Q&A with “Coastal Sage” author Tom Osborne

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Q&A with “Coastal Sage” author Tom Osborne

By Breene Murphy

At Citizens’ Climate Lobby, we are on the brink. 2017 saw the blooming Climate Solutions Caucus, rapidly growing membership, and increased awareness—all bolstered by volunteer efforts and fantastic leadership from the CCL team.

But we still haven’t accomplished our major goal of passing a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend. For those who, like me, wonder about the next steps ahead of us, you may be searching for comparable stories to help prepare. One such story is a recently released book called “Coastal Sage: Peter Douglas and the Fight to Save California’s Shore” written by fellow CCLer and historian Tom Osborne.

From the book’s description:

“Coastal Sage” chronicles the career and accomplishments of Peter Douglas, the longest-serving executive director of the California Coastal Commission. For nearly three decades, Douglas fought to keep the California coast public, prevent over-development, and safeguard habitat. In doing so, Douglas emerged as a leading figure in the contemporary American environmental movement and influenced public conservation efforts across the country.

This revelatory book provided so much insight for CCLers that I asked the author if he wouldn’t mind an interview. Our exchange is below, edited for length and clarity.

Breene Murphy, CCL: People think of California as an environmentally friendly state now, but can you describe the opposition Peter Douglas faced in helping to create the Coastal Act and the Coastal Commission?

Tom Osborne: Formidable, monied, and politically powerful in Sacramento. That’s the short answer to your question.

There is a tendency among us to read history backward, that is, to think that what has happened was inevitable, or had to happen. Part of my job as an historian is to show that contingency has always been present; in other words, California was not fated to become America’s leading environmental state, and Proposition 20 (creating a temporary Coastal Commission) and the Coastal Act (1976, creating a permanent Coastal Commission) came close to failing, as my book shows.

Just look at the coalition of oil companies, utilities, and developers who opposed Proposition 20 (p. 68). The odds against passage were overcome due to the courage, resourcefulness, and sheer doggedness of citizen leaders (Ellen Stern Harris, Janet Adams, et al.) and a few legislators, like Alan Sieroty and James R. Mills (both of whom I interviewed), and Peter Douglas’s barnstorming for the measure up and down the coast.

My point is that failure was not only possible but likely, especially when we consider that coastal cities were governed by leaders who insisted on local rule—much like today. Reading history forward from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil rig blowout, rather than backward from today, makes readily apparent that passage of Proposition 20 and the later California Coastal Act required an all-out effort from environmental activists and their supporters in Sacramento and elsewhere.

In 20/20 hindsight, we can look back from today and think how environmentally enlightened both measures were and California is, but I hope readers of “Coastal Sage” will learn what it took to make statewide regulation of our coast a reality. And even after passage of Proposition 20 and the California Coastal Act, along came Governor George Deukmejian in the 1980s who tried his best to dismantle the whole apparatus of statewide regulation of our shore. So the opposition continued and continues to this day even as the California Coastal Commission is world-renowned as a governmental land use regulatory agency.

BM: For the drama of the book, that’s what was enjoyable, to witness the struggle to overcome those huge obstacles. And I loved that you repeatedly called to attention the citizen leaders as well. On page 42, you had a quote that caught my attention. “While a global countercultural youth movement provided the historical context out of which the environmentalism of the sixties arose, those who worked for the preservation of nature and public access to it were for the most part mainstream Californians who worked (very effectively) through the existing political system.” Did that strike you as similar to our Citizens’ Climate Lobby members?

TO: Yes, I see some important similarities between the modern coastal conservation movement and CCL, and at least one important difference. Regarding the similarities, both movements grew out of a perceived public need to have government address an environmental issue. In both movements, participants have come from a fairly well-educated and highly motivated base of adherents. Both movements championed passage of significant government legislation. Both movements clearly work within the existing system of governance relying on education and persuasion and eschewing violence.  

The major difference I see between the two groups is that Coastal Commission advocates envisioned a major, ongoing regulatory role for government (establishing a powerful land use commission) in order to save the seaboard from overdevelopment and for public access, while CCL seems to stress a free market strategy (fee and dividend) to solve the climate crisis.

BM: So what was it about Peter Douglas’ ongoing fight after the passage of the Coastal Act that we CCLers should heed?

TO: Until his dying days, Peter Douglas famously and repeatedly warned: “The coast is never saved, it is always being saved.” In short, public vigilance and consistent involvement in the political process are necessary to effect meaningful change aimed at preserving California’s shore. Similarly, passage of a law, in itself, is necessary but not sufficient to solve the climate crisis.  

Just as the 1976 Coastal Act has been nearly constantly attacked by monied interests and property rights groups, I suspect that if/when Congress enacts a fee and dividend law, monied interests (the fossil fuel industry) will do their utmost to undermine enforcement of the measure. CCLers will need to remain active and involved in the political process, constantly monitoring the implementation of fee and dividend.

BM: Thank you so much, Tom, and see you at the next CCL meeting!

Breene Murphy is the CCL liaison for Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and the co-leader for the Orange County Coast Chapter. He also sits on the board for University of Southern California's Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies and is the Director of Client Experience for EP Wealth Advisors. An avid surfer, Breene lives in Laguna Beach, CA with his wife Alexandra.