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California's new climate legislation hailed as a breakthrough

"It's great to hear about saving polar bears and hugging trees," said a Democratic assembly member who sponsored the legislation, "but how about people?"
La refinería Chevron en California. (Imagen via Armando Arorizo/EPA)

California's state legislature has given final approval to a package of two bills that climate campaigners say contain the "most aggressive" climate goals in North America. Governor Jerry Brown has called them a milestone for the state's environmental policies, and said he plans to sign both measures into law.

California has often led the rest of the United States in environmental legislation, and these bills are no exception. Advocates of policy responses to climate change are hailing them as a breakthrough, noting they are extremely ambitious about reducing emissions that help cause climate change — and that they focus efforts locally, in an attempt to benefit people in the state.


"It's great to hear about saving polar bears and hugging trees, and making sure we address global warming from a world perspective […] But how about people?" Eduardo Garcia, a Democratic state assembly member who sponsored one of the bills, told the LA Times.

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Senate Bill 32 and Assembly Bill 197 also change the way emissions policies are regulated in California, giving more oversight to legislature and less power to a state board that's been accused of having ties to polluters.

Senate Bill 32 will significantly expand ambitions to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the state, the second-largest emitter in the country after Texas. While previous legislation from 2006, which California is on track to comply with, set a target to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the new bill demands a further reduction of 40 percent by 2030. If the state manages to meet this new goal, it would mean slashing California's total emissions by that year to half of what they were in 2006.

Assembly Bill 197 addresses concerns among lawmakers and environmental groups that resources used to combat climate change so far haven't brought noticeable benefits to many local communities. By targeting the state regulator for greenhouse gas emissions, the Air Resources Board, bill sponsor Garcia said he hopes to secure improved air quality for residents. In addition to establishing a new permanent legislative committee to oversee the Air Resources Board and imposing six-year term limits on its members, AB197 will direct the board to focus emission reduction efforts on refineries and local manufacturing.

The Air Resources Board has recently been under scrutiny for its unwillingness to curb the air pollution that causes smog and associated public health concerns, and for its ties to industry. In March this year the Sierra Club and three other environmental organizations sued the South Coast Air Quality Management District, claiming it had allowed the refinery industry to draft a proposal for smog-prevention measures that it later adopted.

Because AB197 is so specific about the types of pollution the Air Resources Board will have to focus on, business groups have pointed out it might also undermine the cap-and-trade program, which currently allows businesses to buy and sell emissions rights on a market. Environmental groups have criticized the cap-and-trade program for allowing companies to purchase carbon offsets outside the state while continuing to emit air pollution locally.

An interactive map of environmental justice issues across the country, EJSCREEN, released by the Obama administration in 2015, shows that many low-income, minority communities in Southern California in particular live in close proximity to pollution sources, among them refineries and manufacturers. (Garcia represents Coachella, one of those communities.)

This data backs up claims that the new climate legislation is designed to improve public in these communities.