Gov. Gavin Newsom sharply criticized President Trump in front of foreign leaders Monday, using his first appearance on the international environmental stage to highlight how California is addressing climate change, in contrast to the federal government.
“I don’t know what the hell happened to this country that we have a president that we do today on this issue,” Newsom said to applause at the opening ceremony for Climate Week in New York. “Because it’s a damn shame. It really is. I’m not a little embarrassed about it — I’m absolutely humiliated by what’s going on.”
Those who are attending the United Nations Climate Action Summit and surrounding events in New York City said the proceedings would give many international leaders their first exposure to Newsom while allowing the governor to signal where he plans to take California’s pioneering initiatives to address climate change. Other countries are watching closely to see how he carries a torch of activism lit by his predecessors.
“The new governor is not a known commodity,” said Robert C. Orr, special advisor on climate change to the U.N. secretary-general and dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.
California is recognized as a world leader on climate policy, garnering continued interest from other nations for its work on emissions reduction, electric vehicles and renewable energy — an agenda that former Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger championed.
Brown’s shadow, in particular, looms large. A longtime climate activist, Brown quickly embraced the role of being the American antidote to Trump when the president announced the nation would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, a 2015 pact among nations worldwide to keep global warming below catastrophic levels.
On Monday, Brown launched the California-China Climate Institute at UC Berkeley, a partnership with China’s top climate change official, Xie Zhenhua, and the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University.
Newsom praised the former governor in comments to fellow dignitaries and said he intends to continue the state’s tradition as a climate leader.
“I’m here [in] a long line of Democrats and Republicans in the United States that come from the state of California, that get it and want to get it done,” Newsom said. “I’m very proud to be a new governor, replacing now, following Gov. Jerry Brown, who demonstrably has been leading in international efforts.”
But to some, Newsom needs to do much more than Brown when it comes to fossil fuels.
Nearly two dozen protesters stood outside the Monday morning event and demanded the governor ban fracking and oil drilling in the state. Newsom said his legal advisors believe he cannot ban fracking solely through executive order and that the California Legislature would have to approve such an action.
“As Californians, in order for anybody, even Gov. Newsom, to claim he’s a climate hero he needs to start at the heart of it, which is stopping oil extraction,” said Jean Su with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Su held up one end of a California state flag decorated with hand-drawn oil wells, which she said she carried in similar protests against Brown during a U.N. conference on climate change in Bonn, Germany, in 2017.
Less than an hour after speaking at the Climate Week opening ceremony, Newsom addressed the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, an international organization that seeks to build public-private partnerships to address global challenges. Then Newsom traveled to the U.N. headquarters, arriving shortly before Trump, and mingled with foreign dignitaries who had gathered there for the climate summit.
Thanks to Trump, the timing of the Newsom’s debut in New York couldn’t be better, said Ann Carlson, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law.
The governor and the California Air Resources Board, in perhaps his administration’s most significant action to address climate change to date, struck a voluntary agreement with four automakers in late July to strengthen fuel efficiency standards. The deal would result in about one-third of new cars and SUVs sold in the U.S. to reach a minimum of 50 mpg by 2026.
Trump countered last week and said he would rescind California’s waiver to set its own rigorous vehicle emission standards, which gave Newsom a spotlight to push back on the president and take the fight to court.
“As a way to bolster Gavin Newsom as a climate leader, it’s hard to imagine a better opportunity for him than having the great climate denier in the White House going after him and the state of California,” Carlson said. “Newsom is standing up to that and it’s giving him a real opportunity to do so right before Climate Week.”
The governor’s international spotlight may overshadow the fact that he’s been “embroiled in a controversy” back home over his decision to veto the Legislature’s marquee environmental policy of the year, Carlson said.
Senate Bill 1, authored by California Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), would have allowed the state to keep Obama-era endangered species protections and water pumping restrictions for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Newsom sided with water agencies that said the bill would have locked in outdated science on species protections and, as a result, threatened their water supply from the delta.
The governor sought to boost his environmental record ahead of the summit by signing an executive order that would encourage California’s public employee pension funds to focus on technologies and companies that mitigate climate change.
Newsom is scheduled to join governors from at least a half-dozen other states in the U.S. Climate Alliance at a news conference on Tuesday, before returning to the state on Wednesday.
“I want to take the baton and continue to move California’s leadership forward in the absence of national leadership on climate change and continue to express our desire to see more emulate the good work of California,” Newsom said.