Logo of this year’s UN Climate Conference.

It’s what some are calling the last, best chance for world leaders to agree on how to stop catastrophic climate change, and what others say could be fruitless. Either way, California will be well represented.

The 26th United Nations climate change conference will draw global leaders to Glasgow, Scotland next week, including a 23-member official delegation from California led by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The meeting comes as the extreme impacts of climate change continue to pummel California, which saw torrential rains this week even in the midst of a devastating drought.

“The stakes are high. It’s an important issue in California,” said Ken Alex, senior policy advisor on climate and environment under former Gov. Jerry Brown and now director of Project Climate at the University of California, Berkeley. Rattling off climate impacts such as drought, flooding, sea level rise and wildfires, Alex added: “It’s very real for California. California is going to continue on, but we need to see the world join us.”

This year’s conference is the first since President Joe Biden took office and rejoined the Paris climate agreement to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution worldwide, marking a seismic shift in the national approach to tackling climate change. It also marks a fundamental change to California’s role, no longer battling a federal foe in former President Donald Trump.

“Brown did a wonderful job with the wicked man from Washington — with saying, ‘We are different from them, and we have our own policy,’” said state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, who will be attending the climate conference.Now, the Fremont Democrat said, Newsom has to go beyond that and show concrete, short-term plans: “He has to write a new chapter on commitment.”

Though California doesn’t have an official seat at a negotiating table reserved for nations, the conference is a chance for California to burnish its reputation as a climate leader and weigh in on critical issues, such as carbon trading and methane pollution.

It’s also a chance for lawmakers, top state environmental officials and Newsom to discuss the state’s climate strategy amongst themselves, now that Newsom has survived the Sept. 14 recall election and is laying the groundwork for his 2022 reelection campaign.

Environmental advocates have sent Newsom off to Scotland with a wish list of action items, urging the governor to “meet the moment” by announcing more ambitious climate policies, such as stopping permits for all new oil and gas development.

“Climate-minded voters showed up by the millions for Newsom,” Ellie Cohen, CEO of The Climate Center, wrote in a Sacramento Bee commentary. And at the conference, “we’re expecting him to show up for us.”

Brown, who has appeared at the annual summits, himself, said Newsom has to persuade other leaders about the need for action.

“He’ll get ideas from others, and that’s good. But most importantly is to get others to do what California is doing so we’re not the outlier. We don’t want to have rules that the rest of the world doesn’t have,” Brown told CalMatters. “California’s there in an important way because we’re a carbon polluter, and we’re also a carbon problem solver.”

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, is more skeptical that the conference would lead to meaningful climate action.

“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.”

“He’ll get ideas from others, and that’s good. But most importantly is to get others to do what California is doing so we’re not the outlier.”
— Former Gov. Jerry Brown on Gov. Newsom’s challenge at UN Climate Conference

California enters the conference with some clear climate bona fides. 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, California 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.

Newsom has drawn criticism from environmental advocates for not doing more to curb oil and gas production, which disproportionately affects low-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,” said RL Miller, a member of the Democratic National Committee and president of Climate Hawks Vote. “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 chairperson, 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.”

“He has a real opportunity at COP26 to be a transformative leader. People will be listening to the speeches, but equally, listening for action.”
— RL Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote on Newsom’s opportunity at U.N. Conference

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 Climate 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 sub-national 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 Climate Agreement almost as soon as he took office in January — pivoting the federal government into position as California’s climate ally, rather than opponent. As Biden prepares to leave for Europe, he’s still negotiating with fellow Democrats in Congress on climate change spending in a massive infrastructure package, though the clean electricity program appears dead.

“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.

“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 sub-national 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 chairperson of the Senate transportation committee, said her focus will be on clean transportation programs, the largest source of greenhouse gases in the state.

“Transportation has become sort of this really sexy topic, but so important as it pertains to reduction of our (greenhouse gas) emissions,” Gonzalez said. “I’m looking forward to going as chair of transportation and as someone who has a lot of impacts back home.”

Tackling methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is also on the agenda — with the U.S. and 31 other countries pledging to cut methane pollution 30% by 2030. California made its own pledge in 2016, with a law requiring a 40% cut to methane pollution by the same deadline.

“We’ve had this target in statute for five years,” said Katelyn Roedner Sutter, a senior manager with the Environmental Defense Fund, which is co-hosting a methane pavilion at the conference. “And we can say these are the things that we’re looking at, and this is what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.”

So is the annual summit a big deal for California? “It is, and it isn’t,” Alex said. “This is about the U.S. But California really is an example of where we need to head. And California, of course, needs to go faster as well.”

Charting a new climate course

Environmental advocates call this meeting an opportunity to regain California’s climate ambition.

“The bloom is no longer on the rose of California’s general reputation as a leader,” said environmental advocate Miller. “California has an opportunity to reclaim its mantle as a leader, but only if Gavin Newsom starts taking seriously the process of winding down the fossil fuel industry.”

Part of the conversation at the annual summit will be establishing rules around emissions trading. But independent experts and state lawmakers have raised concerns that California’s landmark cap-and-trade program — the first in the nation to create a carbon market for all segments of the economy — might be too weak to reach the state’s greenhouse gas targets. Nearly a decade after its launch, California has not enticed any other western states to join its cap-and-trade program.

Neena Mohan, climate justice manager for the California Environmental Justice Alliance, said that climate solutions must prioritize direct reductions in emissions and called on Newsom to champion “California’s bold actions towards an oil and gas phaseout and end to neighborhood drilling, while sharing the lessons learned from the failures of cap and trade.”

As for transportation, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said last year it remains largely unclear how effectively California’s policies are reducing climate-warming pollution from cars and trucks. The state auditor in February slammed the California Air Resources Board for overestimating the greenhouse gas cuts from clean car incentive programs. Newsom ordered the air board to come up with a plan for phasing out the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035, but the regulations are still in the works.

“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.”
—State Sen. John Laird, one of 15 state legislators set to attend the U.N. Climate Conference

Still, in September, Newsom signed a $15 billion climate package, which The Climate Center’s Cohen wrote was “a strong start.” And Miller said she was heartened to see Newsom’s backing of health and safety buffer zones around new oil and gas wells.

“Newom did survive this recall handily, and I think he’s now looking at what he wants to do for not just the remainder of this term but for his next term,” Miller said. “And rather than be content with simply implementing the Jerry Brown policies, I think he’s genuinely beginning to grapple with phasing out oil production in California.”

Brown, asked if he had any advice for Newsom heading to COP26, replied: “That’s just a silly question. If I had advice for Newsom, why would I give it to you and not to him?”

“We have a big existential threat. It’s going to affect your life negatively … We have to build political support as best we can.”


CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.