California’s climate change legislation, AB 32, is the far-reaching global warming legislation in the United States, and a model for states (and maybe even the EPA) that want to work aggressively to reduce carbon emissions. Unless, that is, some environmental justice groups have anything to do with it.
Yesterday, a trial court enjoined the California Air Resources Board (CARB) from moving ahead with its proposed regulations, on the seemingly-odd grounds that CARB had not properly analyzed the alternatives to its cap-and-trade program. The plaintiffs, an environmental justice group with the picturesque name of Association of Irritated Residents (“AIR,” get it?), proposed either a carbon tax or direct regulation of carbon emitters. Since CARB had not fully analyzed these alternatives, the court said, it could not move ahead until it did so.
Now, you might well ask: why do environmental justice groups think carbon taxes or direct regulation are better than cap-and-trade? Answer: they don’t. If you’re a plaintiff trying to stop a project, then you try to come up with anything legally infirm about the environmental review documents. They just want to stop the project, and so they are throwing anything out there that they can, and seeing what sticks. When I was in private practice, my firm represented the Los Angeles Airport Department, which was trying to expand LAX: homeowners’ groups near the airport trying to stop expansion all of a sudden started talking about the highly endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly, which I’m sure that they had never heard of and cared about less.
This isn’t always bad, particularly when it comes to advocates for low-income people. A few years ago, when the developer of the Staples Center issued the Draft Environmental Impact Report, the “Figueroa Corridor Economic Justice Coalition” sent in hundreds of critical comments, making it very clear that they would challenge the project. But the project couldn’t wait: Staples had to be ready in time for the 1999-2000 season. So they settled, creating a Community Benefits Agreement that stands as a model for similar agreements around the country, and has really helped the low-income communities of color near the arena.
To me, this looks like a similar strategy. One could argue that the EJ groups hate cap-and-trade because carbon emitters, which also emit localized “criteria” pollutants, will just buy carbon offsets or more permits and keep on polluting. But a carbon tax on this score wouldn’t be any better, especially because carbon tax systems will run into problems with exemptions and offsetting credits: it’s easy to compare a messy, real cap-and-trade system with a theoretically perfect and pristine carbon tax. And direct regulation will be a lot more expensive, making it more difficult to harvest any benefits for nearby low-income communities.
So the “shakedown” continues. Maybe the environmental justice advocates want CARB to use the permit charges for their clients and similarly-situated people. But why should CARB agree? It has time, unlike Staples Center or a private developer anxious to retain its financing. It will just do the analysis, come out the same way, and move ahead, just a couple of years later.
I’m not necessarily opposed to shakedowns: another way to characterize it is “leverage.” But when the future of the planet is at stake, for self-described environmental activists to do it is too cynical even for me. And because climate change will most severely impact extremely poor people of color in sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Indonesia, to call it an “environmental justice” issue really doesn’t even pass the laugh test.