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Business Owners View Greenhouse Gas Reduction as Cultural Imperative

by Leslie Berliant, Contributing writer

April 13, 2010 | 5:28 pm

In September 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), the Global Warming Solutions Act, regulating greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state. This year, the California Air Resources Board will adopt mechanisms to reduce those emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 — a 25 percent reduction — and 80 percent below that by 2050. Such landmark legislation puts California ahead of the country in combating climate change, but critics question whether it will be too expensive to a state already under economic stress.

A campaign to suspend implementation of AB 32, the California Jobs Initiative, is currently collecting signatures to qualify a measure for the November ballot that would suspend the law until the state reaches an unemployment level of 5.5 percent. The group, led principally by Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, has close to $1 million, 70 percent from Texas-based oil companies like Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., to qualify a ballot initiative. Californians for Clean Energy Jobs, a group supporting implementation, says AB 32 will create jobs and that suspension would effectively kill the law along with California’s thriving green jobs sector, one of the state’s few economic bright spots. Recent polls show that anywhere from 58 to 66 percent of Californians support the law’s implementation.

So do a number of Jewish business owners who see a connection between environmental protection and Jewish ideology. Michael Tanenbaum of The Oomph! Company, a strategic branding firm, explained that “as religious Jews, we say a blessing before and after we eat. Remember why we’re saying it; we’re borrowing something from this planet and we have to give something back. Everything is on loan to us.”

One of the main arguments against AB 32 is its economic impact, but studies citing high costs and job losses have been sharply criticized. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) went in search of an energy-intensive small business willing to open its books for UCS economists to conduct a study of the impacts of AB 32 on California’s more than 3 million small businesses. The Border Grill Restaurant in Santa Monica, owned by Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, was happy to volunteer. Feniger says they saw participating in the study as an opportunity to learn what changes they might make to increase their restaurants’ sustainability.

Inspired by their participation in an event at Monterey Bay Aquarium six years ago, Feniger and Milken have already been making changes, including switching to organic rice and beans, getting their customers off of bottled water, implementing recycling and composting programs, using biodegradable cleaning products, LED lights, Energy Star-rated appliances, putting in a water-saving vegetable cleaning system and using Forest Stewardship Council-certified materials in the construction of their most recent restaurant, Street.

The results of the UCS study showed that the impacts of the legislation on businesses like Border Grill, which uses more energy than most, will be negligible: an increase of .03 cent per every $20 a diner spends, assuming the restaurant does nothing more to become energy efficient. Feniger says it’s a minuscule amount, adding that AB 32 is worth implementing even if it were to cost more.

“This is what we need to be doing in order to move forward to save the environment and, in the long run, we’re going to save money. There’s almost no cost, and to not do this doesn’t make sense.”

Talking about Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman’s vow to suspend AB 32 on her first day in office, Feniger is unequivocal: “That would be a big step backward for the business community.”

Feniger says her interest in sustainability is tied to her identity. “I grew up with a Midwest Jewish father who was a great business man and taught us from the time we were young kids about the importance of giving back,” Feniger explained.

“Even though it isn’t costing us more, the bigger picture is what’s important: taking care of people, the environment and our lives,” she said. “Obviously in there is making money, but in there is also responsibility to people and the world ... being Jewish, being a woman, being a lesbian make me feel it’s critical that we stand up for the things that are important in our lives.”

Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism also sees links between Judaism and environmentalism. “Jewish tradition teaches that we all have the responsibility, as individuals, to do our part to confront the injustices we see in the world around us. None of us can solve this global problem alone, but all of us must be part of the solution.”

Susan Frank, executive vice president of Better World Group and coordinator for the California Business Alliance for a Green Economy, says that those companies on board with supporting AB 32 have a great opportunity to benefit, whether as innovators or by cost savings through increased efficiency. She recommends that small businesses embrace the legislation and start by researching and taking advantage of the energy efficiency incentives listed in the Cool California Small Business Tool Kit (coolcalifornia.org).

Frank also believes there are Jewish cultural ties to environmental stewardship. “I can suggest that in Judaism we don’t believe in heaven or hell. This is it. This is the life you lead. The notion that this is it, our only time on Earth, our only planet — somehow, that is part of our makeup. And if this is it, then we have to do what we can in the time we’re here to have an impact on these issues. It’s our cultural imperative,” she said.

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