California has long cast itself as a leader in the fight against global warming, with more solar panels and electric cars than anywhere else in the nation. But the state’s ambitious climate policies now face their biggest reckoning to date.
Voters are deciding whether to oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom before a Sept. 14 recall election. Many of the Republicans vying to replace Newsom want to roll back the state’s aggressive plans to curb its planet-warming emissions, a move that could have nationwide implications for efforts to tackle climate change given California’s influence as the world’s fifth-largest economy.
Under the rules of the election, Newsom would be removed from office if more than 50% of voters choose to recall him. If that happens, the governorship would go to whichever of the 46 replacement candidates on the ballot gets the most votes — even if that person does not win a majority.
Democrats have worried that Newsom could lose, although polling over the past week suggests that voters in the state have started rallying around him.
Polls say the leading Republican is Larry Elder, a conservative radio host who said in an interview that “global warming alarmism is a crock” and that he intends “to stop the war on oil and gas.” Another top candidate, Republican businessman John Cox, says California’s climate policies have made the state unaffordable for many. Also running is Kevin Faulconer, a former Republican mayor of San Diego, who oversaw the city’s first climate plan but has taken issue with Newsom’s approach.
“There’s the real potential for a huge shift in direction,” said Richard Frank, a professor of environmental law at UC Davis. “California has had substantial influence over the direction of climate policy both nationally and internationally, and that could easily wane.”
Under the past three governors — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown and Newsom — California has enacted some of the most far-reaching laws and regulations in the country to shift away from fossil fuels.
That includes a requirement that utilities get 100% of their electricity from clean sources like wind and solar power by 2045, regulations to limit tailpipe pollution from cars and trucks, and building codes that encourage developers to shift away from natural gas for home heating. California’s Legislature has ordered the state’s powerful air regulator, the Air Resources Board, to slash statewide emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
While California accounts for only a fraction of the nation’s emissions, it often serves as a testing ground for climate policy. Its clean electricity standard has been mirrored by states like New York and Colorado, and Democrats in Congress are now crafting a nationwide version.
Under the federal Clean Air Act, California is the only state allowed to set its own vehicle pollution rules. California’s rules have been adopted by 14 other states and have frequently pushed the federal government to ratchet up its own regulations.
But California has also struggled with the transition to cleaner energy and the effects of global warming. In August 2020, a record heat wave triggered rolling blackouts across the state, in part because grid operators had not added enough clean power to compensate for solar panels going offline after sunset. Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, has repeatedly had to switch off electricity to customers to avoid sparking wildfires.
As the top elected official in a state reeling from record-breaking drought and raging fires, Newsom has faced pressure to do more. Last September, he directed the Air Resources Board to develop regulations that ban sales of new gasoline-powered cars statewide by 2035. He has called on agencies to place new restrictions on oil and gas drilling. More recently, the state’s transportation agency finalized a plan to direct more funding to measures that would curb emissions, such as public transit or biking.
And in his most recent budget, Newsom directed more than $12 billion toward a spate of climate programs, including electric vehicle chargers, measures to deal with worsening water shortages and efforts to protect forest communities against wildfires.
In his campaign against the recall, Newsom has attacked his opponents for downplaying the risks of global warming. “With all due respect, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about when it comes to the issue of climate and climate change,” Newsom said of Elder in an interview last month with ABC News.
“California’s been in the vanguard of climate leadership, and all of that can be undone very quickly,” said Nathan Click, a spokesperson for Newsom’s campaign.
Cox and other Republican rivals say Newsom has not done enough to manage California’s forests to make them less fire-prone. They argue that the flurry of environmental regulations is driving up costs in a state that already faces a severe housing shortage.
“I’m all for cleaning up the world’s pollution, but not on the backs of the middle-class and low-income people,” said Cox, who ran unsuccessfully against Newsom in 2018. “When China’s building a new coal-fired power plant every week, do you really think driving up the cost of energy in our state is going to make an appreciable difference?”
If Newsom is recalled, a new governor would be unlikely to overturn many of California’s key climate laws, not least because the Legislature would stay in Democratic hands. But that still leaves room for major changes.
A new governor could, for instance, rescind Newsom’s order to phase out new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035 or his push to restrict oil and gas drilling, since those were issued by executive order. A governor could also appoint new officials who were less keen on climate regulation to various agencies, including the Air Resources Board, although doing so could set up a clash with the Legislature, which oversees appointments. Any governor would also have broad latitude in shaping how existing climate laws are implemented.
Elder said he did not see climate change as a dire threat and would de-emphasize wind and solar power. “Of course, global warming exists,” he said. “The climate is always changing. Has it gotten a degree or two warmer in the last several years? Yes. Is man-made activity a part of that? Yes. But nobody really knows to what degree.”
He added: “The idea that the planet is going to be destroyed if we don’t force-feed some sort of renewable system, that’s a crock.”
Elder’s view is at odds with the scientific consensus. Last month, a United Nations scientific panel concluded that virtually all of the global warming since the 19th century was driven by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. And it warned that consequences such as heat waves, droughts and wildfires would continue to worsen unless nations slashed their planet-warming emissions by shifting to cleaner sources of energy.
Instead of focusing on renewable power, Cox said he would build a bigger fleet of firefighting planes to combat wildfires. He also argued that the United States should increase its natural gas production and ship more of the fuel abroad, so that countries like China could rely on it instead of coal. “If we bring down the cost of natural gas and ship it to China, we’ll do wonderful things for the world’s pollution problem,” he said.
Cox also disagreed with Newsom’s plan to phase out new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. “I drive a Tesla, I’m all for electric cars,” he said. “But we’re already struggling to generate enough electricity for our air-conditioners in August,” he said. “Where are we going to get the electricity for 25 million electric vehicles?”
Faulconer, who is further down in the polls, criticized Newsom for underfunding the state’s wildfire budget. While he endorsed the state’s push for 100% clean electricity, he warned the state risked further blackouts without relying on sources like nuclear power. He also said he would work with the Legislature on a policy to boost electric vehicles “that does not rely on a statewide ban” of gasoline-powered cars.
All three Republican candidates said they would push to keep open Diablo Canyon, the state’s last remaining nuclear plant, which is set to close by 2025. Critics of the closure have warned it could exacerbate California’s electricity shortage and lead to the burning of more natural gas, which creates emissions.
Any new governor would serve only until California’s next election, in 2022, and some experts predicted that political gridlock would largely result. But even short-term gridlock could have a significant effect on climate policy.
California is already struggling to meet its target of cutting emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Hitting that goal, analysts said, would likely require all of the state’s agencies to work together, developing additional strategies to curtail fossil-fuel use in power plants, homes and vehicles. It could also require fixing the state’s cap-and-trade program, which caps pollution from large industrial facilities but has attracted criticism for relying on poorly designed carbon offsets.
“We don’t have many years left between now and 2030,” said Cara Horowitz, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law School. “If we waste a year or more because the Air Resources Board has been told not to prioritize cutting emissions, it’s a lot harder to see how we get there.”
That, in turn, could have ripple effects nationwide. President Joe Biden has pledged to halve the nation’s emissions by 2030 and is hoping to persuade other world leaders that the United States has a plan to get there. Without California on board, that task becomes tougher.
California also has an outsized influence over clean vehicle standards, in part because it can set its own rules and prod the auto industry to develop cleaner cars. The Biden administration recently proposed to essentially adopt California’s car rules nationwide. Some fear that if California is no longer pushing to ramp up electric vehicles, as Newsom has envisioned, the federal government will feel less pressure to act.
“I can’t think of a single instance where the federal government has moved ahead of California,” said Mary Nichols, the former chair of the Air Resources Board. “California has always had this unique role as a first mover.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.