California Gov. Gavin Newsom is putting his state on a much more aggressive path to slash emissions.
Newsom, a Democrat, isn't waiting for his state's legislature to act. He's using his executive authority to set new climate mandates, putting California leaps and bounds ahead of most other states, the federal government, and even other countries.
The policies are earning him early praise from environmentalists who, though wishing he'd take a stronger stance on fossil fuels, say Newsom's actions are a down payment on what California must do to reduce its emissions to help slow global warming. That could ultimately give Newsom a leg up as he eyes national political ambitions as climate change is only likely to gain prominence as a priority issue for Democratic voters.
At the same time, Newsom's climate push has made him a target for conservative critics. Republican politicians, including President Trump, have blamed California's climate policies for jeopardizing the state's ability to keep the lights on. And they argue his focus on climate comes at the expense of better forest management that would alleviate wildfire risks.
As the state burns, California is facing a reckoning that what it's doing isn't enough to prevent the effects of climate change it's already facing.
“I do see this as a significant moment of leadership for the governor,” said Mary Creasman, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters. “He also doesn’t have a choice. Is California just going to completely burn up? Our leaders have a mandate right now.”
Five of California’s six largest wildfires have occurred this year, burning more than 4 million acres so far. Wildfire smoke has blanketed the West for weeks on end, worsening California’s already poor air quality. Parts of the state experienced their highest temperatures on record in August and September.
And amid of all that, California’s grid operator was forced to temporarily shut off the power for hundreds of thousands of residents in August as the state faced a severe heatwave.
Surrounded by charred trees and wildfire wreckage, Newsom told reporters on Sept. 11 that California must “fast-track” its efforts, already some of the most ambitious in the country.
“While it’s nice to have goals to get to 100% clean energy by 2045, that’s inadequate,” Newsom said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Across the entire spectrum, our goals are inadequate to the reality we’re experiencing.”
Less than two weeks later, Newsom announced an executive order requiring all new vehicle sales in the state to be zero-emissions by 2035, essentially banning new gas-powered car sales by that year. Two weeks after that, Newsom signed another executive order setting a goal to conserve 30% of California’s lands and coastal waters by 2030.
Newsom has also opened the door to supporting restrictions on fracking in California.
Newsom's most ambitious new actions are in the transportation sector, in which he hopes to accelerate a transition to electric cars. Transportation makes up California's biggest chunk of greenhouse gas emissions, roughly 40%, and contributes significantly to the state's air pollution problems.
The governor also sees an economic opportunity in electrifying transportation. In fact, California is "banking on" attracting technology innovation to help it reach its stronger climate goals, said Dallas Burtraw, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.
It wouldn't be the first time. California, with the strongest air pollution policies in the country, has often "jumped out of the airplane and tried to design the parachute on the way down," Burtraw said. In other words, the state has sometimes set a marker to cut emissions without first identifying all the details or technologies that will get it there. The state hopes the innovators will flock to it.
That strategy has already had some success. Electric cars are now one of the top exports from the state, said Bruce Nilles, executive director of the research firm Energy Innovation LLC.
It also doesn’t hurt that Newsom, when he signed his zero-emissions vehicle order, already boasted the support of a handful of automakers, including Ford.
“That showed me that he’d done his homework, he had reached out and had some dialogue with the affected industry, and I think that was smart,” said former Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis. He noted that when he signed California’s first tailpipe emissions standards when he was in office automakers fought him fiercely.
Nonetheless, California's test will be whether the state can put the policies, incentives, and infrastructure in place to meet its goals.
“California is going to be kind of an important bellwether for how effective conventional environmental progressivism can be at reducing emissions and driving major climate action,” said Alex Trembath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center.
“There are reasons to be very skeptical of how much progress we can make, given how hard it is to build things here,” Trembath added. That includes public transit, clean energy resources, electric transmission, electric vehicle chargers, and other infrastructure he said will be vital to California’s efforts but have been blocked by lacking government coordination and activist opposition at the local level.
Even without opposition, building out all the infrastructure California would need is, by itself, a daunting task. “It’s like building the transcontinental railroad. How do you get started doing it?” Burtraw said. “That’s what they’re trying to do with some of these mandates and directives.”
California already had a taste in August of the consequences when its infrastructure fails.
California’s energy agencies have chalked the blackouts up largely to climate change putting extreme stress on the grid and mismanaged resource planning, rather than the state’s increasing reliance on intermittent renewable resources. But the incident raises questions about whether California is prepared for a clean energy transition.
“I do believe we can respect our goals. I just am not sure that we’ve been honest about what that transition actually needs to look like,” said state Rep. Autumn Burke, a Democrat, during an Oct. 12 oversight hearing in California’s assembly on the blackouts. She and other lawmakers raised the alarm that California’s regulators weren’t feeling enough urgency to build out battery storage to support the state’s grid reliability.
Newsom will also have to grapple with staunch political opposition to his climate plans.
Oil industry groups have already sued over California regulations requiring all of the state’s new truck and bus sales to be zero-emission by 2045.
California's climate mandates can also impose additional costs on people and small businesses that weaken public support for the policies. It's trickier for state politicians to alleviate that financial burden amid the pandemic when budgets are tight, Burtraw said.
And perhaps Newsom’s biggest opponent would be Trump, who has tried repeatedly to block California’s efforts to push faster on climate. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has already sent a letter to California regulators suggesting Newsom’s vehicles executive order would be unlawful.
Who wins the November election will be pivotal for California’s plans because it determines whether Newsom has an ally or an adversary on climate.
“I grew up in California, and everybody I know is having very real questions right now [about] how do we survive this and what our future looks like," Creasman said. “The federal government has a huge responsibility in this because of their attempts to stop us from curbing our carbon emissions."