Are Global Warming Summits Still Cool?

Protesters held a procession through Glasgow ahead of COP26.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Few states support climate action as enthusiastically as California. But the Golden State isn’t sending a governor to the United Nations climate change summit this year. Gov. Gavin Newsom is not going, and neither are his predecessors in the office. That’s both unusual and a little telling.

Jerry Brown, who is chair of the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, was the toast of the town at the 2015 Paris climate conference and again in 2017 in Bonn, Germany, when Donald J. Trump, the president at the time, was a no-show. Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone to three climate summits, two of them after he had termed out. In 2009, The Guardian reported that he arrived at the Copenhagen summit “with 10 men in black with wires sprouting from their ears, a phalanx of cameramen and a perma-tan.”

Newsom — a father of four young children — skipped Madrid in 2019, stayed home with the rest of the world in 2020 when that summit was canceled, and announced on Friday that this year, because of “family obligations,” he would be a virtual participant only. Earlier, he had said that he and his wife would attend the 12-day gathering to promote California’s progress in phasing out gasoline-powered vehicles and other climate policies.

So has California cooled on global warming summits?

The state is still sending nearly two dozen lawmakers and environmental officials to Glasgow for the talks, known as the 26th session of the Conference of Parties, or COP26. The California delegation will be led by the lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis, who served during the Obama administration as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

But for many environmental experts in the state, COP has become an annual reminder that the summit is geared toward nations, not “subnational” governments like California’s — and that conventions alone won’t fix global warming.

“I’ve got to be honest, I’ve been working on climate policy my entire adult life and I don’t think people should waste much time on these international meetings,” said Danny Cullenward, a Stanford-trained energy economist and lawyer who directs policy at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that evaluates climate programs. “They’re a forum, and important things can and will happen there, but those things are brought to the forum by the countries and other actors who participate. They’re not crafted and distributed from the meeting out to the rest of the world.”

Rush hour on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles. An executive order bans new gas-powered car and truck sales in 2035.Credit…Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Cullenward said the summit had become emblematic of the failure of governments — including California’s — to deliver near-term progress.

California’s tough standards on clean electricity and auto emissions have been major success stories in curbing greenhouse gas pollution, and the state has committed to a 40 percent reduction in emissions by the end of this decade. An aggressive executive order by Newsom bans new gas-powered car and truck sales starting in 2035, and recent regulatory actions aim to ban new permits for fracking and new oil and gas drilling near schools, homes and health facilities over the next few years.

But the state’s working goal for full carbon neutrality is not statutorily binding and not set to happen until 2045, long past the point of political accountability for most current office holders. Environmentalists and legislators have complained that the state climate regulator has focused on that long-term date in its planning process, potentially to the detriment of near-term actions. Meanwhile, the planet is warming, and California is being slammed by climate-driven wildfires, floods, megadroughts and blistering heat waves.

“People love to pledge targets,” Cullenward said. “The problem is, we focus too much on the pledging and not enough on the getting it done.”

Brown and Schwarzenegger are impatient, too.

Last week, at a conference organized by state air quality regulators, Schwarzenegger said that the COP summit’s emphasis on the long view had distracted from the immediate need to stop polluting.

“What does a promise and a pledge mean in the end?” he said. “Nothing. It’s just over and over, year after year, they make these pledges and they come out to declare victory, but then nothing is getting done.”

Schwarzenegger will participate this week in a virtual chat on climate and the economy with a co-founder of LinkedIn, one of the summit’s corporate attendees, according to a spokesman, and may appear at a climate-related event at the Schwarzenegger Institute at the University of Southern California.

In an interview, Brown said he was staying home because the state’s delegation was already “robust” and because he had stopped traveling out of state during the coronavirus pandemic. California, he said, will play an important role in Glasgow because nations need state and local governments to help them reach their targets.

However, he agreed on the need for action.

“This is a moment to bite the bullet, not gum the marshmallow,” Brown said. “This is an existential threat.”

For more:

  • The COP26 climate talks are opening, writes my colleague Somini Sengupta. Here’s what to expect. You can follow our live coverage here.

  • In their book, “Making Climate Policy Work,” Cullenward and David Victor, a climate policy expert at the University of California, San Diego, warn that some of California’s most heavily used climate tools, such as cap-and-trade and carbon offset programs — are not working. Hear them explain here.

  • I’m always interested in what Jerry Brown is reading. When we spoke, he quoted from “The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity” by the philosopher Toby Ord of the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

An American Airlines plane at Los Angeles International Airport yesterday.Credit…Carlos Barria/Reuters

The rest of the news

  • Canceled flights: American Airlines promised improvement after staff shortages and bad weather grounded some 1,800 flights over the weekend, including scores in California, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Fire country: As climate-fueled wildfires in the West become more fierce, far-flung and frequent, rural homeowners are taking firefighting into their own hands.

  • Stars and schools: The former head of the Los Angeles schools, Austin Beutner, is starting a statewide initiative today to pump $800 million more of state school money each year into art and music instruction. As with earlier L.A. school projects, celebrities are involved, including Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.

  • Film death: A reconstruction of events leading up to the fatal shooting of the cinematographer of “Rust,” the Alec Baldwin western, reveals a troubled production, a series of errors and live ammunition in a supposedly “cold” revolver.

  • Labor vs. Sean Penn: Remember how Sean Penn lashed back at employees at his nonprofit after they groused about long hours and a lack of Krispy Kreme doughnuts at the Dodger Stadium mass vaccine site? Now he’s facing a National Labor Relations Board complaint.


  • Migrant death: One woman died and 36 people were detained after an illegal mass attempt by as many as 70 people in Tijuana to swim around the San Diego border fence.

  • Billionaire dorm: “Disturbed” bythe University of California, Santa Barbara’s plans for a mostly windowless mega-dorm for 4,500 students at its housing-starved campus, a university architectural consultant has resigned, calling the dorm, Munger Hall — named for its billionaire donor and amateur architect Charles T. Munger — a “social and psychological experiment.”

  • Real estate record: The billionaire venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has paid $177 million for a sprawling estate in Malibu, the most ever paid for a home in California, shattering the previous record set by Jeff Bezos last year, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • California condors: A study conducted bythe San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance discovered two instances of chicks hatching from unfertilized eggs — the first known cases of so-called virgin births within the California condor species.


  • Rural road maintenance: Many rural areas in Fresno County aren’t prioritized for road maintenance, and some don’t receive any county funding at all, allowing for some dangerously neglected roads, The Fresno Bee reports.


  • Halloween shootings: Two people died and five more were wounded in crossfire at an “erotic, exotic Halloween ball” in Sacramento. In Gilroy, a gunfight at a Halloween party at the home of a city councilwoman left one person dead and three others critically injured. CBSLocal and The Mercury News report.

  • Marin goes maskless: Marin County is lifting its mask mandate today, the first Bay Area county to do so, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • Protecting Paradise: The town destroyed by the 2018 Camp fire hopes to protect thousands of returnees with an unassuming but radical experiment.

Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times

What we’re eating

Smoky lo mein with shiitake and vegetables.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Allison Kustic, a reader who lives in Sacramento. Allison recommends Silver Lake, a reservoir about 20 miles south of South Lake Tahoe:

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Monarch butterflies in Pismo Beach.Credit…George Rose/Getty Images

And before you go, some good news

The number of monarch butterflies in California has been falling for decades, with some advocates fighting for inclusion on the endangered species list.

But early counts in San Luis Obispo County this year show a 3,500 percent increase in butterflies compared with last winter, a sign that the species may be edging away from extinction, The Tribune reports.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Simple dwelling (3 letters).

Soumya Karlamangla, Jordan Allen and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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