Recall Ruminations

By Elena Bilheimer

Climate Justice Voters Should Be Communicating their Demands to Governor Gavin Newsom Now

On September 14, California voters chose not to recall Governor Gavin Newsom in a special gubernatorial election that has occurred only twice in California history. Despite initial concerns, Newsom overwhelmingly beat his opponents to win an estimated 64 percent of the vote. As attention turns away from the recall and towards the many other pressing issues facing California, now is the perfect time for climate justice voters to communicate their demands to a Governor they helped stay in office.

Protesters outside the Capitol Building on February 19, 2020 demanding Gov. Newsom stand
up to big oil. Source: Peg Hunter, Flikr

Although California has historically led the charge on environmental issues, setting national standards, some climate activists believe that Newsom has not fulfilled many of the environmental promises he made on the campaign trail. As Governor, Newsom has the power to propose legislation to the state lawmakers as well as issue executive orders, something he has done on occasion for certain climate issues. Tom Wheeler, Executive Director at EPIC, noted that Newsom has largely tracked with the mainstream of the democratic party on environmental issues, meaning that he has taken some action, but not at the pace that climate justice activists demand.

“One of the risks is that the democratic party continues to try to gain vote share in what purple areas of the state still remain,” Wheeler said. “We weaken our climate actions, we weaken our efforts to improve housing, we weaken our efforts to address historic environmental justice issues and racial justice issues to try to pander to these communities”.

Right after the recall, on September 23, Newsom’s administration passed a $15 billion climate package to help tackle the climate crisis and deal with drought and wildfire related challenges. 

While the multiple crises Newsom faces as Governor are large and complex and climate justice voters are not a monolith, there is a lot more he could be doing to improve the situation. As transportation is the biggest source of emissions in the state, Newsom could continue to follow through on his climate promises by massively investing in infrastructure, creating more charging stations at a pace that surpasses what is currently being done, utilizing incentives to reduce miles travelled, and retiring Legacy highway expansion projects. All of these choices have local ramifications as well, for instance changes in the CALTRANS design standards would directly affect the state highway that cuts through Eureka while serving as a local street.

He could also do more to foster sustainable land use while tackling the housing crisis. Wheeler believes that he could do this by removing local control of housing issues, which has been used to thwart affordable housing development in the past. Housing is a race and class issue as well as an environmental one, and Colin Fiske, Executive Director for the Coalition of Responsible Transportation Priorities, explained that providing more housing in existing cities and towns as opposed to creating more sprawl in the suburbs helps avoid paving over natural lands, encourages active transportation and transit, and creates livable communities. 

While Newsom has specifically focused on increasing renewable energy as a strategy to combat climate change, Nicola Walters, a lecturer at Humboldt State University, believes it is vital to consider the communities that are impacted by renewable energy technology.  She argues there are always implications from any kind of development project, even if the result is something desirable. A good example of this locally was the Terra-Gen wind farm project, which was denied by the Humboldt Board of Supervisors at the last minute due to appeals from the Wiyot Tribe. In order to mitigate these issues, there should be an inclusion and centering of more diverse voices, experiences, and community involvement when thinking about environmental choices. This is also necessary when dealing with wildfire, and Walters mentioned that Indigenous knowledge should be elevated and brought into California climate conversations explicitly. 

Walters thinks that now is the perfect time to put pressure on Newsom to “move forward with environmental issues, while also encouraging him to expand and be bold so that we actually see the changes that are so desperately needed for California and our earth”. Due to the recall and the re-election Newsom faces next year, she added, “We’re in a time where we really need to be asking exactly what we want…with beating the recall, Gavin Newsom does have momentum to do what he wants to do”.

In order to encourage this momentum, local voters need to be active and engaged. One actionable step would be proposing climate justice ideas to the local Board of Supervisors. Wheeler stressed that voters have a lot of power here on the north coast, and Humboldt’s Board of Supervisors could take many more tangible steps toward climate action. For example, the Board has the power to adjust local zoning codes to allow for denser development and could develop infrastructure that prioritizes alternative modes of transportation. He also encourages those who are interested in climate justice to support organizations that strive to hold politicians accountable, in addition to supporting their local environmental organizations that are limited in their political action due to their 501(c)(3) non-profit status. 

Beyond engaging at a local level, climate justice voters need to be educated and aware of the impact of Newsom’s choices, so they can nudge him in the right direction. “The decisions that the Governor makes and that his agencies make have a huge impact on what our towns, and cities, and countrysides look like,” Fiske said. “I just think that people should be aware of that and should be pressing them to do the right thing for the climate, for highway safety, for transportation equity and all these things when they are thinking about their vote”.

Ultimately though, Walters stressed the importance of creating a sustainable and powerful climate justice movement regardless of who the governor is: “…if [Newsom] is not going to be the person that signs that magic piece of legislation that saves the world, at least we have built the power of the people, we’re recognizing the issues and the people that are actually affected by these kinds of problems, and we’re able to generate the kind of momentum that we need to actually make a difference.”