America needs a climate foil for Joe Manchin — Gavin Newsom should step Up

In the final decade to prevent climate catastrophe, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) spent the last two years dealing successive lacerations to federal climate spending. This month, the illusion of his “good faith negotiations” vanished when he pulled the plug on the climate package altogether. This outcome was foretold by a now obvious fact: Manchin has built his wealth and power on the very industries that ransack the living systems of our planet for their profit. Manchin’s legacy will likely be the climate-driven loss and suffering that will follow from Congress’s failure to act.

But the United States simply cannot afford to retreat from action. While fossil fuel revanchism consumes federal climate policy, a constellation of climate progress dots cities and states across the country. Indisputably, they cluster most densely in California, whose governor recently visited Washington, D.C.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who leads the world’s fifth largest economy and the most climate-concerned citizenry in the nation, could become Manchin’s climate foil and, along with other state leaders, resuscitate America’s role in the climate fight. But he will need to do more than rest on the laurels of his predecessors or merely offer strong rhetoric. To keep America paddling toward safety, Newsom must rapidly amplify California’s response to climate change.

While California enjoys a reputation for being ahead of the nation on climate action, the climate crisis is unfortunately not graded on a curve. The state’s own modeling shows it is far off track to meet both its 2030 and 2045 climate targets. Recent setbacks prove that even a Democratic super-majority is not immune to the vast influence of the oil and gas industry.

In recent years, other states have surpassed California’s commitments, showing that California’s policies are due for an update. Maryland just adopted the most aggressive interim climate target of any state (a 60 percent reduction by 2031, compared to California’s 40 percent by 2030). Washington state adopted a deadline for gas car sales by 2030 — five years ahead of California — as well as the nation’s first building code to require electrification. And Rhode Island’s newly adopted clean energy standard is a decade ahead of California’s.

There are immediate opportunities for Newsom to regain and expand California’s leadership. The first is fixing the state’s blueprint — known as the “Scoping Plan” — for achieving carbon neutrality. The draft released by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has stoked fear and frustration from virtually every environmental organization in the state, which are appalled by its choice to leave direct emissions reductions on the table, and instead rely on mythic levels of unproven carbon removal technology. While Newsom recently made some encouraging overtures to fix the plan, he doubled down on the outsized dependence on unproven engineered carbon removal.

Even carbon removal experts have advised that carbon neutrality should be achieved “by cutting more than 90 [percent] of current emissions and removing less than 10 [percent].” The ratio in California’s draft Scoping Plan is markedly skewed, relying on 30 percent carbon removal. Newsom can reorient California by directing CARB to get California on track for its targets with earlier, direct reductions to pollution.

One of California’s greatest advantages for directly cutting emissions lies in dramatically accelerating the transition to zero-emission vehicles. California already leads the country in electric vehicle (EV) adoption, and to his credit, Newsom has devoted an impressive share of his budget surplus toward not only electrifying cars but also highly polluting trucks.

But a carrot-focused approach under-leverages California’s ability to set industry-wide standards that transform markets. Stringent standards have turbocharged transportation electrification in Europe and China, where EV adoption has leapfrogged far ahead of California. Countries like Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, which until recently were far behind California in EV adoption, are already approaching sales shares that California is only considering requiring in 2026.

A progressive bloc of states with zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) programs can drive rapid electrification of the transportation system for the entire nation, cleaning our air while insulating consumers from the rising costs of gas. But to build this bloc, Newsom needs a bolder California Air Resources Board. The agency led key climate gains under former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) tenure, but in recent years has it has stumbled when it should have sprinted. Six seats on the agency’s board open this December. They represent one of Newsom’s greatest levers for securing ambitious, durable climate progress.

The somber consequence of our procrastination to date is that much of the California that Newsom grew up in will not be passed along to his children. Entire communities are already facing loss from megadroughts, wildfires and rising seas. People like Manchin have undeniably increased the likelihood that these climate impacts will worsen. As governor of California at this crucial moment, Newsom is uniquely able to fight back. Newsom and governors like him have the power to lead against the tide of paralysis and guide the nation into an era of climate restoration and repair.

Sasan Saadat is a senior research and policy analyst on Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign.