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Newsom and New Zealand PM Ardern talk climate in San Francisco

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stopped off in San Francisco to appear with California Governor Gavin Newsom and emphasize their shared commitment to tackling problems related to climate change.

(CN) — California Governor Gavin Newsom met with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in front of a Pohutukawa tree in San Francisco’s sprawling botanical gardens to discuss a formal agreement to combat climate change. The tree blooms red around Christmas and is an important symbol for all New Zealanders, including the Maori. 

It presented a fitting backdrop to Friday’s event, which was more campaign glitz than substance as no formal cap and trade relationship was in the offing. Instead, the leaders touted a business deal signed between a merino wool company — one of New Zealand’s biggest exports — and a California company looking to reduce emissions in the island country’s pastures. 

Both leaders have come under varying degrees of pressure during their respective implementations of Covid-19 restrictions but used the well-attended press event to espouse their shared values. 

“Pushing harder and farther is still what California and New Zealand is trying to do when it comes to the crisis of climate change,” Ardern said in her brief comments on a cloudy late morning in San Francisco. 

Newsom, too, talked of California’s leadership in dramatically cutting vehicle emissions and other efforts to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

Ardern is touring the United States, having delivered the commencement speech at Harvard University and appeared on The Late Show with Steven Colbert this week. An appearance in Washington D.C. slated for next week and a meeting with President Joe Biden remains a hoped-for possibility at this point, according to members of her staff. 

Ardern is keen to boost exports and encourage tourism to New Zealand, where borders were closed for a little more than two years in a mostly successful effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading among its population. But with vaccines widely available in the country, New Zealand, like California and much of the world, has begun to turn its attention to addressing economic problems like inflation and helping restore ravaged industries like tourism and the hospitality industry. 

But both officials mostly talked about their shared environmental goals and reiterated their belief that climate change presents an existential threat. 

“Climate change is a crisis for you, it is a crisis for us,” Ardern said, noting the east coast of New Zealand sustained five severe weather events last year, two of which were described as 100-year events. 

Ardern said New Zealand is the first country to begin pricing in carbon emissions related to the agriculture industry, while Newsom talked about California's progress on vehicle emissions and the state’s role in the blossoming electric vehicle industry. 

Perhaps the most controversial moment in the press conference came when Newsom refused to name Tesla, instead, calling it “the company that starts a T.”

“There are plenty of others right behind them and that are looking to replace them,” Newsom said of the company that moved its headquarters from California to Texas. “This market is about to get particularly competitive, and maybe it’s a little analogous to what happened to Netflix.”

Newsom has treaded carefully in the past in criticizing Tesla and Elon Musk, who is out of favor generally with liberals for criticizing modern Democrats and for saying that California’s struggles are related to its status as a “one-party state.”

Even after Musk left California, Newsom has been quick to heap praise on him, calling him “extraordinary” in recent interviews. But on Friday, he repeated some Wall Street talking points about how Netflix got out to a big start in the streaming world but has lately taken a hit as other companies like Disney and HBO have caught up and provided fierce competition. 

Tesla could be facing a similar dynamic as Ford and GM join upstart companies like Lucid and Rivian in providing more competition in the electric vehicle space, Newsom intimated. 

Ardern, for her part, stayed clear of such controversies. When asked to weigh in on the latest horrific school shooting on American soil, particularly as she rose to prominence by pushing through gun control legislation after the 2019 mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, left 51 dead and dozens more injured, she demurred. 

“When it comes to issues like gun reform, New Zealand has had its own experience and I can only reflect on that,” she said. “We were confronted with a horrific event and it was clear that the New Zealand public expected its politicians to find solutions and quickly.”

She did deliver more forceful comments about the necessity of gun control during her speech at Harvard, however.

America’s polarization makes such swift action more difficult on a national level, although Newsom and the California Legislature have promised decisive action on more gun control legislation in the coming weeks and months. 

According to members of the New Zealand press who travel with the prime minister, Ardern’s star has fallen a bit in her native country with more voters wanting more action on issues like child poverty. There is a general feeling that while her rhetorical skills, which were on fine display Friday afternoon, are formidable, she needs to be more active in solving her nation's problems.

Those recriminations are parallel to criticisms Newsom has endured as of late. 

But both politicians enjoy support among their base and it would be a surprise if both aren’t safely re-elected to their respective positions, Newsom in November, and Ardern in 2023. 

In the meantime, both leaders used Friday’s event to burnish their climate credentials and tout a partnership that will look to reduce emissions in the agricultural and transportation sectors.

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