‘Not the Time for Small Ball’: Climate Leaders Tout Ways to Lead California Through Crises

In this Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, a plume rises over a vineyard in unincorporated Napa County as the Hennessey Fire burns. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Leading 40 million residents through a brutal stretch of disease, death, wildfires and financial ruin, to Governor Gavin Newsom, the source of California’s summer of distress is obviously manmade. 

Newsom has spent much of his first term as governor leapfrogging calamities, trying to keep pace with compounding disasters — specifically wildfires he believes are growing bigger and more deadly due to global warming. With the “smashmouth realities” of decades of warming temperatures taking shape, the Democratic governor is pressing to make California the vanguard of fighting climate change through the weight of its $3 trillion economy.

It’s not the time for small ball,” Newsom said Thursday.

Newsom’s remarks came Thursday during a virtual climate showcase hosted by media personality Van Jones, in which the governor and other state officials detailed steps California must take to clean its air, electrical grid and economy. 

Kicking off the so-called California Climate Action Day, Newsom told Jones that there was no longer any need for prognosticators to give their predictions about how the ravages of climate change would manifest in the Golden State. He said prolonged droughts, intense storm cycles, burn scars and flooding have all plagued the state in recent years as a result of increasing temperatures and irregular weather patterns. 

“These were projected to happen in the future but have all taken shape now,” Newsom told Jones, a California resident.  

In his boldest climate move as governor, Newsom 24 hours earlier ordered a crackdown on traditional cars and trucks and issued a ban on the sale of new gas vehicles within 15 years. He cast the mandatory replacement of gas guzzlers as the “most impactful step” California could take to reduce smog and protect its coastline. In addition, Newsom urged the Legislature to enact a swift prohibition on new hydraulic fracturing — fracking — permits.

With major implications for two titanic industries, the executive order made headlines around the world and reverberated throughout Thursday’s climate forum.

David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission, said the state’s current wildfire season likely played a key role in Newsom’s thought process.

“What’s happened in the last few weeks, with the fires, is you have 40 million people in California struggling to breathe for weeks on end,” Hochschild said. “It really elevated the importance of [the ban]; climate is everybody’s issue now.” 

With over 3.6 million acres charred this year by a combined 8,000 wildfires, Newsom has warned on multiple occasions that the scenarios playing out on the West Coast are headed to the rest of the country soon.

But in the process of ditching fossil fuels, the state will be forced to make major investments and changes to its electrical grid, not to mention buffer the associated loss of oil industry jobs.

Environmental justice groups largely applauded Newsom’s order but say they remain skeptical. They want assurances that the state’s push for “green jobs” will benefit disadvantaged communities and that Newsom’s plan will have real teeth. 

Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, said community leaders in places like the Central Valley need to be involved in the planning of California’s climate strategy, unlike previous state mandates. 

“We’re looking at more of a trickle-down effect of the benefits of the climate economy, rather than directed investments,” Yoshitani said.

As the Legislature considers how to chart the state’s path to carbon neutrality over the next few decades, Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, said a clear focus must be placed on job training for low-income communities. He said public and private investments need to be more calculated going forward.

“We have to really turn the formula upside down,” Garcia said. “Our investments need to be headed in places where historically they’ve been at the bottom of the list.”

Along with training for green jobs, the state has work to do on its own grid.

Last month during a statewide heatwave, the grid overheated and utilities were forced to execute rolling blackouts for the first time in decades. 

Hochschild said electrifying public transportation and building microgrids will help prevent the August blackouts that left hundreds of thousands in the dark by limiting dramatic spikes in energy. He said an updated grid — even with the addition of electric trains and cars — could also lower household utility bills. 

“The more things you connect to the grid, interestingly, it actually has a downward force on electric grids,” Hochschild explained, noting California currently gets 63% of its electricity from renewable sources. “Two-thirds of your costs in the electric system are fixed so you’re spreading that cost.”

To accommodate the expected wave of clean cars, trucks and buses, Hochschild estimated the state will need to install at minimum 1 million new charging stations.

With over two dozen major wildfires still raging throughout the state, Thursday’s event also featured a panel on ways to limit the devastation of future infernos.

The Yurok tribe, which has reimplemented traditional burns on its reservation near the Klamath River in Northern California, says the state must change its outdated approach to preventing and fighting wildfires. 

Margo Robbins, the executive director of the tribe’s Cultural Fire Management Council, said planned burns not only minimize the spread of uncontrolled wildfires, they are vital to increasing biodiversity, improving soil and purifying streams. Robbins said the tribe’s controlled burns, none of which have escaped, have lessened the likelihood of megafires by removing brush and downed fuels.

“We need to change the narrative about fire; there is such a good thing as good fire,” Robbins said. “Indigenous people have the knowledge to lead us out of this global warming crisis we’re facing, it’s written on our DNA.”

To cap off the event, Newsom announced the creation of a volunteer corps with a focus on assisting “local climate action projects” across the state.

“From fires and smoke to record high temperatures, nearly every Californian has been impacted in some way these last several weeks by climate change. Even with the bold climate policies our state has enacted, we must — and can — do more at every level,” said Newsom of the Climate Action Corps.

Newsom also signed legislation requiring manufacturers to incrementally increase the amount of recycled material in plastic drink containers. By 2030, all containers sold in California must be made from at least 50% recycled content.

With the signing of Assembly Bill 793, California becomes the first state with such a threshold for plastic drinks.

“At the rate we were going, plastic waste would outnumber the fish in our oceans by 2050,” said bill author Assemblyman Phil Ting. “The governor’s signature means the time has come for companies to step up and help us be good environmental stewards. By boosting the market for used plastics, fewer containers will end up as litter.”  

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