For a Sacramento administration unaccustomed to failure, the end of the state’s legislative session had an air of unique disappointment. An effort backed by Governor Jerry Brown and sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D–Los Angeles, to combat climate change by giving the California Air Resources Board the authority to cut the amount of gasoline used in the state by 50 percent by the year 2030 failed thanks to a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats.

Supporters of the emissions target that was once part of Senate Bill 350 are now in search of an explanation for their failure. At a press conference after the fact, the governor spoke grimly about the influence of “big oil,” while the Senate pro tem claimed that special interests defeated the reduction target not on the strength of their ideas, but on the strength of their bank accounts.

Such accusations are not new, and neither is their cause. In a state in which environmental activists are not accustomed to defeat, their previous success prevents them from contemplating an uncomfortable reality, or as former Vice President Al Gore would put it, “an inconvenient truth.”

Californians are not committed to a green-crusade at all costs; Californians are decreasingly committed to such green efforts as their direct and measurable personal costs increase significantly.

For instance, Californians have not risen against either the cap-and-trade system or restrictions on the sources of energy used by power plants. While costly, both obfuscate their pass-through costs indirectly via utility and other billings. Not unexpectedly, neither policy has sparked a meaningful electoral response. And yet, the prospect of a gasoline reduction target, achieved in a manner to be determined later by the CARB, which would leave residents poorer each-and-every time they visit the pump was enough to galvanize serious concern among the inland and rural constituencies that would carry a disproportionate burden of implementing that requirement.

The crux of the issue now confronting the governor and his legislative allies is that their political coalition is not broad enough to secure the majorities necessary to achieve their goals. Hyperbolic rhetoric about the nature of the threat posed by climate change – in other words, fear – simply does not provide impetus enough for those not already within their camp to bankroll their policy aims.

That is particularly true for those of us who are inclined toward free markets. For us, the S.B. 350 debate was a microcosm of the larger controversy surrounding how to address climate change.

There is a cognitive dissonance that exists between the rhetoric of an existential threat to humanity and the policy solutions that, conveniently, are virtually all tailored to expand the power of the state and to redistribute wealth. The worst part of this sort of cynical power grab in the name of saving the earth is that citizens, undoubtedly, will become increasingly skeptical and resistant to reasonable palliative environmental measures.

Climate change is a natural phenomenon and solutions to it are not the exclusive domain of a single political movement or ideology.

A free-market approach to addressing climate change would involve less government involvement, not more. It would involve fewer and more narrowly tailored taxes, not more. And it would rely upon the innovation that only individual agency can provide, not the coercive might of a purportedly expert state apparatus. Most importantly, a free-market approach would be far more effective in preserving the environment.

At bottom, if the goal of climate activists is really to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions they must do better than mandates and arm-twisting. If they do not, free-market voices and the constituencies which they seek to burden will continue to confound them.

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