California voters eye environment

Why green issues will prove crucial on Super Tuesday.

    Severe drought has led to devastating wildfires in California [GALLO/GETTY]

    After a record year of deadly wildfires and drought, the issue of the environment has never been more pressing to voters in the western US state of California.


    The most populous US state, California is a crucial battleground for candidates hoping to capture the White House. 


    And the state's voters, concerned about drought, water scarcity and rampant pollution, are wondering which candidates will best serve the environment.


    The most recent poll on the issue found that 54 per cent of the state's voters said candidates' positions on the environment would be very important in determining how they cast their vote in 2008.

    "The overriding issue in California is global warming and contributing factors," David Allgood, director of the Southern California office for the California League of Conservation Voters, an environmental action group, told Al Jazeera.


    "We lose about 2,400 people a year because of pollution and much is out of our control [because] planes and trains [and others] are under federal jurisdiction."


    Favouring the Democrats?


    Allgood said he was "appalled" by the Bush administration's environmental policy and thinks a Democratic candidate may well prove more committed to resolving California's environmental issues.


    Super Tuesday

    A total of 24 US states are holding primaries or caucuses on 5 Feb

    It is the day when the largest number of nominating delegates for both Republicans and Democrats are up for grabs

    52 per cent of Democratic delegates and 41 per cent of Republican delegates are at stake

    Key states include California - with the most amount of delegates for a single state - Georgia, Illinois and New York

    Started in 1988 after some southern US states decided to hold primaries simultaenously to boost southern influence in choosing a candidate

    "The reality is in the Bush administration is that it has catered to a narrow range of energy interests," he said.


    "They hamstrung science in the government at the EPA ... they censored scientists [and] had an anti-science attitude for the benefit of corporate donors."


    "I think, if a Democrat is elected, change will come quickly and dramatically."


    Some Republican candidates have also staked out policies on the issue, for example John McCain, who is senator for California's bordering Arizona state which suffers from similar problems of air pollution and drought.


    However, Terry Tamminen, who advises the state of California on environmental issues, recently "graded" both parties' candidates on environmental issues and found Republicans' records on the issue wanting.

    "Unfortunately many of the Republicans mostly score 'F's, because ... most of them simply don't have comprehensive policies on climate change or alternative energy," he told Al Jazeera.


    Meanwhile, the Green Party says that neither party has sufficiently proved themselves worthy of handling the state - and indeed the country's - response to its environmental concerns.


    "Their proposals for the environment are akin to slowing an already crashing train," Daniel Brezenoff, spokesman for the Green Party in southern California, told Al Jazeera.


    "They are all hegemonous, they want the US to control the world's resources and they don't respect other countries."


    A green controversy


    Last year was the driest in California for
    130 years [GALLO/GETTY]
    Nonetheless it was a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who last year moved to enact some of the nation's toughest standards on greenhouse gas emissions from cars, lorries and the sports utility vehicles beloved of so many California residents.


    An additional 16 states were also mulling the adoption of the rules, however the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refused to grant waivers which would have let the states set their own standards.


    The agency's head, Stephen Johnson, later defended his decision at a senate hearing and denied his actions were influenced by the Bush administration, saying it was "solely my decision, based upon the law, based upon the facts".


    However, angered by the federal government's intervention, California and the additional states are currently suing to overturn the decision.


    BreAnda Northcutt, deputy director of communications for the California EPA, told Al Jazeera that Californians were keen to assert control over their environmental policy.


    "These regulations are part of an overall strategy to fight global warming - 40 per cent of our emissions come from transportation," she said.


    "The majority of Californians want to see this as a priority, as our right to set environmental standards. That right is protected," she said.


    The state is also spending billions on renewable energy resources and has passed a law which would tap the state's solar energy to power up to one million homes by 2018.


    Dying of thirst


    California's other major environmental issue is drought.


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    Last year the state suffered its driest year in 130 years, which led in turn to the state suffering one of its worst fire seasons in recent memory.


    At least 14 people died and an estimated 2,000 homes were destroyed, while more than 640,000 people were evacuated from their homes in the state.


    A recent report in Science magazine also found that, to compound the problem, valuable water resources gleaned from snow on mountain ranges in the western US are dwindling and rivers are drying up at an alarming rate due to global warming.


    However, as the challenges mount up, activists remain confident that California will choose a candidate that prioritises the environmental issues the so-called "golden state" is facing.


    "In California we have a long history of being concerned over the environment and it will weigh heavily on voters' minds," Allgood says.


    "Any candidate that articulates a good solution will be well received."


    Super Tuesday Map


    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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