Climate change figures to be key issue for Orange County races in 2020

by in News

Tom Osborne likes to think about the years he spent at Old Man’s beach in San Onofre riding waves on his vintage longboard. But there’s something the 77-year-old from Laguna Beach says he loves even more: clean oceans, breathable air and a bright future for his two young grandchildren.

So Osborne sold his treasured Phil Edwards model Hobie to a neighbor and used the $650 to help pay for a Central Valley student to join him on a trip to Washington, D.C. He’ll be joined by nine more Orange County residents and some 1,500 other members of the nonpartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

They’re in D.C. this week to fight for a carbon fee bill that they believe will make a difference in the future health of the planet.

“We’re told by the intergovernmental panel on climate change that we have roughly 12 years to basically cut our carbon emissions in half if we hope to preserve civilization as we know it,” said Osborne, a retired Santa Ana College history professor who’s authored several books on history and environmentalism.

“That really should give all of us reason to get involved with the issue.”

Osborne is part of a diverse, growing cohort — even from once-conservative bastions such as Orange County — who believe the climate crisis is, finally, starting to gain steam as a political issue, and that it could shape Congress and the White House in 2020.

Local Democrats campaigned on aggressive climate protection policies in 2018 and won every House seat that touches Orange County. And since they took office in January, many of the new representatives have hosted round-table talks, chaired committee discussions and sponsored bills aimed at addressing the climate crisis — including the one that is prompting Osborne and fellow activists to visit D.C.

Republican leaders believe that’s a mistake. They’re hoping to use climate bills from Democrats as evidence that the new representatives are too far to the left for Orange County.

“The Democrats have gotten so extreme on climate change going into 2020,” said Fred Whitaker, chair of the Republican Party of Orange County, who decries government mandates to address the issue.

“Socialism does not sell well here.”

But polls show that public opinion, backed by increasingly solid scientific consensus, now supports government intervention to address climate change. And even some conservatives are encouraging Republican candidates — particularly in purple districts, like much of Orange County — to break with President Donald Trump and develop climate plans.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” said Craig Peterson, a conservative from Costa Mesa who advocates for bipartisan climate change solutions.

“I’m tired of us being on the menu.”

Would-be presidents take notice

There were numerous debates during the 2016 election cycle, but none included a single question about climate.

Polls suggest that was a whiff. Last year, some 62 percent of Americans told Gallup that government isn’t doing enough to protect the environment, and 57 percent favor prioritizing the environment even if it curbs economic growth. Both figures shoot up when looking at young people, females and minorities — groups that figure to be key voting blocks in 2020.

That could put climate change on the campaign agenda next year.

A crowded field of Democrats are regularly talking about climate change as they jockey to face Trump. One candidate, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, has even focused his entire campaign around the issue.

Any climate plan could be a stark contrast with the Trump administration.

Over the past three years, Trump has rolled back environmental rules of all types, pushed the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the words “climate change” from official documents and suppressed information about projections of global warming.

As a candidate, Trump said global warming was a “hoax” invented by the Chinese to stifle American manufacturing.

A tide change in OC

The new politics of climate might’ve previewed locally in November.

The Orange County House race to represent CA-48 featured 30-year incumbent Republican, Dana Rohrabacher, and Democrat Harley Rouda. Though the seat includes much of coastal Orange County, where the potential of rising seas is a growing economic threat, Rohrabacher denied that climate change is caused by humans or that government should do anything to try to curb it. Rouda said repeatedly that climate change is “the No. 1 issue facing humankind.”

Rouda beat Rohrabacher by nearly 21,000 votes (7.2 percentage points) in the county’s most Republican-leaning district.

The lesson, say climate activists, is that many Republican voters want action on climate.

“While it was frustrating, we learned a lot about speaking to the far right on climate change, and working in a bipartisan manner,” said Breene Murphy, a liason for the local Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter.

While GOP attacks against Democrat-backed climate ideas might work in some parts of the country, Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, believes it won’t in Orange County, where tourism and a clean coast are keys to the economy.

“I don’t think supporting strong economic policy is a (political) liability,” Pitney said.

Locals back carbon fee bill

Economics is one reason why all four representatives of Orange County’s districts that flipped from red to blue last year have signed on as cosponsors of the bill that’s brought Citizens’ Climate Lobby to D.C..

The idea behind the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, known as H.R. 763, is to make the price of coal, oil, gas and other fossil fuels reflect the actual price of those products on society. That includes the cost of carbon impacts through global warming, which scientists widely agree is triggering billion-dollar wildfires, floods and other disasters.

Under the bill, carbon companies would pay escalating fees based on the amount of carbon dioxide their products generate. Those fees would drive up the prices of those products, but each American household would get a check to offset the difference.

Consumers would have an incentive under this plan to buy greener forms of energy, since sources such as solar panels and electric cars would then be priced comparably with fossil fuels. Companies would have an incentive to create cleaner energy, since it wouldn’t come with the same high fees. And other countries would have an incentive to follow suit, since there would be a tax on some carbon-generating imports.

The bill has 40 cosponsors, but just one Republican: Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Florida, who is against Obamacare but is also fighting offshore drilling.

Even if most Republicans aren’t buying the science behind man-made climate change, Peterson, of Costa Mesa, hopes they’ll view H.R. 763 as less heavy-handed than other solutions on the table.

“All campaigns need to look at creating a serious platform on solutions to climate risks,” he said. “Having no word on it, I think, is death in 2020.”