What Schwarzenegger learned about climate messaging

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 27, 2017

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger thinks the climate movement has its messaging all wrong.

In a Nov. 12 speech at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, the former Republican governor said campaigners should focus more on conventional air pollutants and their health effects, rather than abstract or distant threats like sea-level rise.

“There aren’t enough conferences about people who die from cancer because they live too close to the freeway or to a port,” he said. “There are not enough conferences that talk about the kids developing asthma and having breathing problems and having to use an inhaler.

“We’re communicating wrong when we always talk about the same thing and throwing around statistics but we never talk about the amount of people that are dying,” he said. “This is how we can bring people into our crusade and then march forward in a much more successful way than we have.”

He didn’t always take that view, though. Schwarzenegger’s stance is part of an evolution in California’s approach to climate policy, according to a longtime observer of Sacramento politics.

As governor in 2006, Schwarzenegger signed A.B. 32, the bill that set an initial greenhouse gas target of 1990 emissions levels by 2020. After much negotiating, the bill was written to include cap and trade as an option, rather than requiring it outright. It was a concession to environmental justice groups that oppose emissions trading for its potential to allow emissions increases at individual facilities, which are often located in low-income areas.

But a month later, he signed an executive order to implement cap and trade, despite the inconclusive language in the bill.

“That was a big one that was seen as a betrayal by the environmental justice community,” said Michael Mendez, an associate research scientist at Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a former California legislative staffer. Schwarzenegger also vetoed a bill in 2010, A.B. 1405, that proposed to reserve at least 10 percent of revenue from the cap-and-trade program for disadvantaged communities.

“That was a mantra of the Schwarzenegger administration, this siloed approach to global and local policy and not having an emphasis on local co-benefits,” Mendez said.

Sea levels ‘had no impact’

Schwarzenegger said he realized the error in messaging in 2010, when state policymakers were defending A.B. 32 against an oil industry-funded ballot initiative that would have suspended the program until the unemployment rate dropped to 5.5 percent, from 12.4 percent at the time. He said the measure, Proposition 23, was polling well despite an opposition campaign emphasizing various aspects of climate change, including sea-level rise and national security liabilities.

“We started talking about rising sea levels, it had no impact,” he said. “No matter what we said, it had absolutely no impact, and the oil companies and the coal companies were going to win.”

Toward the end of the campaign, they ran an ad from the American Lung Association that turned things around. “It was a simple message: ‘Pollution is killing us,'” Schwarzenegger said. “That’s all it said. It was a 15-second spot; we put it on television. A week later, our poll numbers started going up, and the oil and the coal companies’ poll numbers started going down.”

Mendez charts the shift to 2012, when state Sen. Kevin de León (D) passed S.B. 535, a successor to A.B. 1405. The bill reserves 25 percent of the state’s cap-and-trade proceeds for projects that benefit disadvantaged communities. Since then, there have been a spate of other laws inserting conventional pollution into other policies, including a requirement to consider them when writing regional plans. The Air Resources Board also now has an environmental justice-dedicated executive officer and two slots on its board dedicated to environmental justice representatives.

“There’s definitely been a change in regulatory culture,” Mendez said. “There’s been changes in board composition and executive staff, and more willingness to accept these coupled approaches to climate change policy.”

State lawmakers with air quality concerns still don’t always find traction. When Gov. Jerry Brown (D) made it a priority earlier this year to gain legislative approval to extend the cap-and-trade program to 2030, Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D) wrote a bill, A.B. 378, that would have tied businesses’ ability to receive greenhouse gas allowances to their emissions of toxic pollutants. It failed to advance.

But she did pass A.B. 617, which sets up a monitoring network for conventional air pollutants in disadvantaged communities and requires local air districts to speed up retrofits for industrial facilities in areas that are out of compliance with federal Clean Air Act standards.

“When my bill died, the message was we were not going to do clean air,” she said. “We forced the clean air discussion onto the radar.”

Garcia was also in Bonn earlier this month, as was state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D), who was appointed to the Air Resources Board earlier this year and authored a bill last year to cut short-lived climate pollutants, including black carbon. He has plans to use emissions-monitoring data to better quantify pollution’s effects on a wide range of consequences that could include everything from birth rates to agricultural and industrial productivity.

“I think Schwarzenegger is on track and really understands the fact that we need to change the way we talk about climate,” Lara said. “I’m saying we should also now work on creating alternative metrics to be able to demonstrate those exact impacts he’s talking about.”

Garcia said that California policymakers have always paid lip service to air pollution in their climate rhetoric but have not delivered until recently. “If you look at our talking points, you look back 10 years ago, clean air is always included in there, but we have never been intentional about it until now,” she said.