To Tackle Climate Change, We Need To Update Democracy

California can be a world leader in the climate crisis by using its direct democracy tools.

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Mark Baldassare holds the Arjay and Frances Miller Chair in Public Policy and is the statewide survey director at the Public Policy Institute of California. He is a senior fellow for the Bedrosian Center on Governance in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California and is the coauthor of “The Coming Age of Direct Democracy: California’s Recall and Beyond.”

Cheryl Katz is an award-winning journalist writing on science and the environment for Yale Environment 360, Smithsonian, National Geographic and other publications, and is the coauthor of “The Coming Age of Direct Democracy: California’s Recall and Beyond.”

California has long set the global pace in forward-thinking social and environmental policy. But when it comes to the planet’s most pressing issue — climate change — lately, the state’s record has fallen short of its reputation. 

The November 2022 election missed an important opportunity to fuel Gov. Gavin Newsom’s touted California clean energy transition, after the governor appeared in television ads opposing a ballot initiative that would have helped residents purchase electric vehicles. Proposition 30 had been ahead in the polls, but support plummeted in the aftermath of Newsom’s negative campaign, and the measure was defeated. This January, the state’s landmark legislation restricting oil drilling near neighborhoods and schools was to go into effect, but it was ultimately blocked by an oil industry-backed referendum that is now headed for the 2024 ballot. And the governor’s proposed 2023-2024 state budget slashes funding for several climate programs that he had previously championed. 

These backsliding developments follow a year of groundbreaking new state legislation and executive orders in 2022, setting ambitious climate and clean energy goals for California. But instead of being a paradigm for climate solutions, California has become yet another example of disconnect between a government and its people. 

Statewide surveys conducted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) consistently find that solid majorities of California voters support robust climate action. In the July 2022 survey, seven in ten want the state to take swift and bold measures curbing fossil fuel emissions, and say it is important for California to be a world leader in addressing the climate crisis. Support for climate policies is overwhelming among the nearly seven in 10 California voters registered as Democrats or independents, while it falls short of a majority among the quarter of the electorate who are Republicans.

Nonetheless, partisan differences disappear when it comes to using the state’s direct democracy provisions to address the climate crisis, with six in 10 or more in all partisan groups of likely voters saying it is a “good thing” that California voters can make laws and change climate policies by passing initiatives. But with state leaders giving mixed signals and moneyed special interests putting on a show of muscle, can California find a way forward to a more sustainable future?

California’s direct democracy system offers a powerful tool. The state constitution’s 111-year-old provisions for citizens’ initiatives, referendums and recalls enable voters to bypass stalemated governments and shape public policy at the ballot box. The system is still a work in progress — parts of the process are outdated, voters say the wording of the measures can be confusing, and the costs for signature-gathering and advertising pose a high bar for participation. But with modifications, such as the creation of a citizens’ ballot measure review panel, Californians could lead a growing worldwide effort to popularize and devise equitable solutions in the fight against climate change. 

Direct democracy has proven to be an especially powerful tool in California, where over the past century, nearly 400 initiatives reached a ballot and around one in three passed. Among the many initiatives with enduring positive consequences is the 2010 Proposition 20, which gave the power of redistricting for congressional districts to citizens’ commissions. As many states today struggle with gerrymandered legislative maps drawn up by partisan legislatures that essentially eradicate fair representation, California’s citizen-led redistricting system has been working well for two redistricting cycles.

The citizens’ legislation track record is far from perfect, however. Infamous examples of initiatives that fed political discord include the 1994 Proposition 187, which denied public services to undocumented immigrants, and the 2008 Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage — both of which were ultimately negated by the courts as public opinion shifted away from earlier discriminatory views. Clearly, troubling issues have at times surfaced that call for improvements in the initiative process, and polls consistently show voters think changes are needed.  

On environmental issues, California’s citizens’ legislation has been used sparingly but to great effect. For example, the 1972 Proposition 20 established a coastal protection zone in one of the nation’s longest coastlines after the massive 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.  Another milestone was the 1986 Proposition 65, which bans the discharge of significant amounts of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity into drinking water and requires warnings about harmful chemicals in consumer products. 

Engaging the public through direct democracy can provide an antidote to the widespread government distrust and extreme political polarization that is currently paralyzing the nation. As shown by the overwhelming and bipartisan support for the outcome of a ballot measure such as Proposition 20’s Coastal Commission, statutes enacted through the initiative process have the potential to stand the test of time. State lawmakers, in turn, feel the weight of public opinion and are loath to tinker with laws that have received majority endorsement. 

The seeming intractability of citizens’ initiatives could be seen as an argument against direct democracy. This was exemplified by recent failed propositions aimed at changing the low commercial property tax rates set by the 1978 Proposition 13 (i.e. 2020 Proposition 15) and at ending the ban on affirmative action programs established by the 1996 Proposition 209 (i.e. 2020 Proposition 16). One reason these efforts were doomed is that proponents failed to engage with the public on such controversial policy issues and did not overcome voters’ inherent skepticism. When voters are dubious about a measure’s intentions or outcome, the default is to say “no” — shown by the historical initiative pass rate of 35%.            

“Giving citizens agency in tackling the planet’s most pressing issue stands to motivate them to adopt difficult measures and make the lifestyle changes required.”

Another form of direct democracy is citizens assemblies, in which a large group of randomly selected members of the public engage in guided discussions and make policy recommendations. When applied to climate change, giving citizens agency in tackling the planet’s most pressing issue stands to motivate them to adopt difficult measures and make the lifestyle changes required. For example, political scientist Carsten Berg’s analysis of the citizens’ assemblies convened for the European Union’s Conference on the Future of Europe in 2022 describes how participation engendered a sense of group purpose and spurred collaboration toward a common goal. 

Direct democracy tools can help overcome the public’s feelings of helplessness in the face of the climate crisis and generate a shared sense of responsibility for mitigation. A 2022 research report examined the emotional experiences of participants in a 2020-21 Scottish citizens’ assembly convened to address the question of how Scotland could “tackle the climate emergency in an effective and fair way.” Compared to the general population, writes Lancaster University researcher Nadine Andrews, assembly members had “higher levels of hopefulness and optimism, lower levels of worry and overwhelm, and a lower proportion reporting that their emotions about climate change were having a negative impact on their mental health,” while participating in the process. Participants told Andrews they felt a sense of agency and empowerment to change their behavior and take “urgent climate action.”  

While invaluable for promoting climate justice, however, citizens’ assemblies have lacked the authority to create policy. As Berg points out, the outcome of the Future of Europe deliberations was non-binding, had a small reach and received little public attention. And Andrews found that participants’ hope and optimism about tackling climate change dropped in the wake of the Scottish government’s lackluster response to the panel’s report. The outcome of any such effort in California will need to be much more results-oriented.  

To date, climate and energy policies in California have come mostly from legislative bills and executive decrees. The state’s course for climate action was set in 2006 in the landmark bill AB32, passed by the Democratic legislature and signed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The established goal of reducing California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 has so far succeeded and been expanded through legislative bills without voter approval. Yet the public’s buy-in and lifestyle changes are essential for reaching the much more rapid and dramatic emissions cuts needed today. 

The few times that California voters were asked to weigh in on climate and energy issues — such as defeating Proposition 23 in 2010 (which would have suspended implementation of the California Global Warming Solutions Act) and passing Proposition 39 in 2012 (clean energy funding) — voters endorsed aggressive efforts to cut greenhouse emissions. This shows the unrealized potential in engaging the public in climate solutions through direct democracy tools.

But Californians’ love affair with direct democracy has its limits, and the process has its flaws. In an April 2022 PPIC survey, most likely voters said they were only “somewhat” satisfied (57%) with the way that the initiative process is working. The institute’s November 2022 survey finds that 86% of likely voters agreed that citizens’ initiatives on the state ballot usually reflect the concerns of organized special interests. What can be done to improve the process to help confront the climate crisis? 

First, we need to reengage voters by creating a citizens’ initiative review commission in time for the 2024 election. In statewide polling during the 2022 election cycle, 87% of voters agreed that initiative wording is often too complicated and confusing for them to understand exactly what happens if the measure comes to pass. One obvious solution is to require propositions to be written more clearly. But at a time when trusted sources of information are needed, voters also want to hear what their fellow citizens have to say. In the same statewide poll, 76% of voters said they favored an independent citizens’ initiative commission that would hold public hearings and make ballot recommendations. 

Thus, state leaders should provide the blueprint and fiscal resources for a representative group of voters to be randomly selected and invited to participate in a series of public meetings. These commission members should be given the task of holding public hearings with presentations by both sides of each citizens’ initiative, along with policy experts; deliberating on the measure’s pros and cons; and then making summary recommendations that would appear in the California Secretary of State’s official voters’ guide. Citizens’ initiative reviews in other states have dealt with corporate taxes, election reforms, marijuana legalization, patient safety, rent control and the labeling of genetically modified foods. But to date, there has not been an independent citizens’ review of a climate initiative on the ballot anywhere in the U.S.

“Direct democracy tools can help overcome the public’s feelings of helplessness and generate a shared sense of responsibility for mitigation.”

Second, California leaders should convene a citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis. They can learn from the citizens’ assemblies taking place throughout the world, especially from the recent round of assemblies in Europe. State leaders could follow the current model, in which citizens’ assemblies typically involve about 100 citizens who are randomly chosen and invited by government officials to represent the profile of the public. In a series of informed discussions, the participants search for common ground and make policy recommendations. One example is France’s 2019 climate-focused citizens’ assembly, which was tasked with making recommendations for legislation, executive actions and referenda. 

Third, state leaders need to give voters a chance to weigh in on the policies reflected in their bills and actions by putting legislative measures about climate and energy on the 2024 ballot. One possibility is a legislative initiative providing a redo of the failed Proposition 30, which would fund electric vehicles and charging stations. There could be a state bond measure funding projects to deal with the droughts, wildfires and floods that are now plaguing the West. State leaders could also give the public a crack at establishing new restrictions on oil drilling, which, if passed by a ballot initiative, could be harder to undo by referendum, given the added weight of endorsement by a majority of voters. 

Fourth, more work needs to be done by the media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to help inform the public about citizens’ initiatives. In a fall 2022 PPIC Survey, 82% of likely voters said that they were in favor of “having the yes and no sides of the citizens’ initiative campaigns participate in a series of televised debates.” And a February PPIC survey finds that 79% of likely voters favored “having the yes and no sides of initiative campaigns participate in town halls around the state that are organized and hosted by independent panels.” The media could host the televised debates, and NGOs could organize town halls for the 2024 election. 

And lastly but crucially, more needs to be done to reduce the clout of special interests. Grassroots citizen groups generally lack the money for the high costs of gathering signatures to qualify initiatives and organizing a campaign in a state with 22 million voters — giving efforts by deep-pocketed entities an over-sized role. Discussions are underway about how to safeguard the process from manipulation by slick, expensive campaigns that mislead voters with deceptive ballot titles and by flooding the airwaves with disingenuous ads. 

One important way to increase citizen involvement and dilute the influence of moneyed interests is to allow signature gathering over the internet. Legislation mandating full and accurate funding disclosure at every stage of the initiative process is also a must so that voters are more aware of who is bankrolling the yes and no campaigns. And the media needs to do more investigating and reporting on initiative funding sources from the start of signature gathering through the election.  

Business interests have also been “gaming the system” by sponsoring a referendum and paying campaign firms to gather signatures simply to delay the enactment of new laws — a tactic that is now being used by the oil industry to block the drilling buffer zone legislation. In response, AB 421 has recently been launched, calling for more government oversight of paid signature gatherers, fuller disclosure of who’s paying them, and a requirement that at least 10% of the signatures are gathered by unpaid volunteers. A February PPIC survey finds that most likely voters support going even further: 67% favored “a new law requiring that volunteers gather signatures to qualify initiatives and banning the use of paid signatures.” 

California can be a world leader in the climate crisis by honing its direct democracy tools. As polls showing decisive support for both climate action and the citizens’ initiative process demonstrate, the majority of California voters are on board. If California leaders enable voters to make actionable decisions on climate policy in 2024, they will be increasing trust in government and galvanizing public action on this most critical issue.