Energy & Environment

Gavin Newsom plants flag on climate, spurring 2024 chatter

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is positioning himself and his state as a national leader on climate issues amid speculation of a possible 2024 White House bid.

Newsom, even as the Biden administration is increasingly stymied by the Supreme Court and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), hopes to show how the Golden State can lead the way on tackling climate change while Washington is in a quagmire.

Newsom’s state budget package, unveiled in January, included $22.5 billion to combat climate change. In May, he revised the proposal to add another $9.5 billion.

Newsom also spearheaded the state’s strictest-in-the-nation tailpipe emissions standards through a legal standoff with the Trump administration, which attempted to repeal a federal waiver allowing the rules. The waiver was restored this year by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan. 

California leading the way on green issues is nothing new, but Newsom has a unique chance to carve out a role for himself at a time when Democrats are increasingly looking for choices beyond President Biden.

“Under previous governor Jerry Brown, California was a beacon of climate leadership at a time when we lacked it at the national level under the previous administration,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told The Hill in an email. “Here Newsom is working with the administration to advance the cause of climate action, and the California tailpipe emissions standards are a good example of that. California is setting an example that other states will hopefully follow.” 

A number of states have voluntarily adopted California’s tougher emissions standards, most recently Virginia under former Gov. Ralph Northam (D).  

Newsom also has been one of the most public Democratic critics of the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia v. EPA, in which the high court ruled the Obama-era Clean Power Plan was not legally authorized as a method of regulating power plant emissions.  

California has “historically been the one that responds most aggressively” among the states on climate issues, Severin Borenstein, faculty director of the Energy Institute at Haas at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Hill in an interview.  

Under Newsom, “we’re doing it again with everything from grid decarbonization to electric vehicles to decarbonizing buildings,” Borenstein said, as well as local initiatives like moving to ban natural gas hookups. 

Since the Supreme Court’s decision, Newsom has increasingly framed his state as a bulwark against inaction at the federal level.

“While the court has once again turned back the clock, California refuses to go backward — we’re just getting started,” Newsom said after the decision. “California will remain the tentpole for this movement with record investments and aggressive policies to reduce pollution, to protect people from extreme weather, and to leave our children and grandchildren a world that’s better off than we found it.” 

California, a state where gas prices jumped to $6 and $7 per gallon in some locales earlier this summer, plans to phase out oil production in the state by 2045. The state, which would have the world’s fifth-largest economy if it were a country, has also formed a number of international climate partnerships under Newsom, including collaborations with Canada, New Zealand, Japan and China.  

At the federal level, chances of taking action on climate change took a serious hit last week when Manchin announced he would not support climate provisions in a reconciliation package.

Newsom hasn’t been explicit in suggesting a 2024 run for the White House, but if Biden does not run he will immediately be seen as a possible contender along with Vice President Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D).

In addition to his public actions on climate change, Newsom has thrown red meat to the Democratic base with a TV ad blasting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

Newsom called the suggestion that the ad, which aired in Florida, was a prelude to a presidential bid “nonsensical” last week during a visit to the White House, saying he was inspired by DeSantis’s threat to penalize the Special Olympics over vaccine mandates. 

Newsom has repeatedly cast his state, which holds a Democratic legislative supermajority, as a model for concrete action.

“A lot of jurisdictions talk a good game. They put out headline grabbing pronouncements of ‘We’re going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 20-fill-in-the-blank’ as a substitute for the hard work,” Newsom said in an January interview with CNBC

Whether he runs or not, the California governor is likely to remain a national figure in fights over environmental regulation — earlier this year, a coalition of Republican attorneys general, many of whom were plaintiffs in the West Virginia case, sued the EPA over the emissions waiver, arguing it violated the legal doctrine of equal protection.  

Borenstein called the pending lawsuit “a real worry,” adding “this Supreme Court seems to think that it can sort of dance on both sides of the federal-state divide depending on what public policy it wants to endorse, rather than with a real constitutional basis.” In its most recent term, the court issued opinions both curtailing state’s authority to restrict gun ownership and overturning Roe v. Wade, which barred states from banning abortion.  

At the end of the day, Borenstein said, “as much as it’s great that I think California is continuing to push ahead, and we’ll never substitute for federal action is where we still need to address climate change.” 

Tags Biden California Climate change Gavin Newsom Gavin Newsom Jerry Brown Joe Biden

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