “Stop the job-killing dirty energy proposition.” And it helped organize a vast grass-roots campaign that roped in scores of organizations including health groups such as the American Lung Association, unions, religious organizations, Latino community organizations and green-tech trade groups, as well as virtually every environmental group in the state.
Celebrities such as Edward James Olmos, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Redford and “Avatar’s” James Cameron urged a “no” vote. And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stumped across the state attacking the “self-serving greed” of Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., the two San Antonio-based refiners that were the principal funders.
No environmental campaign in U.S. history can boast the level of activism in California this year: Prop 23 opponents mustered 3,200 volunteers, made 2.8 million phone calls to voters, sent out 3.4 million pieces of mail, made 379,676 on-campus contacts with college students, and operated a sophisticated computerized outreach program that identified and contacted 481,000 voters, and showered voters with 900,000 get-out-the vote phone calls and text messages in the last three days.
National environmental leaders, smarting from the defeat of federal climate legislation in Congress this year, expressed awe. “It is the largest public referendum in history on climate and clean energy policy,” said Fred Krupp, president of the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund. “Almost 10 million Californians got a chance to vote and sent a clear message that they want a clean energy future. And this was in an economic downturn. There has never been anything this big. It is going to send a signal to other parts of the country and beyond.”
In the end, he attributes Prop 23’s defeat to the difference in mentality in California, where voters saw the global warming law as paving the way to a new economy based on clean energy. “Californians look forward and face the future with optimism,” he said. “That is our M.O. This is a grass-roots movement, and the impetus is coming from the West, not from Washington.”