Follow our live updates on the California Recall election results, as well as Larry Elder and Gavin Newsom.
California has long been a leader in the fight against global warming, with more solar panels and electric cars than anywhere else in the country. But the country’s ambitious climate policy is now facing its greatest burden to date.
California voters decide whether to oust Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, before he is recalled on Sept. 14. Many of the Republicans vying to replace Mr. Newsom want to reverse the state’s aggressive plans to curb its global warming emissions, a move that, given California’s influence as the world’s fifth largest economy, has a nationwide impact on climate change efforts could.
Under the electoral rules, Mr. Newsom would be removed from office if more than 50 percent of the electorate were removed from office. In this case, the governorship would go to whoever of the 46 substitute candidates gets the most votes – even if that person does not get a majority.
Democrats have feared Mr Newsom could lose, despite polls last week suggesting that state voters have rallied around him.
According to polls, the Republican leader is Larry Elder, a conservative radio host who said in an interview that “global warming alarmism is a spasm” 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 priceless for many. Also running is Kevin Faulconer, a former Republican mayor of San Diego who oversaw the city’s first climate plan but contested Mr. Newsom’s approach.
“There is real potential for a huge change in direction,” said Richard Frank, professor of environmental law at the University of California, Davis. “California has considerable influence nationally and internationally on the direction of climate policy, and that could easily wear off.”
Under the last three governors – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown, and Mr. Newsom – California has enacted some of the most far-reaching laws and regulations in the country to move away from fossil fuels.
These include requiring utilities to get 100 percent of their electricity from clean sources like wind and solar by 2045, regulations to limit pollution from exhaust pipes from cars and trucks, and building codes encouraging developers to move away from natural gas for home heating. California lawmakers have ordered the state’s powerful aviation regulator, the Air Resources Board, to cut statewide emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.
California causes only a fraction of the country’s emissions, but 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 working on a statewide version.
The switch to electric cars
Under the federal Clean Air Act, California is the only state that can set its own vehicle pollution regulations. The California rules have been adopted by 14 other states and have often pushed the federal government to tighten its own rules.
But California is also grappling with the transition to cleaner energy and the effects of global warming. Last August, a record heatwave sparked rolling blackouts across the state, in part because grid operators hadn’t added enough clean power to compensate for the solar panels that shut down after sunset. Pacific Gas and Electric, the state’s largest utility company, has had to repeatedly turn off electricity for customers to avoid forest fires.
As the chief elected official in a state plagued by record-breaking drought and raging fires, Mr. Newsom was under pressure to do more. Last September, he directed the Air Resources Board to develop regulations banning sales of new gasoline-powered cars nationwide by 2035. He called on the authorities to introduce new restrictions on oil and gas drilling. Recently, the state transportation agency finalized a plan to allocate more funds to mitigation measures such as public transportation and cycling.
And in his most recent budget, Mr. Newsom allocated more than $ 12 billion to a range of climate programs, including chargers for electric vehicles, measures to address worsening water scarcity, and efforts to protect forest communities from forest fires.
In his campaign against the recall, Mr. Newsom 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 climate change and climate change,” Newsom said of Mr. Elder in an interview with ABC News last month.
“California has been at the forefront of climate leadership and it can all be reversed very quickly,” said Nathan Click, a campaign spokesman for Mr. Newsom.
Mr. Cox and other Republican rivals say Mr. Newsom hasn’t done enough to manage California’s forests to make them less prone to fire. They argue that the flood of environmental regulations is driving up costs in a state that is already experiencing severe housing shortages.
“I’m all for eliminating the world’s pollution, but not on the backs of the middle class and low-income people,” said Cox, who ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Newsom in 2018. “When China fires a new coal power plant every week, do you really think that increasing energy costs in our state will make a noticeable difference?”
If Mr. Newsom is removed from office, a new governor is unlikely to overturn many of California’s key climate laws, not least because the legislature would remain in the hands of the Democrats. But that still leaves room for big changes.
For example, a new governor could overturn Mr Newsom’s order to phase out new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, or his push to restrict oil and gas wells as they were enacted by executive order. A governor could also appoint new officials less interested in climate regulation to various agencies, including the Air Resources Board, although doing so could conflict with the legislature overseeing the appointments. Each governor would also have a great deal of leeway in shaping the implementation of existing climate laws.
Talk radio host Mr Elder said he did not see climate change as a serious threat and would place less emphasis on wind and solar energy. “Of course there is global warming,” he said. “The climate is constantly changing. Has it got a degree or two warmer in the last few years? Yes sir. Does it include man-made activity? Yes sir. But nobody really knows to what extent. “
He added, “The idea that the planet will be destroyed unless we force-feed some kind of renewable system is a blast.”
Mr. Elder’s view contradicts scientific consensus. Last month, a United Nations scientific panel concluded that virtually all global warming since the 19th century was caused by human activities such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation. And it warned that consequences like heat waves, droughts and forest fires would worsen if nations did not reduce their global warming emissions by switching to cleaner energy sources.
Instead of focusing on renewable energy, Cox said he would build a larger fleet of fire-fighting planes to fight forest fires. He also argued that the United States should increase its natural gas production and ship more fuel overseas so that countries like China could use it instead of coal. “If we cut the cost of natural gas and ship it to China, we will do wonderful things for the world’s environmental problem,” he said.
Mr. Cox also contradicted Mr. 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 struggling to generate enough electricity for our air conditioning in August,” he said. “Where do we get the electricity for 25 million electric vehicles from?”
Mr Faulconer, who is lower in the polls, criticized Mr Newsom for underfunding the state’s forest fire budget. While supporting the state’s pursuit of 100 percent clean electricity, he warned that the state could risk further blackouts without relying on sources like nuclear power. He also said he would work with lawmakers on a policy to promote electric vehicles “that is not based on a nationwide ban” on gasoline-powered cars.
All three Republican candidates said they would push to keep Diablo Canyon, the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant slated to close by 2025, open. Critics of the shutdown have warned that doing so could exacerbate California’s electricity shortage and result in the burning of more natural gas, which is causing emissions.
Any new governor would only be in office until the next California election in 2022, and some experts predicted that a political deadlock would largely result from it. But even a short-term traffic collapse could have a significant impact on climate policy.
California is already struggling to meet its target of reducing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. To achieve this goal, all government agencies would likely need to work together and develop additional strategies to limit the use of fossil fuels in power plants, homes and vehicles. It could also require setting the state’s cap-and-trade program, which limits pollution from large industrial plants but has drawn criticism for relying on poorly designed carbon offsets.
“We don’t have many years until 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 was told not to prioritize reducing emissions, it will be much harder to see how we can get there.”
That in turn could have nationwide effects. President Biden has promised to cut the country’s emissions in half by 2030 and hopes to convince other world leaders that the United States has a plan to get there. Without California on board, this task will be more difficult.
California also has an overwhelming influence on clean vehicle standards, in part because it can set its own rules and stimulate the auto industry to develop cleaner cars. The Biden government recently proposed adopting California’s car rules essentially nationwide. Some fear that if California stops pushing to ramp up electric vehicles, as Mr. Newsom has envisioned, the federal government will feel less pressure to act.
“I can’t think of a single case where the federal government overtook California,” said Mary Nichols, former chairman of the Air Resources Board. “California has always had this unique role as a first mover.”
Shawn Hubler contributed to the coverage.