Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Green Behind California’s Greens

A handful of superrich donors have created the illusion of a grassroots environmental movement.

In the fall of 2010, an army of California groups—including blue-collar unions, small businesses, manufacturers, and big energy companies—tried to persuade voters to suspend the state’s rigorous anti-global-warming law, which mandates a rollback of greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels. The advocates for delaying the law argued that, with an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent, California needed to focus on creating jobs and couldn’t afford costly new measures to slash carbon emissions, such as requiring utilities to generate power from renewable sources. But what proponents of the jobs measure, known as Proposition 23, didn’t count on was the financial might of California’s environmentalists. In just months, greens raised three times as much money as the initiative’s supporters. As the Los Angeles Times put it, the environmentalists then “steamrolled” their foes with a $30 million campaign that deployed television ads featuring Hollywood celebrities, millions of mailings, and hundreds of thousands of robo-calls and text messages. One environmentalist described the coalition that crushed Prop. 23—comprising entertainers, hedge-fund honchos, technology billionaires, and the many organizations that they back—as “the new face of the environmental movement.” It wasn’t the face of the movement, though, but its pocketbook that won the battle.
Californians have long had a green reputation. But for many years, interest in the environment expressed itself in modest programs of nature conservation, or in efforts to mitigate pollution problems such as the smog that once choked the state’s cities. Even as they gained political power over the last 15 years or so, however, California greens have moved steadily leftward—touting, for example, zero-growth initiatives that make it crazily expensive to create jobs, housing, and infrastructure. Credit, or blame, for this development should go to a small circle of superrich Californians, who made their fortunes chiefly in so-called clean industries like technology and finance, and who have poured vast sums of money into the green cause. These wealthy individuals bankroll hundreds of environmental organizations and spend massively to pass green ballot initiatives and elect green-friendly pols. So influential are these West Coast players that a recent report from Columbia University’s Journalism School—otherwise sympathetic to environmentalism—described the concentration of green power as “troubling.” Even more disconcerting, these true believers also seem intent on promoting their aggressive form of environmentalism around the country. Call it the Californication of the green movement.

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