California Dreamin’ of Climate Action by Newsom, But Will He Deliver?

California Dreamin’ of Climate Action by Newsom, But Will He Deliver?

By Steve Horn

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California is often hailed as a pioneer of climate change policy. It is also viewed as being on the front lines of the opposition to the Trump administration on many issues, including climate. Indeed, state officials often use the slogan ‘As goes California, so goes the nation.’

As California Governor Gavin Newsom approaches his first 100 days in office, he faces comparisons to previous California Governor Jerry Brown—who made climate change the focal point of his candidacy and his role as governor—and demands that he improve upon Brown’s record.

Newsom, who was previously the mayor of San Francisco and lieutenant governor under Brown, has also talked about the importance of climate change. But so far he has put more focus on other progressive causes such as a death penalty moratorium and investing in affordable housing.

As the mayor of San Francisco, however, Newsom scaled up usage of electric vehicles, moved the city toward mandatory waste composting, and advocated for a move to 100 percent renewable energy. And Newsom’s late father, Bill Newsom, formerly sat on the Board of Trustees for both the Environmental Defense Fund and Sierra Club.

On his campaign website, Newsom discussed the need for the state to take climate action, particularly given the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.

“Our state must remain at the forefront of environmental leadership as we tackle some of the planet’s greatest challenges,” the Newsom campaign site reads. “The impacts of climate change are already being felt today. Our state has faced a devastating drought, damaging wildfires, and deadly mudslides … Despite these challenges, California will continue to lead the nation and the world in clean energy, conservation, and the fight against climate change.”

Newsom is already being compared to Brown, who was seen as an outspoken climate advocate, especially in the age of Trump.

When Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, Brown led an alliance of localities and companies vowing to uphold its goals anyway. Brown also convened another alliance of states in suing the Trump administration for rolling back auto emissions standards. He also began a statewide cap-and-trade program in 2013, and signed over a dozen bills to increase the use of electric cars.

Professional environmental advocates told The Real News Network that they hope Newsom will advance—and expand—upon Brown’s legacy.

“I’m optimistic. He did some excellent things as lieutenant governor, and in his lieutenant governor capacity he was on the State Lands Commission,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “He said some terrific things about the age of fossil fuels being over and the need to get out of the boom and bust economy of fossil fuel production.”

Kathryn Phillips, director of the California Sierra Club, shares Siegel’s optimism. Her organization endorsed Newsom for governor.

“I think that we’re going to see that California and the California Legislature, and certainly the California governor based on things he’d said so far while he was campaigning and his actions while he was the lieutenant governor, going to remain very committed to addressing climate change,” Phillips told The Real News. “I think we’ll also see an expansion of regulatory action.”

Despite Brown’s reputation, many climate advocates criticized him for propping up the California oil industry—an industry with which he maintained cozy relations. Phillips hopes that Newsom will serve as less of an ally to the oil and gas industry.

“One of the things that Jerry Brown was very bad at was addressing oil supply,” said Phillips. “He did everything he could to sidestep that part of addressing climate change. And in fact, under his administration there was a pretty aggressive development of new oil wells or permitting and new oil wells and the like. And I don’t think we’re going to see that aggressive, new permitting going forward.”

Brown’s administration issued permits on 21,000 new oil wells. He was able to do so, in large part, because of the state’s cap-and-trade policy. The policy allows industry to trade in carbon emission allowances for financing of cleaner, less greenhouse gas-intensive infrastructure projects. Critics have said the program allows the fossil fuel industry to continue polluting without putting a dent in emissions.

“It provides the illusion that something is being done about climate while the reality is that the biggest sources of fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions maintain and even increase their carbon pollution,” said Gary Hughes, the California policy monitor for the advocacy group Biofuelwatch.

Yet Newsom praised cap-and trade in his Jan. 7 inaugural address.

“Where Washington failed on the epochal challenge of climate change, California led, extending our cap-and-trade system and setting bold targets for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, then beating them,” he said.

On the campaign trail in 2018, though, Newsom said he is more inclined to support a carbon tax, though he has yet to propose one. Many environmental advocates favor a carbon tax over cap-and-trade because they say it ups the cost of doing business for greenhouse gas emitters, accelerating an eventual phaseout.

During the campaign, Newsom promised to rapidly scale up renewable energy starting on day one of his term.

“On his first day in office, Gavin will issue a directive putting California on a path to 100% renewable energy. It’s achievable and it’s necessary,” his campaign website reads. “In fact, he believes that we can surpass our 100% goal by positioning California as a net exporter of energy to other states and nations … We will continue to diversify our energy supply, increasing our output of green alternatives like solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and ocean-based energy, all the while improving our energy efficiency through stronger green building standards, construction codes, and efficiency standards for electronics and appliances.”

In 2018, Jerry Brown signed SB-100, which calls for electricity generators to “supply 100 percent of all retail sales of electricity to California end-use customers and 100 percent of electricity procured to serve all state agencies by December 31, 2045.”

According to the California Energy Commission, 34 percent of the state’s energy came from renewable energy sources in 2018. But to date, Newsom has yet to introduce any new policies aimed at getting that figure to 100 percent. As his climate plans materialize and the 63 bills proposed by the California Legislature which mention “climate change” work their way through the amendments and hearings processes, some grassroots climate justice groups in California have moved beyond the waiting game.

A March 27 letter to Newsom from over 120 national and statewide environmental justice organizations called for the governor to phase out of both fossil fuel production and infrastructure.

“Adopting such a platform is ambitious, but it is also what is required to avoid worsening climate change supercharged disasters. It would also put California at the top and clearly out in front as the leading state on climate change,” said the letter. “As our new governor, you have an opportunity to provide this leadership not just for California, but for the nation.”

The Real News Network’s Climate Crisis Bureau will examine California’s climate policy debates in an investigative and explanatory forthcoming series tackling a spectrum of issues, including including onshore and offshore oil drilling, tropical forest offsets and cap-and-trade, city-level Climate Action Plans, electric vehicles, the state’s ports, and more.

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Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.