In one of Tuesday’s least surprising outcomes, California voters reelected Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. It wasn’t close. This might seem interesting only if you’re predicting the 2024 presidential primaries. But Newsom’s reelection has broad significance for climate policy and law, both in California and beyond.
Think for a moment about traditional arguments against responding to climate change. For years, perhaps the most powerful argument, at least in political spheres, was that living in a place that genuinely tries to address climate change was going to be rotten. We’d lose our way of life; we’d lose our prosperity; we’d lose our freedom.
Opponents of climate change mitigation made hay with these arguments. Indeed, fears of a response to climate change have convinced many people that it’s better to just pretend climate change doesn’t exist. And proponents of climate action have sometimes conceded the point, effectively saying that we all must suffer now for the sake of what might seem like an abstract and future goal.
This argument is hard to reconcile with the present-day realities of California.
The state has responded aggressively to climate change — not only through political rhetoric and action, though there’s been a lot of that, but also through genuine changes in our energy mix. In 2021, less than half of California’s electricity came from fossil fuel sources, according to the California Energy Commission. That share has been declining for years, driven primarily by increasing solar and wind energy generation. Electric cars are also increasingly prevalent, accounting for almost 18 percent of 2022 new-car sales.
The state has a long way to go, but Californians are well past the feeling that a renewable energy transition is hypothetical and abstract. We know people who work in renewable energy industries. We see the consequences of that work in our daily lives. If responding to climate change was going to stink, we’d know it by now — and we’d take out our frustrations on incumbent politicians. Instead, we just reelected a climate-conscious governor in a landslide.
Another Dimension to Climate Politics
For most Californians, there’s another dimension to climate politics. In addition to living through a renewable energy transition, we’re also living through the direct effects of climate change. That part really does stink, and it really is a threat to our freedoms and way of life.
The current southwestern megadrought is the most extreme in centuries, and climate change is an exacerbating factor. One of the most palpable consequences of that drought — wildfire smoke — has spared most of us this year but has been awful in previous years. When toxic smoke keeps you housebound for days on end — or when your job requires you to be out in and inhale that smoke — worries about responding to climate change seem deeply misplaced.
Instead, for many Californians, responding to climate change seems much less threatening than not responding to it. And that’s reflected in our votes.
Of course, this all might change. Getting to 55 percent non-fossil-fuel electricity is quite different from getting to 100 percent, and the challenges of achieving a fully electric vehicle fleet are well documented.
California also faces challenges making its renewable energy transition more accessible and equitable for lower-income residents. Energy-price inflation is hurting us just like everyone else (though a key driver of that inflation, for electricity prices, is wildfire liability).
Indeed, I don’t know any Californian who works on climate-related issues who thinks we have it all figured out. But I’ve also been struck, throughout my 15 years living here, at our collective sense of confidence that we can figure it out. Many people here view climate-related challenges as exciting problems to take on and, sometimes, as entrepreneurial opportunities.
One might read this and think, “Well, that’s just California. You’ve always been different and weird.”
There’s some truth to that; a combination of environmental commitments and technological optimism is distinctive to this state. But we’re not that different. Forty-two states pump less oil than California (if you assign Gulf of Mexico production to Louisiana). Many other states have promising renewable energy resources. Many other states are feeling the pain of climate change. And Californians tend to vote their pocketbooks and daily experiences just like anyone else.
If politicians here can reap political rewards for moving toward a low-carbon future, the same can happen elsewhere. And that, I hope, is a key lesson from Tuesday’s election.