What should Gavin Newsom discuss at UN meeting? Jerry Brown, climate activists have ideas

·5 min read

When he attends the United Nations climate change conference next week, Gov. Gavin Newsom will have a critical opportunity to convince world leaders to follow California’s model to reduce carbon emissions.

Although he’s not a national leader, he can still be influential by pointing to California’s success in transitioning from fossil fuels while maintaining a strong economy, said former Gov. Jerry Brown.

“He’s there to bring attention to the climate successes of California, showing we can have a very strong economy and a very vigorous climate action program,” Brown said.

If California were its own country, it would have the world’s fifth largest economy. The Golden State also enjoys a faster rate of economic growth than other large states, including Texas and Florida, a fact Newsom often brags about.

At the same time, California has some of the most stringent greenhouse gas regulations. It was the first state to implement a so-called cap and trade program, which caps overall carbon emissions across California’s economy and charges companies to pollute, a distinction environmentalists say puts the state ahead of others on its path to combat global warming.

President Joe Biden and other national leaders will drive the agenda at the conference in Glasgow, Scotland, which will run from Oct. 31 through Nov. 12. They’ll discuss progress on achieving their climate goals and set more ambitious targets to lower global emissions, in an effort to slow the pace of global warming.

But city and state leaders like Newsom will be important attendees at the conference, too, said Brown, who often met with other subnational leaders at international climate talks. As the governor of California, Newsom has the ability to be particularly influential.

“The decisions are all by the national leaders, but the subnationals also have to play a role,” Brown said. “Everyone who can needs to make an impact.”

On climate issues, Newsom came into office in the shadow of Brown, who has long had a reputation as a global leader in carbon reduction policy. Environmental advocates point to Brown’s extension of the Golden State’s landmark cap and trade program, the centerpiece of its emissions reduction policy, as a success.

Even with California’s groundbreaking environmental policies, the state still needs to do more to sufficiently reduce its emissions. Katelyn Roedner Sutter of the Environmental Defense Fund said California’s carbon emissions cap needs to be even lower, but she still said the policy “provides the greatest possible certainty of meeting our climate goals,” and puts California ahead of other states and many countries.

“California has demonstrated how to move from climate pledge to climate policy,” she said. “I really think the biggest contribution California can make right now is demonstrating how to do things.”

Building on California’s existing environmental policy, Newsom has set ambitious new goals for the state through executive action. Last year he signed an executive order calling for the state to phase out sales of new gas-powered cars by 2035 and this year tasked state agencies with banning fracking by 2024 and ending all oil extraction by 2045.

A number of obstacles face Newsom as he attempts to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions, including the challenge of cleaning up the state’s energy grid even as bureaucratic permitting delays and wildfires get in the way.

“It isn’t simply enough to adopt a target or a set of standards, they have to be met,” said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology. “We have a lot of work to do on implementation.”

The executive orders Newsom has signed must be coupled with action to reach the targets the governor has set. The Newsom administration is taking steps in that direction, including by reshaping the way his agencies respond to climate change and working to make them move more swiftly, White said.

BIg surpluses have allowed Newsom to use the state budget to fight climate change in ways Brown didn’t, said White, a longtime environmental lobbyist and former legislative staffer.

Last week, Newsom earned high praise from environmental activists, even ones usually critical of his climate policies, for proposing a rule to forbid new oil drilling within more than half a mile of neighborhoods.

Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity praised the proposed setbacks rule, but said Newsom needs to do more to limit oil drilling and fossil fuel consumption. She said she also hopes to see Newsom tighten restrictions on car emissions.

“Newsom’s going to the climate talks at a really scary time for Californians, from deadly wildfires and droughts, to atmospheric rivers and floods,” she said. “He has a critical role to play at this climate conference. He needs to go there with bold, transformative announcements.”

Heidi Harmon, the former mayor of San Luis Obispo who resigned earlier this year to work on climate advocacy, said she wants to see Newsom go much further than the setbacks rule and declare a state of emergency to swiftly end oil drilling altogether. She referenced Newsom’s action in 2004, when as mayor of San Francisco he drew national attention by issuing marriage licenses for gay couples when support for same-sex marriage wasn’t widely embraced by even Democratic politicians.

“I want to see him access the courage he had in 2004 when he married all of those gay couples,” Harmon said. “This piecemeal incremental stuff, it’s too late for that… You can just hear this clock ticking.”

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