Mother Jones illustration; Mary Altaffer/AP; Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMA
It was a mixed night for the fight against climate change on Tuesday. Voters in two of the country’s largest states, California and New York, considered climate-related ballot measures that would have freed up billions in funding to protect the environment and electrify the economy. New York resoundingly passed its measure. California did not.
First up, New York: Proposal 1, the “Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act,” is a wide-ranging initiative that will supply more than $4 billion in funding for projects related to “the environment, natural resources, water infrastructure, and climate change mitigation,” paid for through New York’s sale of bonds. It’ll fund things like wetland protection, solar and wind installations, street trees, land conservation, fish hatcheries, carbon sequestration, and reducing stormwater runoff. And with $500 million in funding specifically earmarked for purchasing electric school buses, it’s a notable step toward electrification; New York is one of the first states in the country to require all of its school buses to be zero-emission vehicles.
The measure also requires that at least 35 percent of the money benefits “disadvantaged communities,” as defined by an independent advisory committee. New York isn’t alone on this front; in 2021, Joe Biden issued an executive order declaring that disadvantaged communities would receive at least 40 percent of climate-related benefits enacted by his administration, although it’s unclear how such communities would qualify.
Not surprisingly, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul (who handily won reelection) and environmental groups supported Prop 1. The New York State Conservative Party opposed it, arguing that New York doesn’t need to borrow more money. With nearly 70 percent of votes counted as of Wednesday afternoon, Proposal 1 passed with 69 percent of New Yorkers favoring it. Bond sales could reportedly begin as early as next year.
“New York voters deserve a shout-out for their overwhelming support of a once-in-a-generation bond measure that will protect and restore the natural resources we all depend on,” said Jessica Ottney Mahar, the Nature Conservancy’s New York policy and strategy director, in a statement. “This is a major victory for people and for the environment.”
California’s climate vote was far more contentious. Proposition 30, the “Clean Cars and Clean Air Act,” aimed to tackle two of the biggest drivers of dirty air in the state: wildfires and car exhaust. (California has some of the worst air quality in the US: Of the 30 counties with the worst air quality nationwide in 2020, 29 were in the Golden State, a recent analysis found.) Proposition 30 would have increased taxes on residents making more than $2 million by 1.75 percent, with the revenue—about $3.5 billion to $5 billion annually—supporting the transition to zero-emission vehicles by providing subsidies for car buyers and building charging stations. It would have also funded wildfire risk reduction programs. The measure saw support from environmental advocates, firefighters, the California Democratic Party, and ride-share company Lyft, which backed it to the tune of $45 million.
But in a move that puzzled many of the state’s progressives, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, joined the California Republican Party to oppose the measure because of Lyft’s involvement. He called it “a special interest carve-out” and a “cynical scheme devised by a single corporation to funnel state income tax revenue to their company.” The governor and his office argued that higher taxes aren’t necessary for funding electric vehicles. This year’s state budget, Newsom told voters, includes $10 million for electrification, including car subsidies and charging stations. Opponents also worried that the measure would set a bad precedent, allowing companies to make policy through the ballot, not the legislature. Others argued a tax hike would drive wealthy residents to flee California for tax havens like Florida and Texas. (Proponents of Prop 30 say that’s never happened.) With 42 percent of votes counted, and 59 percent of California against it as of this writing, AP projects Prop 30’s defeat.
Eventually, residents and businesses in the state will need to figure out how to pay for electric vehicles. In 2021, the California Air Resources Board mandated that 90 percent of Uber and Lyft’s drivers’ miles be made in electric vehicles by 2030. Then, the board ruled in August that the sale of all gas-powered cars in the state will need to be phased out by 2035, noting that California’s transportation sector is responsible for more than half of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Advocates said that Prop 30, which aimed to reduce the cost of switching to electric, would have helped drivers meet California’s goals, particularly low and middle-income residents.
With or without Prop 30, it’s been a critical year for climate action. Just three months ago, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate bill to date. As my colleague Arianna Coghill wrote at the time, the law includes nearly $370 billion in climate spending that will help fund efforts like renewable energy and electric cars. According to independent analyses by two non-partisan research firms, the IRA could reduce the country’s carbon emissions by about 30-40 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
President Joe Biden has pledged to reduce the country’s emissions by about 50 percent over the same time period.
But as a whole, the environment was surprisingly absent from conversation this election cycle. In an October survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, the economy, the future of democracy, and education were the three issues most commonly listed as “very important” to voters. While “energy policy” ranked fifth, climate change ranked all the way down at number 14 on Pew’s list, after “size and scope of the federal government.” Similarly, a recent AP VoteCast poll found that about half of voters see jobs and the economy as the most important issue facing the country today, while just 9 percent said climate change. Climate ballot measures were scant too, at least on the state level. “It’s unusual for there not to be more environmental ballot initiatives,” Nick Abraham, state communications director at the League of Conservation Voters, told Grist in October.
Ballot measures, of course, offer just one path for change. As my former colleague Rebecca Leber notes at Vox, states can play a major role in passing clean energy bills. With Democrats now appearing to take control of state legislatures and the governor’s office in Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, and possibly, Minnesota, four more states could gain “an upper hand to push through new climate goals,” she writes, even with a split or Republican-dominated Congress at the national level.