Sept. 16–Gavin Newsom and John Cox both drive zero-emission Teslas. That’s about where the common ground ends between California’s candidates for governor when it comes to the environment.
Until recently, Cox said he wasn’t sure how much humans contribute to climate change. “I’m not a climatologist,” the Republican candidate would say.
As the Global Climate Action Summit wrapped up in San Francisco, however, Cox clarified his views, telling The Chronicle that “climate change is real, and humans contribute to it.”
But the San Diego-area businessman is skeptical that the state is “making a real impact” with laws intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions — at least, not one worth what Cox says are the economic costs to California.
Newsom, meanwhile, not only backs Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of California producing 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2045, he wants to the state to be a “net exporter” of clean power by shipping surplus electricity to its neighbors. Cox also supports the goal but is wary, saying: “Can we get there, that’s the question, and time will have to tell.”
The Democratic lieutenant governor touts himself as a longtime environmentalist, “the compost guy” who insisted that people separate food waste from their garbage when he was San Francisco mayor. That track record helped Newsom to win the endorsement of the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters.
“We know that California’s environment and progress on climate is an important priority for Newsom, and we can’t say the same for Cox,” said Mike Young, associate director of campaigns and organizing for the California League of Conservation Voters.
Newsom could turn his differences with Cox into votes: Fifty-six percent of likely voters surveyed by the Public Policy Institute of California in July said candidates’ environmental positions would be “very important” in determining whom they would support for governor.
Here is where the candidates stand on environmental issues as the Nov. 6 election approaches:
Climate change: Cox was equivocal in his views during the primary campaign when he was competing for Republican votes against GOP Assemblyman Travis Allen, who said it would be “quite some time” before scientists pinpointed whether people were responsible for climate change.
Now, however, Cox is going one-on-one against a Democrat for an electorate in which 69 percent of likely voters believe the effects of climate change are already evident, according to the July poll. And he’s sounding more certain that there’s a problem.
“I’ve been taking time to read what climatologists are saying, and many are saying that human activity has a significant impact,” Cox said.
It’s still not quite as definitive a view as Newsom’s. He calls climate change “an existential threat.”
Newsom wants to increase California’s output of alternative fuels beyond solar and wind to include geothermal and ocean-based energy. He supports the state’s cap-and-trade system, in which companies pay for each ton of greenhouse gases they emit, as “vital to our climate leadership.” He wants to ensure that 35 percent of the revenue generated by the program goes to programs that help low-income communities.
Cox, however, says low-income communities are being hurt by the program. He points to a recent study that found the cap-and-trade program adds 12 to 13 cents to the price of a gallon of gas.
“California has passed more laws on climate change than any state or nation in the world,” Cox said. “We’re making a statement, but are we making a real impact, an impact worth the higher costs in gasoline, utility bills and food prices?
“With nearly 4 in 10 Californians near or below the poverty line, I think we’re asking Californians to pay too much for too little.”
Oil drilling: Both Newsom and Cox say they oppose new coastal oil drilling and the Trump administration’s plan to open more offshore areas to exploration.
But unlike Cox and Gov. Jerry Brown, Newsom also opposes fracking, the process of injecting high-pressure liquid into rock formations to unlock oil and gas deposits. Newsom said “fracking poses potentially significant health and environmental risks that need to be studied, monitored and tested for aggressively.”
He does not accept political contributions from the oil industry, unlike Brown.
Cox sees little need for restrictions on oil exploration on land. He said Sacramento runs the risk of driving up costs for oil companies, which could pass them along to consumers.
“California families are already paying higher utility costs, higher gas prices, higher food prices, and facing smaller slices of the state budget in the future for schools,” Cox said. “There’s a limit to the affordability pain these politicians can inflict.”
Water policy: Cox opposes as a “boondoggle” Brown’s $17 billion proposal to move water from Northern California to Southern California through twin tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Backers say the state has to do something to improve water shipments through the delta, where endangered fish are susceptible to being caught in the pumps that push water through aging canals.
Newsom backs a one-tunnel option as more cost-effective. The state has estimated that a single tunnel would cost $10.7 billion and ship two-thirds as much water as the twin tunnel option.
Environmentalists are leery of both alternatives, fearing they would disrupt the delta’s natural flows.
Cox supports Proposition 3, an $8.9 billion water bond that would pay for dam upgrades and watershed improvements. Newsom says he hasn’t made up his mind on the measure.
Cox points out that while voters have approved three bond measures over the past four years to address water needs, only a fraction of that “was specifically dedicated to surface water storage” — that is, dams. He wants the state to fully fund projects such as the Sites Reservoir north of Sacramento, even if the next governor and Legislature have to tap into nearly $16 billion the state holds in reserve and rainy-day funds.
Newsom promised to focus on delivering clean water to thousands of Californians living in poor communities in the Central Valley and Southern California who don’t have it. On dams, he said, “I’m not ideologically opposed to above-ground storage.”
Wildfires: To Newsom, “the science is clear: Increased fire threat because of climate change is becoming a fact of life in our state.”
In addition to improving how the state clears dead trees and vegetation, he is proposing a combination of technological solutions. Newsom’s tech wish list includes installing an early warning infrared camera network that would spot wildfires and alert public safety officials. And he wants to use artificial intelligence technology to predict and contain wildfires.
Newsom conceded that many of these ideas are “short- and medium-term solutions. California must continue to lead the nation and the world in fighting the real cause of this increase — climate change.”
Cox said “some of the most prominent climate change culprits in California are the Sacramento politicians that have not managed our forests and done the things needed to prevent the severity of recent forest fires. These fires are huge net carbon polluters, and that’s one impact we can make immediately to help mitigate our human contribution to climate change.”
Part of Cox’s solution: more logging.
“Logging is a good thing,” he told the online news organization CalMatters. “The idea that we’re hindering logging — when it’s a wonderful business, by the way — and can contribute to economic growth and jobs and reducing the wage gap and inequality gap, I think that would be a wonderful thing.”
And while Newsom is calling for increasing the pay of firefighters across the state and spending more on fire suppression, Cox said that “frankly, we are spending a lot on Cal Fire. Our salaries and our benefits for a lot of fire workers border on the excessive.”
Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @joegarofoli
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