Gov. Newsom Abruptly Cancels Trip to UN Climate Conference

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Gov. Gavin Newsom with his hands up.
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference after meeting with students at James Denman Middle School on Oct. 1, 2021 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday abruptly canceled his trip to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, just two days before it begins, forgoing a much-anticipated chance to appear on an international stage devoted to one of his signature issues.

Newsom, who has four children ages 5 to 12, won't go because of “family obligations,” his spokesperson Erin Mellon said without elaborating. Instead, Newsom will participate virtually.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a fellow Democrat, will lead California's delegation to Glasgow, Scotland, in Newsom's place. In an interview with The Associated Press, Kounalakis said she spoke to Newsom on Thursday and had a sense she might be asked to go.

“The governor has a young family and we should all be understanding, especially those of us who have been there," said Kounalakis, who has two grown sons.

California has long been a global leader on climate issues, dating back to the 1970s when the federal government gave the state permission to set its own, tougher, emission standards for cars and trucks. While President Donald Trump was in office, California filed more than 100 lawsuits against the federal government, mostly over environmental issues.

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Newsom has sought to extend California's influence further through a series of ambitious executive orders, that should they survive a lengthy and contentious rule-making process, could fundamentally change how people live. So far, Newsom has proposed a bans on the sale of all new gas-powered cars in California by 2035, all oil drilling by 2045, and the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment by 2024 or whenever state regulators determine that is feasible.

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Most recently, Newsom proposed a ban on new oil and gas drilling within 3,200 feet of schools, homes and hospitals in what would be the largest buffer zone in the U.S. in a state that is the country's seventh-largest oil producer.

Newsom easily defeated a Republican-backed recall election last month that sought to remove him from office, solidifying his power in the nation's most populous state. Newsom's trip to Scotland would have been his most significant international trip as governor so far, providing him a global platform to highlight his agenda while pushing world leaders to do the same.

“Coming off after beating the recall, he’s got a buzz and of course he’s going to move on from governor to something else [someday]. It is a missed opportunity, so of course you have to think it’s something serious with his family,” said Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political science professor. “That’s what these events do, they give you good press at home.”

Newsom is up for reelection in 2022 and is a heavy favorite to remain in office for a second term. Under California law, governors are limited to two terms.

Newsom had only recently decided to attend the conference, which starts Sunday, sending staff, media organizations and other lawmakers scrambling to prepare for the trip without much notice. His decision not to go was equally abrupt and more surprising.

“I don’t think we want to read something into it,” said state Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, who is attending the conference. “My sense is the person who’s probably most disappointed that he’s not going is Gavin Newsom, because I don’t think I’ve ever walked into his office without him talking about climate change. He loves this issue, he cares about it a lot. It’s a big deal to him, and I’m sure he desperately wanted to go.”

Hertzberg credited Newsom for putting his children first, while noting that the governor’s plan to attend virtually has become far more common since it became all but standard during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nor will it be too costly politically, Hertzberg said.

“Maybe he might miss some photo ops that might be happening,” he said. “The fact that he’s there or not there doesn’t impact California’s importance in this discussion on the one hand, and certainly doesn’t impact the political aspects in California, where he has to get reelected in the primary and the general [election].”

“At some point, as much as we want to be out there in politics, you’re a human being. You’ve got to take care of your family,” Hertzberg said. And he’s doing it, and I think that’s a good thing.”