“What does a promise and a pledge mean in the end? Nothing,” Schwarzenegger said Wednesday at an environmental justice conference hosted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. “It’s just over and over, year after year, they make these pledges. And they come out, they declare victory, but then nothing is getting done. And so this is what I’m worried about.”
California enters the conference with some clear climate wins. The state reached its 2020 goals to cut greenhouse gas pollution to 1990 levels four years early, scrubbed carbon from the electricity sector with ambitious renewable energy standards and led the nation with clean car rules.
But California is caught in a balancing act. Despite its climate-forward image, it is the seventh largest producer of crude oil in the country. And the state’s top clean air regulator has warned that California will need much greater cuts in greenhouse gas pollution to reach its goals, which the state auditor has also said California will fail to meet if it doesn’t pick up the pace.
Though hundreds of California local, state and federal candidates and politicians have taken the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, the executive board of the California Democratic Party voted last weekend to delay a decision and instead study whether to ban contributions from the fossil fuel industry and certain utility companies, including PG&E and Southern California Edison.
“It certainly sends a message that the party doesn’t care about climate change,” said RL Miller, a member of the Democratic National Committee and president of Climate Hawks Vote Political Action, who pushed for the vote.
Newsom has drawn criticism from environmental advocates for not doing more to curb oil and gas production, which disproportionately affects lower-income communities of color. Last week, however, he publicly backed tougher rules for oil and gas wells, a move environmental advocates applauded, after ordering a ban on new fracking by 2024.
“Newsom does have a habit of overpromising and under delivering. But I think he has a real opportunity at COP26 to be a transformative leader,” Miller said. “People will be listening to the speeches, but equally, listening for action.”
'You go because everybody else is going'
The Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP26, is part international negotiation, part political stage and part climate-palooza. Even with COVID-19 limits, about 190 world leaders and tens of thousands of others are expected to converge on Glasgow, starting Monday. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, however, pulled out at the last minute after a hospital visit.
The program lays out plenary sessions and mandated workshops, but also “innovative spaces and experiences” hosted by major corporations including Microsoft, Hitachi and the British grocery chain Sainsbury’s. Attendees can visit creative exhibits from local artists, and a showcase of electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles.
It’s like “a trade association meeting, where most of the people who work on these issues get together and get to see each other and talk to each other and reinforce each other,” Mary Nichols, the former California Air Resources Board chair, told CalMatters.
She has attended a half-dozen of them. “You go because everybody else is going, because it’s a good place to see people and follow up or create relationships,” Nichols said. “It’s a global problem, after all.”
This particular conference comes at a pivotal moment, six years after the landmark COP21 where 196 countries adopted the Paris Agreement. The international treaty is aimed at cutting planet-heating greenhouse gas pollution enough to limit global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius.
Global leaders have been hashing out the playbook for the Paris Agreement ever since, negotiating over the role of carbon markets in curbing climate change, how to spur further greenhouse gas cuts, and ensuring funding for developing countries to cover the costs of adapting to a warming world. Though developed nations pledged to contribute $100 billion per year by 2020, they appear to have fallen short.
“Paris set the destination — limiting warming well below 2 degrees, aiming for 1.5 degrees — Glasgow must make it a reality, ” the COP26 organizers wrote.
Under the Paris Agreement, governments around the world developed their own climate action plans to cut emissions. Many updated their pledges in the lead-up to the summit. But a new U.N. report says that the plans fall woefully short — leading to an increase in global greenhouse gas pollution that could cause temperatures to rise by about 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
“Overshooting the temperature goals will lead to a destabilised world and endless suffering, especially among those who have contributed the least to the [greenhouse gas] emissions in the atmosphere,” Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. climate change secretariat, said in a statement. “We are nowhere near where science says we should be.”
A changing landscape for the U.S. and California
Newsom may like to call California a nation-state, but as a subnational government, it doesn’t have an official role in the climate negotiations.
The state has, however, had an outsized voice in international discussions about global warming — providing a clear example that economic growth and cuts in carbon emissions can happen at the same time, in the same place. In 2015, Brown joined with the leaders of 11 other states and provinces, agreeing to limit global temperatures from climbing more than 2 degrees Celsius. The Under2 Coalition says it has since grown to include 260 governments.
When the Trump administration abandoned the Paris climate accord, Brown stepped in. As a de facto climate leader, he rallied states and regions at the international summit in 2017 — warning in an interview that “Trump better get on board or get out of the way.”
“The stakes for the COP itself are very high, because the U.S. is returning to the fold,” said Alex, Brown’s climate “concierge.” “California has been very steady for a long time. But in the four years of Trump, California stuck to its guns, its economy continued. And now, we have a lot of credibility worldwide.”
President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement almost as soon as he took office in January — pivoting the federal government into position as California’s climate ally, rather than its opponent.
As Biden prepares to leave for Europe today, he announced the “framework” for an agreement with fellow Democrats in Congress on a massive climate change and social services spending package that includes $555 billion in clean energy tax credits, incentives and climate resilience investments. That spending would “turn the climate crisis into an opportunity,” he said at the White House, by significantly reducing carbon emissions by 2030, growing the domestic clean energy industry, putting electric school buses on the road and promoting environmental justice.
“California’s leadership has been challenged in the last four years, but those headwinds now are tailwinds with the Biden administration. We’re not sparring partners, we’re working partners as it relates to issues of climate change and dealing with the challenges of wildfires,” Newsom said when Biden visited California in September to survey fire damage and show his support before the recall election.
All eyes should be on the U.S. and China, Brown said, calling everything else a “distraction.” Tensions between the two nations could hinder climate negotiations. “Without Xi Jinping and Biden being able to work together, then everything else will not succeed,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
Although he hasn't confirmed his attendance, Xi is widely expected to be a no-show.
“We’re not doing enough, and the national leaders, particularly China and the U.S., have to exert themselves and become more imaginative and do more,” Brown said. “The rest of the people are more cheerleading from the stands.”
He said the baton on climate change leadership has been passed from governor to governor, starting with Gray Davis, then Schwarzenegger, himself and now Newsom.
“Newsom is carrying the ball to the next level,” Brown said. “It’s been a continuous movement in the right direction, although not anywhere near where it needs to be to get the job done.”
California’s lawmakers have plans of their own for the meeting, including a session with members of the Scottish Parliament to discuss the subnational governments’ climate efforts, Wieckowski said. Many in the legislative contingent said they were eager to bring ideas home.
“This was not a good year for climate policy legislation in the Legislature, and I’m anxious to go and see what other people are doing, and get energized by their efforts — and see if we can’t bring it back to California,” said Sen. John Laird, a Democrat from Monterey and former natural resources secretary under Brown.
State Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat from Long Beach and chair of the Senate transportation committee, said her focus will be on clean transportation programs, the largest source of greenhouse gases in the state.