SACRAMENTO, Calif. – U.S. governors want a seat at the table as international leaders prepare to gather in Scotland at a critical moment for global efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions and slow the planet’s temperature rise.
At least a half dozen state governors – all Democrats – plan to attend parts of the two-week United Nations’ climate change conference in Glasgow, known as COP26. Though states aren’t official parties to talks, governors hold significant sway over the United States’ approach to tackling climate change by setting targets for reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to renewable energy.
Take California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has pledged to halt the sale of new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035, a move aimed at accelerating the nation’s transition to electric vehicles. Or Washington, where Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee backed legislation requiring the state’s electricity be carbon-neutral by 2030.
“Governors can do a lot,” said Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institute. “When they’re talking to people on the sidelines and sharing policies and ideas and helping to demonstrate the commitment of the U.S. as a whole, there’s quite a bit that they can do.”
Governors slated to attend are Inslee, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Hawaii Gov. David Ige, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. All six governors are part of the U.S. Climate Alliance, an effort started by Inslee and former Govs. Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York in 2017 as the Trump administration backed away from U.S. climate goals. The alliance plans to announce “ambitious” new climate commitments in Scotland, though it hasn’t shared specifics.
Inslee isn’t the only Washingtonian who will be at the climate talks. Whitworth University senior Nate Beine was selected as part of the Christian Climate Observer’s Program to attend.
“It will be incredible just to get there and see the decisions that are being made on the world stage,” the biology and environmental studies student told KXLY-TV.
Newsom announced Friday he would participate virtually due to unspecified family obligations. California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis will instead lead the state’s delegation, which includes more than a dozen lawmakers and top administration officials.
“All eyes will be on Glasgow, with the world asking the question: ‘What are we doing to do about (climate change)?’” Kounalakis said. “And California has answers.”
Other states sending officials include Maryland and Massachusetts, which have Republican governors.
Few U.S. states are as influential as California, which is home to nearly 40 million people and would be the world’s fifth-largest economy if it were its own nation. It’s led the nation in vehicle emissions standards, was the first state to launch a carbon pollution credit program known as cap-and-trade and has set some of the nation’s most ambitious goals on reducing emissions.
It’s the nation’s seventh-largest oil producing state, though Newsom officials say the state has six times as many jobs in clean energy as it does in the oil industry. Newsom has made strides to lower demand and eventually end production, but some environmental groups say he’s got to act significantly faster.
Several other state leaders heading to Glasgow also come from places that rely on oil and gas production as a key piece of the economy. New Mexico’s Lujan Grisham travels to the climate conference as she juggles competing pressures from environmental activists and the fossil fuel industry while running for reelection in 2022.
New Mexico is one of the top oil states. Amid surging oil output, Lujan Grisham has pushed to rein in leaks and emissions of excess natural gas by the industry and signed legislation that mandates and incentivizes New Mexico’s own transition to zero-emissions electricity by 2045.
“We – as a state, as a nation, as a planet – must go further by pursuing bold, equitable and just climate solutions. I am looking forward to this significant opportunity for collaboration and action at the global level,” Lujan Grisham said in a recent statement.
In March, Lujan Grisham wrote President Joe Biden, asking to exempt New Mexico from an executive order halting gas and oil production on federal land. Oil field royalties, taxes and lease sales account for more than one-quarter of the state’s general fund budget, underwriting spending on public schools, roads and public safety.
Edwards of Louisiana, a state that’s suffered significant flooding and damage from hurricanes, plans to promote his state as a hub for clean energy projects. He’s set a goal to cut the state’s net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, though his administration is still putting together a strategy document for reaching that goal.
“No state in our nation is more affected by climate change than Louisiana, but it’s also true that no state is better positioned to be part of the solution to the problems facing our world,” he said recently.
The governors will participate on panels through the U.S. Climate Alliance alongside members of the Biden administration. They’ll also participate alongside 65 subnational governments in announcing “dozens” of new commitments on Nov. 7. The panel will also focus on politics that can “turbocharge greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” according to an alliance press release.
“Governors and mayors around the world do not believe we should rely just on our federal governments,” Inslee, of Washington, said during a Thursday news conference.
It’s critical for U.S. and world leaders to move from planning to implementation of aggressive climate strategies, said Katelyn Sutter, senior manager for U.S. climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“We need policy to back up pledges to reduce emissions,” she said. “That’s where a state like California, and now Washington and others that have momentum moving forward, can really be impactful.”
As for California, Newsom administration officials said they hope to demonstrate that tackling the climate crisis can be good for the economy and that pollution targets should be made with historically underserved communities in mind. The administration recently proposed banning new oil wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools and hospitals, and Newsom has directed the state’s air regulator to develop a plan to end oil production by 2045.
“We can help push national governments to increase their ambition,” said Lauren Sanchez, Newsom’s senior adviser for climate.
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