In an election cycle filled with fighting words on climate change, a ballot measure in California could set the precedent for the rest of the country and give a needed boost to Democrats who have unsuccessfully tried to pass a comprehensive energy bill.
Proposition 23 would suspend California's Global Warming Act of 2006 until unemployment in the state drops to 5.5 percent or below for four consecutive quarters.
The clean air law was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and calls for greenhouse gas emissions to be cut to 1990 levels by 2020. Regulations capping emissions will begin to be fully implemented in 2012, unless the initiative passes.
Opposition to the controversial ballot measure has surged in recent weeks, led by celebrities and heavyweights like Bill Gates and Google's Sergey Brin.
A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows nearly half of likely voters in the state oppose the initiative, 48 percent versus 37 percent support. The measure has been labeled the "Dirty Energy Prop" by its opponents because of the support it has received from oil companies and conservatives like the Koch brothers.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has said she will vote against Proposition 23, but still plans to suspend the global warming law if she's elected. But the state's other high-profile Republican candidate, Carly Fiorina has called the ballot measure "a band-aid fix and an imperfect solution."
Against the backdrop of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last spring, the opposition has become a referendum on Big Oil. It is one that Democrats hope will inject new momentum into the stalled energy debate in Washington after the party took a battering on its failed attempts at passing a comprehensive bill.
"If Prop 23 goes down, and particularly if it goes down by a very wide margin, I think it sends a very strong, clear signal to elected officials who are reluctant to move forward on the energy front that their position is not one that has a lot of support," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant and professor of political science at the University of Southern California, who has conducted several polls on the issue. "In the minds of most Americans, it's about no longer being held hostage to oil, to the people who produce it, the prices you have to pay to get it."
It's unusual for global warming to be featured on a ballot where voters can weigh in on it directly.
But the issue of climate change in the 2010 elections has unearthed deep ideological divisions, and the rhetoric during this campaign on the subject is often blunt.
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Colorado's Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck recently declared that "global warming is the greatest hoax that has been perpetrated," a sentiment first verbalized by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.
Ron Johnson, Tea-Party backed GOP Senate candidate in Wisconsin, has refuted the theory that human beings are responsible for global warming, instead blaming climate change on "sunspot activity, or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate."
Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, a Republican, even suggested that it was "radical activists" spreading the myth of global warming.
The energy and environment legislation that Democrats were hoping to champion after health care will not see the light of day if Republicans take control of the House, and even Democrats are skeptical whether they can come together on this issue.
West Virginia Senate candidate Gov. Joe Manchin has assailed President Obama's energy plan and vowed to oppose any cap and trade legislation if he's elected.
The House passed a comprehensive energy bill last year, but the Senate couldn't come to an agreement despite intense lobbying efforts by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who led the fight for the bill in the Senate.
Talks on a comprehensive energy bill remain stalled even as public concern on the issue remains high. A national poll conducted by Yale and George Mason Universities from May 14, 2009 to June 1, 2010, found that 61 percent of Americans believe global warming is real and 50 percent believe it is caused mostly by humans.
Democrats are hopeful that if it's defeated, Proposition 23 could send a signal to lawmakers and the rest of the country that Americans are serious about reducing greenhouse gases and defeating Big Oil.
But some experts say that California's legislation isn't unlikely to be mimicked in other states in the near future.
"I do think it is kind of an island because I think a lot of other state legislators would hesitate to adopt the kind of climate change legislation we have and only because of the potential of net job loss," said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College.