It’s one issue all four Assembly race candidates can agree on: climate change is an urgent and existential threat to Californians.
Confronted by worsening wildfires, rising seas, dwindling water supplies and a need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions to stave off the worst impacts of global warming, there will be no shortage of environmental challenges for the next District 17 Assembly member, who will represent a half-million San Franciscans on the eastern side of The City.
Whatever the outcome of the race, policy experts say the environmental stakes for this seat are high. As the world’s fifth-largest economy, California is looked upon to set the standard for environmental codes — everything from placing limits on tailpipe exhaust to establishing net metering rates for rooftop solar.
“An effective Assembly member can change the world,” said Laura Feinstein, sustainability and resilience policy director at the nonprofit SPUR, citing former Assembly member Fran Pavley who co-authored the 2006 California Global Warming Solutions Act which established emissions targets for the state. “That was a landmark — the first really big climate bill in California that became a model in the state and for the rest of the world.”
How the candidates will go about solving this crisis if sent to Sacramento, however, is another story. While all the candidates say they support a Green New Deal and are committed to reducing carbon emissions, their plans differ in scale and scope.
Former Supervisor David Campos wants to invest in infrastructure and job programs that reduce planet-warming emissions, a pitch similar to that of Supervisor Matt Haney, who also wants to roll out rebates and subsidies to help residents shift to battery-powered cars and electric home energy systems.
Bilal Mahmood, an entrepreneur who has made climate change a hallmark of his campaign, has pushed for a carbon tax to fund zero-interest loans in order to accelerate decarbonization, while City College trustee and public transit advocate Thea Selby sees the route to cutting emissions paved through clean transit, including high-speed rail.
Feinstein said the most urgent issues facing the next Assembly member will be accelerating the transition to clean energy and addressing the water and land-use issues in the Bay Area. She also emphasized prioritizing justice at every step of the way to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of environmental benefits reaped by any future policies.
“The state is looking to get to zero emissions by 2045. That means that almost all our energy will need to be renewable,” she said. “We need to be thinking about how to make sure it’s affordable across the board for everybody, and that those industries generate as many good jobs that people can raise a family on as the fossil fuel jobs that are being phased out.”
While many environmental advocates agree the candidates will have a net positive impact on climate policy, others point out that so far, their proposed plans are thin, promises are theoretical and some track records on climate are unproven.
All AD17 candidates have said they would support a state-level Green New Deal, a policy that would dramatically reduce emissions while addressing other social issues such as job creation and reducing economic inequality. But such a bill has failed in the Assembly before. It remains unclear how any candidate would resuscitate the measure if elected.
“The Green New Deal isn’t a coherent policy at this point,” said Daniel Tahara of the Climate Emergency Coalition. “Not to say it’s not visionary and inspiring, but like, concretely, how does that apply to California? Concretely, how does that turn into policy? Most of the candidates are pretty thin on details.”
Others are less concerned with the fine print and instead emphasize the need for leaders who will stand up to well-moneyed agendas and fossil fuel lobbyists. “We have an opportunity to send a real champion to Sacramento who’s going to stand up to those superpowerful interests,” said Hunter Cutting of the Sierra Club, which endorsed Campos.
“It’s not like we’re sitting around waiting for some wonk to come up with the right policy. … A 50-page policy manual is not what’s missing here,” Cutting said. “Climate change is a political issue. There’s no scientific mystery with climate change — we know exactly what to do.”
Still, questions remain about how any policies at the state level will trickle down to constituents in District 17, which encompasses much of The City’s eastern shoreline, an area where sea level rise is projected to inundate neighborhoods like Hunters Point, Mission Bay, the Dogpatch and Candlestick Point.
Bradley Angel, executive director of the environmental justice nonprofit Green Action, said he’d like the next Assembly member to prioritize cleaning up toxic material buried along the shoreline and on Treasure Island, which he says is an increasing threat to the health of residents and the Bay as waters rise.
“There are going to be impacts from climate, even if we do get to zero emissions worldwide,” said David Wooley, executive director of the Center for Environmental Public Policy at UC Berkeley, citing flooding from sea level rise and “heat events that San Franciscans aren’t usually used to.”
But, Wooley noted, this Assembly race is especially important because California is on the precipice of change. “There’s massive momentum here,” he said. “Done right, this could be a moment of re-industrialization of California. We have all these opportunities to bring auto manufacturing back, battery manufacturing, battery materials. There’s a whole series of industries that could be driven by progressive climate policy.”
California’s Assembly members have been at the crossroads of major policy issues before. In the early 2000s when then-Assembly member Pavley and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez set out to co-author AB 32, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Act, powerful lobbying campaigns organized to oppose it. Many doubted California could grow its economy while reducing its dependence on oil, gas and coal.
But today, emissions have decreased while the state has grown its population and GDP — without many Californians even noticing. “If you look back 10, 20 years ago, the law of California was so different,” said Feinstein. “Change happens without you noticing and then all of a sudden you realize there’s been a lot of change.”