COVID, the California Legislature, and Climate Policy

Posted on Thursday, April 9th, 2020 by Renata Brillinger

In early March, it became clear that the spread of the coronavirus was disrupting normal legislative business in Sacramento. CalCAN cancelled our March 18th Legislator Education Day despite the willingness of our 30 farmer, rancher and other partners to participate in a virtual version. This proved the right decision as two days later the California legislature went into an unprecedented recess, which was recently extended until May 4th.

There is no doubt the pandemic will dramatically alter the 2020 legislative agenda. Legislative leaders are exploring options for extending the session and holding hearings and votes remotely. When the session resumes, their two main priorities will be COVID-19 relief response to supplement the $1 billion package passed in March, and passage of the FY 2020-21 budget. Some leaders continue to highlight the need to address climate change, but what that looks like remains uncertain.

CalCAN’s Climate & Agriculture Work in the Time of the Pandemic

In the past three weeks, we have re-oriented our work to adapt to the pandemic’s impact on the California budget and legislative process. We are reflecting on how farmers are responding to the COVID-19 crisis, and what lessons we can learn about enhancing food system resilience to climate change impacts. Also, stay tuned for a future blog summarizing what resources our coalition members are providing to farmers and consumers for coping with the pandemic. Below is a summary of our focus in the coming months.

Climate Smart Agriculture budgets

Because the tax filing deadline was extended until July, the Governor and the legislature will not have a complete picture of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the state’s finances, though it is clear it will be profound. Earlier in the year, we and a 50-organization coalition responded to Governor Newsom’s proposed budgets for the Climate Smart Agriculture programs with a call for more ambitious investments. Now, we are in the position of defending a bare bones budget for the Climate Smart Agriculture programs.

CalCAN-sponsored bills

Due to the constricted legislative session, we anticipate that a much-reduced number of bills will advance through the legislative process this year. Nevertheless, we continue to work on our two bills—AB 1071 (agriculture adaptation tools bill) and AB 2482 (bill to reform the water efficiency program SWEEP, carried over from last year), efforts which may carry into next year if needed.

Other bills

This year, several bills have been introduced that would advance climate goals for natural and working lands and develop pathways for achieving those goals, including carbon neutrality (SB 1323, Senator Skinner; AB 2954, Assemblymember Rivas; AB 2832, Assemblymember C. Garcia). CalCAN will continue to support and inform these efforts, laying the groundwork for next year should they be delayed because of the truncated legislative process this year.

Promoting Healthy Soils Program participation

A record amount of money is available through the Healthy Soils Program this year ($25 million). We are using a variety of strategies and partnerships to conduct farmer outreach in advance of the June 26 deadline. Help us get out the word to farmers and ranchers with information available here.

Healthy soils and racial justice platform

As a member of a coalition of environmental justice and sustainable agriculture organizations, CalCAN is collaborating on a healthy soils platform that puts farmers of color and impacted communities of color at the center. More information on this process will be available later in 2020, and will be valuable for informing the process and substance of CalCAN’s policy work.

Federal policy

We continue to play a leadership role in federal climate and agriculture policy through our membership in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). The Agriculture Resilience Act (Rep. Pingree, D-ME), recently introduced in Congress and supported by CalCAN, lays out a path to net zero emissions and enhanced resilience in the U.S. agriculture sector. We will keep working with NSAC to adapt strategies for advancing the bill in light of the current all-encompassing focus on federal COVID-19 relief.

Virtual communications and advocacy

Core to CalCAN’s success over the years has been engagement with our wide and diverse network of farmers and ranchers, agriculture professionals and technical assistance providers, scientists, advocates and food systems organizations and businesses. These partnerships amplify the message that the state should invest in the powerful tools farmers and ranchers have for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and storing carbon. We typically organize farm tours and meetings with legislators to create a space for their constituents to share stories and ask for support. We organize and attend conferences, field days, strategy meetings and briefings. As so many are doing at this time of physical distancing, we are getting creative and honing our skills for virtual outreach, education and partner mobilization, and are shifting to virtual meetings with policymakers.

Lessons can be learned from this acute global health crisis that have bearing on climate action. We believe that the most powerful tools for recovering from the pandemic—just as with climate action—will be those that have resilience, equity, health and a systems approach as core principles.

California has been a global leader in setting ambitious, science-based climate goals and allocating funds to programs that achieve it, including a suite of Climate Smart Agriculture grant programs that improve soil health, conserve water, protect farmland from sprawl and reduce methane emissions on dairies. We are seeing similar proactive leadership in California on bending the COVID-19 curve and advancing relief and recovery efforts. The imperative to attend to the pandemic while continuing the momentum on proactive climate change mitigation and adaptation will be a test of the state’s leaders.

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