California Gov. Gavin Newsom chooses to be a liberal performer over a centrist leader | Opinion


Gov. Gavin Newsom and fellow California Democrats are suddenly running on fumes when it comes to finding new solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Real and inevitably difficult progress is no longer the focus. Instead, a new strategy has emerged: Blame big oil companies for concealing the ills of fossil fuels for decades, and shame the world’s biggest corporations for failing to document all their emissions.


Newsom’s new tactics are coming into focus at the same time that an event of global significance is happening. Climate Week NYC, which the California governor is attending, will convene this week in New York.

Charging after oil companies will surely generate some headlines and support among factions of the public. But none of it reduces a single molecule of greenhouse gas emissions.

In this critical moment, Newsom is all about paperwork, whether it is litigation or new analyses of what it takes to create the products we eagerly consume.

The bottom line is California is no longer pushing the edge at accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels. We have shifted to a strategy that emphasizes more litigation and more bureaucracy. And that is seriously bad news for a planet that could use a more creative approach from us.

First, the litigation.

Newsom and California Attorney General Rob Bonta have filed a lawsuit against five large oil companies that do business in the state. The basic legal theory is that these companies have covered up for many years their products’ harmful role in filling the atmosphere with dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. And now, after keeping us all in the dark, they must pay and pay dearly.

Setting aside whether the companies concealed their own research, the lawsuit ignores the reality that scientists throughout the world have been conducting their own independent research all along. Global warming has not been a carefully kept corporate secret.

Yes, the behavior of these companies, particularly the spiking profits stemming from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine and the ensuing seismic changes in the global energy markets, has been outrageous. But the oil companies are a convenient scapegoat. Suing them is not real progress.

Neither is Newsom’s second new quest, which is for more bureaucracy.

The most contentious climate change bill before the California Legislature this year targeted the 5,000-some companies with at least a billion dollars worth of business that are active in the state and generate more than $1 billion in sales globally. Senate Bill 253 by Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, sought to require these companies to tabulate their greenhouse gas emissions — not just here in California, but across the globe.

The legislation requires the companies to file the information annually with the California Air Resources Board. To prevent all the ensuing analysis from costing staff time and stressing the state budget, SB 253 also requires the companies to pay a yet-to-be-specified fee to cover the resulting state costs of their new information.

SB 253 made it through the Legislature with sufficient numbers of Democrats sending it to the governor. And now on the eve of the big climate change event in New York, Newsom on Sunday announced that he will sign the bill.

Normally announcements like this are carefully choreographed to take place here in California, with the authors and supporters standing obediently behind a governor sitting behind a desk wielding the pen. But there is no time for that now. There are too many cheerleaders gathering in New York to ignore.

Yes, big companies are producing emissions to create products, here and throughout the world. But business leaders have warned Newsom that quantifying this is a potential nightmare, given how big companies contract with smaller companies to get their products to market.

But Newsom is ignoring them. He clearly wants to have a big week in New York.

The governor seems to be shifting from a somewhat centrist style of leadership that balances innovation with the realities of trade and commerce. It feels like he is drifting more left and populist. Time will tell.

Progress on climate change only happens when a leader suggests a way to actually stop the problem. Which means emitting less. Don’t look to California for real ideas right now.