As the largest wildfire of the year rages across California, Gov. Gavin Newsom is doubling down on an aggressive strategy to combat climate change — one that also appears to involve boosting his national profile.
Newsom on Saturday proclaimed a state of emergency in Mariposa County due to the Oak Fire near Yosemite National Park, which since igniting on Friday has burned through more than 17,240 acres of bone-dry fuel and was just 16% contained as of today, according to Cal Fire.
California has secured federal support to help defray the costs of battling the blaze, which as of Sunday was being attacked by nearly 2,100 firefighters. More than 6,000 people were under evacuation orders, nearly 3,000 PG&E customers were facing power outages and 15 structures had been destroyed or damaged with thousands more threatened.
The Oak Fire marks the end of California’s relatively calm start to the fire season: Fewer than 34,000 acres burned statewide from Jan. 1 to July 19, the lowest total during that time period since 2009, according to a Mercury News analysis.
Isaac Sanchez, a Cal Fire battalion chief, warned: “People shouldn’t get complacent. If this was a baseball game, we are in the middle innings. There are still a lot of dry months to come.”
Newsom alluded to complacency at the national level in a July 24 letter to President Joe Biden, in which he slammed “uncooperative Republicans and a lone Democrat from a coal-producing state” (West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin) for holding “hostage” parts of Biden’s climate agenda.
Newsom added: “We want to reiterate our commitment to … finding new ways to work around those Senators who chose to keep their head in the sand instead of confronting the crisis we are all facing together. Partnering with California and other leading states and cities is now essential.”
As a proof point of what Newsom described as California’s world-leading action on climate, he cited a blueprint — released just the day before — to make the state’s ambitious climate plans even more aggressive.
In a July 22 letter to Liane Randolph, who leads the powerful California Air Resources Board, Newsom outlined goals he said would add teeth to the state’s sweeping climate strategy, which regulators are set to consider formally adopting this fall. In so doing, he appeared to agree with activists who said the plan doesn’t go far or quickly enough in transitioning California away from fossil fuels. However, some of the strategies Newsom proposed, such as carbon capture, are unlikely to be embraced by many environmentalists.
In the letter, Newsom directs state agencies to develop energy transition plans that don’t involve new natural gas plants, adopt a goal for the aviation industry to use more clean fuel, and plans to accelerate the development of offshore wind, among other things.
The push comes soon after Newsom signed into law a controversial bill that clears the way for the state to use more fossil fuels in the short term while accelerating the long-term development of clean energy projects. To help the state maintain reliable energy, California is also considering extending the life of its last nuclear power plant.
On Sunday, Newsom and the California Teachers Association broke with the California Democratic Party in announcing their opposition to Proposition 30, a November ballot initiative funded largely by Lyft that would tax people earning more than $2 million to fund a collection of climate programs, including incentives for people to buy zero-emission vehicles. (Incidentally, state law requires Lyft and Uber drivers to log 90% of California miles in electric vehicles by 2030.)
“Prop. 30 is a special interest carve-out — a cynical scheme devised by a single corporation to funnel state income tax revenue to their company,” Newsom said. “Californians should know that just this year our state committed $10 billion for electric vehicles and their infrastructure.”
California Environmental Voters, one of the measure’s proponents, tweeted at Newsom: “CA needs a leader who is going to stand up for middle and low-income communities grappling with the climate crisis instead of protecting billionaires, the CA Republican Party, and the Howard Jarvis Tax Payers Association.”