What does it mean for Gov. Newsom to skip climate conference?

By CalMatters/Rachel Becker

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the press during a visit to Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Alameda on March 16, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom will no longer be leading California’s delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, “due to family obligations,” his office announced today. 

After weeks of uncertainty, Newsom announced Monday that he planned to attend the international summit in Glasgow next week. Now, the California contingent will be led by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, though Newsom will be participating virtually and “focusing on California’s landmark climate change policies,” communications director Erin Mellon said in a statement.  

Lawmakers and environmental advocates had mixed reactions to the news of Newsom’s absence. 

“While I wish he was able to attend because being in the room with world delegates really makes an impression, all the secretaries and legislative leaders will join with the (Lieutenant Governor) to put our best foot forward,” said state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont who will be attending the conference.

RL Miller, a member of the Democratic National Committee and president of Climate Hawks Vote, said Newsom’s actions in California matter more than his attendance in Scotland. 

“I think Newsom still has a chance to be a transformative leader in terms of shutting down and phasing out the oil industry in California. I am more interested in practical policies that bring short-term results than in speeches,” Miller said. “He’s capable of making a fine speech in Scotland or in Sacramento.”

Before Newsom announced that he would no longer be attending, Neena Mohan, climate justice manager for the California Environmental Justice Alliance, called on Newsom to champion “California’s bold actions towards an oil and gas phaseout and end to neighborhood drilling, while sharing the lessons learned from the failures” of California’s carbon market. 

Even if Newsom isn’t attending in person, Mohan said today, “our main message and hope for the Newsom administration remains the same.” 

About 190 world leaders and tens of thousands of others are expected to attend the conference, called the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP26. 

Similar to “a trade association meeting,” as former Air Resources Board chairperson Mary Nichols called it, it’s where national leaders hash out the details of an international treaty tackling climate change and others in the climate world mingle and exchange ideas. 

Though states don’t have an official role at the negotiating table, California has long had an outsized presence at the annual meetings — especially under former Governor Jerry Brown

“It’s very good that Governor Newsom is there showing the flag for California, and encouraging others. But as I say, the underlying fact is that the world is losing ground, not gaining ground,” former Gov. Jerry Brown said on Wednesday, before Newsom announced that he would no longer be attending.

Newsom had been scheduled to lead a 23-member California contingent, including documentary filmmaker and first-partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jared Blumenfeld, and California Air Resources Board Chairperson Liane Randolph.