Newsom will announce new plans for a satellite to track climate change

Weather satellite
Gov. Gavin Newsom plans to launch a satellite to track greenhouse gas emissions. Above, a weather satellite in a NASA image.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown famously said last year that California would launch its “own damn satellite” to track climate change in defiance of the Trump administration. On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom will announce a new approach and way to pay for it.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by climate activist and former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, pledged to spend an undisclosed sum to help the state use satellite data to track the emission of greenhouse gases. The funding will allow Planet Labs, a San Francisco-based Earth-imaging company, to use its existing satellites and launch new ones to quantify emissions from all over the world and the state’s progress toward its climate goals.

The partnership, which is expected to be unveiled Wednesday at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York, is part of what Newsom describes as his most important job in fighting climate change: ensuring California meets the environmental targets set by his predecessors.


“There’s not much ambition to ramp up,” Newsom said during a panel discussion Tuesday with other governors. “We’re at 100% everything.”

Newsom spent the early part of the week in New York to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit and surrounding events, at which leaders from all over the world met to discuss their work to combat global warming. He loudly criticized President Trump, saying his efforts would set the nation’s progress back, drawing applause from foreign officials.

The new governor took advantage of the international stage to reinforce California‘s position as a climate leader, giving credit to Republicans and Democrats who held the office before him. During each news conference, panel and speech, Newsom reiterated a sober warning that California’s road ahead won’t be easy.

“Most of the what and why has been accomplished,” he told The Times before walking onto the floor of the U.N. General Assembly. “This is all about application. This is all about implementation.”

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, laid the foundation for the state’s cap-and-trade program, which requires companies to buy permits to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Under Brown, the state set bold goals to slash emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and generate 100% of the state’s retail electricity from renewable sources by 2045. Recent polls from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California show that more than two-thirds of adults in California support the policies.


“It’s both herculean and an imminently doable task,” said Aimee Barnes, Brown’s policy advisor on climate. “We set a lot of aspirational goals in the Brown administration and prior administrations. The point of a goal is to give a North Star, to give some direction to where we need to be headed. I think if anyone can do it, it’s California.”

In a report issued last month, air quality regulators hailed the state’s shift toward renewable energy, which contributed to a 1% decline in overall greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. But in order to meet long-term goals, the state will need to help pull more gas-guzzling cars and trucks off the road and accelerate the pace of its programs.

“There is no greater challenge for California than addressing the transportation emissions, which are not only 40% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, but they are the one area of emissions that continue to rise over the last few years,” Newsom said.

The governor said the Trump administration poses a threat to the state’s progress. The president made headlines last week when he said the federal government would rescind the state’s waiver to set its own vehicle emissions standards. California filed a lawsuit against the administration over what Newsom says is an “existential” issue for its climate goals.

“There’s just no way we can reach our goal unless we are able to move forward with that waiver and the provisions that it allows us,” Newsom said.

Other countries are watching California’s programs because of the size of the state’s economy and the scope of its ambitions, said Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University.


“We’re kind of a planetary laboratory for how you have a successful, wealthy state ... and cut emissions really dramatically,” Wara said. “What is the model for doing that? It’s something we delivered on somewhat over the last decade, but boy are we going to have to bend the curve.”

Bloomberg said the satellite data will give California and other governments another powerful tool to fight climate change. According to the philanthropist’s organization, the initiative will focus on analyzing emissions from coal plants, exploring new technology to detect methane and carbon dioxide and developing new tools toward conservation.

“Data is a powerful tool for tackling climate change, and this new partnership is a great example of what’s possible when business and government work together,” Bloomberg said. “Gov. Newsom and his team have been strong leaders on climate change, and this will be another way they can help America make progress — even without any help from Washington.”

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, described the satellite project as an expansion of Brown’s idea, which he announced at his own Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. The state has planned to partner with Planet Labs since last year.

“I think it’s grown into something bigger,” Nichols said. “Newsom’s sort of taken it over, and one of the things he’s doing with it is making sure it is not just about methane, but we use it to gather other kinds of data about California’s land and natural resources.”

Times staff writer Tony Barboza contributed to this report.