POLITICS: What’s at stake for climate if Newsom loses?

Colin Sullivan

September 9 2021

California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a recall election next week that would make him the third governor in U.S. history to be ousted from office through a recall if he loses.

The implications for climate change policy are significant, but, at the same time, sources interviewed for this article said they do not believe a replacement would have enough time in office to undo the state’s far-reaching attempts to combat carbon emissions.

An analysis of the news and election polls appears to point to a Newsom ouster as unlikely, but with polls proving to be inexact science in recent elections, plenty of Democrats seem worried headed into Tuesday’s banner contest.

Newsom’s handling of the global pandemic, economic shutdowns and wildfires are all in the crosshairs as voters consider the Republican-driven effort to unseat him.

Late-breaking polls suggest Newsom has managed to create some breathing room late in the campaign. While his poll numbers all summer have indicated a hard-to-call race, polls released by Suffolk University and YouGov this week show double-digit leads for Newsom on the question voters will face first: whether to recall him.

The Suffolk University poll found 58% of those surveyed plan to vote “no," while 41% said they would vote “yes.” YouGov found that 56% of people intended to vote “no," while 44% plan to vote “yes.”

Should voters choose “yes” on the recall, they will then have an opportunity to choose from a list of 46 candidates to replace him. Those that vote “no” may also choose a candidate, but the Newsom campaign has been trying to convince supporters to say no then leave the second question blank.

A simple majority would have to vote “yes” to ditch Newsom and make the second question relevant — and, no, Newsom is not on the ballot to replace himself if he fails the first question.

The strategy to ask voters to leave the second half blank has caused a stir among progressives and Democrats who might not be Newsom stalwarts. One of the few Democratic replacement candidates on the ballot, real estate investor Kevin Paffrath, has argued that Newsom’s move could backfire and leave the state with a right-leaning governor even with its clear left-leaning majority.

"It's either stupid or sabotage," Paffrath told CNN this week, adding that Newsom’s attempts to get Democratic voters to ignore other candidates has made it hard for him to engage their interest.

So what’s at stake with respect to climate? Short answer: Quite a bit. Longer answer: It’s unlikely a Newsom ouster would terminate climate policies in California for good, but sources interviewed for this article as well as other news stories cautioned that any GOP winner could well delay climate action during a period that scientists have described as a shrinking window to lower or eliminate the carbon emissions that have caused planetary warming.

Just as crucial are concerns about whether the next governor would have to replace 88-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) in the U.S. Senate and expectations that Newsom was poised to adopt a leadership roll at this fall’s U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow.

We dug into the news coverage in this space and did some original reporting, as well. Here’s what we found, with just a few days left until the Sept. 14 showdown …

Schwarzenegger: Dems should be nervous

The field of possible Newsom replacements isn’t that hard to pin down on climate, because most are pro-energy conservatives, and none of them resemble the sort of moderate Republican who last won a recall in the state.

That figure was former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came to power in a 2003 recall, when Gray Davis was removed from office. That decision to fire Davis came about during a similar crisis vibe, following a season of electricity blackouts, a difficult recession and a statewide budget crisis.

In an interview with CNN this week, Schwarzenegger opined that Newsom has plenty of reason to be nervous, because he believes the attitude of “anger” in the state is much the same as it was in 2003.

"It is exactly the same,” said Schwarzenegger, in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash. “The atmosphere is exactly the same (as) when I ran.”

Schwarzenegger has not endorsed a candidate, nor has he taken a position on the first question voters will face, when asked if they want to replace Newsom.

The candidates have mostly campaigned on Newsom’s pandemic performance, but several have made statements about wildfire management and say they would pursue a more “pro-energy” policy platform. That said, it’s crucial to point out that a victor would have just one year to enact policies before having to run again in the regularly scheduled general election, when the field of prospective Democrats would be much stronger.

Colin Murphy, deputy director of an energy policy institute at the University of California, Davis, said a replacement would not likely have enough time to undo the scoping process for the state’s far-reaching climate change law, A.B. 32. But the next governor could roll back Newsom’s attempt to ban gasoline-powered cars after 2035 with an executive order, to name one likely outcome if Newsom loses.

“Most of the deep and important stuff they can’t touch,” Murphy said, noting that a future Democrat could restore policies like the 2035 ban on gas cars. Still, he added that any governor can slow policies down and “throw a wrench” in the state’s bureaucratic implementation of the climate change law.

“It’s much more about grinding stuff to a halt than undoing much,” he said.

Republicans on the attack target progressives, ‘climate alarmism’

Other policy areas that could be affected include the construction of new nuclear power plants, more aggressive thinning of forests and the prospect of new dams to address water shortages — though these ideas also take a much longer lead time to pursue. More likely to be tested is the question of national climate leadership, as the GOP candidates have tried to make the case that Newsom and other Democrats are beholden to radical environmental interests.

Republican candidate Larry Elder, a radio host polling well in the GOP field, says on his campaign website that Newsom and Democrats’ “radical environmentalism” has contributed to poor economic conditions.

“They oppose building the infrastructure necessary to supply consistent energy and water to a population of 40 million, leaving us with a crumbling system built in the ’70’s,” he said.

Newsom has responded by suggesting the field of candidates has underestimated the risks of global warming. “With all due respect, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about when it comes to the issue of climate and climate change,” Newsom said of Elder, in an interview with ABC News.

Another top candidate, Republican businessman John Cox, says California’s climate policies have made the state too expensive, while Kevin Faulconer, a former Republican mayor of San Diego who oversaw the city’s first climate plan, has said Newsom is a disappointment when it comes to high expectations of leadership.

The reason the state is so crucial with respect to climate change is it has long been driving policy momentum. California has jurisdiction over its own air emissions through the powerful Air Resources Board, unlike other states, so that means a slow-down there could trickle into the rest of the United States, especially when one considers the commonly held narrative that California has led the way on climate.

“There’s the real potential for a huge shift in direction,” Richard Frank, a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Davis, told the New York Times. “California has had substantial influence over the direction of climate policy both nationally and internationally, and that could easily wane.”

Among the polices in place in the Golden state are: a requirement that utilities get 100% of their electricity from clean sources like wind and solar power by 2045; regulations to limit tailpipe pollution from cars and trucks; and building codes that encourage developers to shift away from natural gas for home heating.

The A.B. 32 scoping process refers to a law based by the legislature that ordered the California Air Resources Board to draft rules that would cut statewide emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. That process is ongoing.

Elder leads polling among potential voters who favor the recall. Trailing him are Cox, defeated by Newsom in 2018, and Faulconer. Paffrath ranks highest in polls among Democrats on the ballot, but no well-known Democrats are challenging.

Faulconer, as mayor of San Diego, supported a climate change plan in 2015 drafted by a Democrat. In an interview with E&E News at the time, Faulconer said that he didn't look at climate change "through a partisan lens”. In a section on electricity on his campaign site, he said he hoped to "unleash California’s technological might and entrepreneurial spirit to make us more energy-independent, adding middle-class jobs as we build and sell tomorrow’s clean energy.”

In an interview with the Sacramento Bee's editorial board, meanwhile, Elder was asked whether climate change plays a role in California's fires.

"It is a factor," Elder said. "What I've said is, I do believe in climate change. I do believe our climate is getting warmer, and I do believe that human activity has something to do with it.

"What I don't believe in is climate change alarmism," he added. "I don't believe as [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)] does. I think she said two years ago that if we don't take dramatic action, we're all going to die. That's a paraphrase, but she said something to that effect. I think that's outrageous. I think we're smart enough to deal with the effects of climate change. And if there's rising water, we can deal with the effects of that.”

Cox and Faulconer both mentioned the need to boost forest thinning to prevent wildfires. In an interview with Climatewire, Cox said he wants "a lot more removal of dead trees. The estimates I've seen are 100 million or more. There's got to be a lot more effort on it, doing prescribed burns and doing fire breaks.”

Faulconer likewise on his campaign site said he would "declare a state of emergency for fires on day one as governor" and use emergency powers to shorten the environmental review process. He also wants to create a California Department of Wildfire Prevention.

Cox told Climatewire that he'd make several changes to policies advanced by Newsom. Those include the governor's first-in-the-nation mandate banning sales of new gas-fueled vehicles after 2035.

Cox also said he opposes the planned shutdown of California's last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County, which is expected to close in 2025. Elder has also said he would support more nuclear.

Is Feinstein’s Senate seat in play?

Also in play, possibly, is Sen. Diane Feinstein’s Senate seat. An article in Slate last month warned that “the true nightmare scenario for Democrats would be this: What if Newsom loses, a Republican replaces him, and then 88-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein becomes unable to finish her term?”

That would give the new governor the ability to replace her. Many in the state have therefore called on Feinstein to step down if Newsom loses, giving him time to name a Democrat to the seat.

Murphy said he “would kind of hope” Feinstein would retire if Newsom loses.

“If Newsom did get recalled she could say, okay, let’s step down, but the truth is nobody knows what she’s thinking,” he said.

The Slate piece referenced New Yorker reporting on Feinstein that claimed the senior senator is “seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years.”

“Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have,” wrote the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, in an article late last year.

If Newsom does lose, and if Feinstein is willing to step down, she would likely be able to influence him on her replacement, Murphy said. He added that this was pure speculation on his part, so he’ll have to wait and see like the rest of us.

As for Elder, stories published over the last few weeks have questioned whether he’s telling the truth about Newsom, painting him as a Donald Trump loyalist who is just as willing to deploy disinformation to get what he wants. Check out this piece in the Washington Post for much more on Elder’s “false and misleading claims” related to the state’s economy, the pandemic and wildfires.

And please, if you live in California, remember to vote!

— Colin Sullivan