Newsom signs historic $15 billion to combat growing climate crises

FRESNO — With drought, fires and heatwaves gripping the state, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday signed a $15 billion investment package to respond to the converging crises. 

The funding is part of the state’s $262.6 billion budget approved earlier this year. While funding was available for climate initiatives, a number of budget items linked  to climate were held off in the summer until officials worked out exact funding allocations for each issue. 

The $15 billion made public on Sept. 23 mark the final changes to the state budget, and touch on wildfire and forest resilience, water and drought, sustainable agriculture and investment in zero-emission vehicles. Included in the funding is a three-year billion-dollar plan to create shelters from extreme heat and coastal protections. In addition to the $15 billion, the governor announced he had approved two dozen bills earlier in the week that supported his approach to combating climate change. 

The largest funding package was $5.2 billion for water and drought projects, which comes during another punishing drought that has lowered water supplies and threatened drinking water for residents throughout the state. 

The governor, who last week emerged victorious in a recall election that would have removed him from office, signed the climate funding in front of reporters Thursday before a backdrop of an aluminum-wrapped entrance sign to the Sequoia National Park, as orange, ashened skies hung over the state’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. That’s where the KNP Complex Fire has burned for weeks and continues to threaten the famous giant Sequoias. Last year, a wildfire ravaged the species, killing up to 14 percent of the trees in the area. 

READ MORE: Giant California sequoias wrapped in protective aluminum as fire nears

Farther south in the Sierra, fire crews are also battling the uncontrollable Windy Fire in the Tule River Indian Reservation and in the Sequoia National Park in Tulare County. Evacuations were ordered today for foothill communities threatened by the fire; a temporary evacuation center was opened at Porterville College, about 30 miles west of the fire zone. 

All the aforementioned wildfires have covered nearby communities in the San Joaquin Valley in ash and smoke, producing “mars-like” views. The smoke has also raised the air quality index in the region to the most unhealthy levels — air regulators in the Valley advised residents to monitor the air and limit being outdoors. 

Since June, volunteers with the American Red Cross have responded to multiple incidents caused by wildfire and have coordinated more than 18,000 sheltering accommodations as fire ravages California communities. Financial assistance has also been given to roughly 1,900 impacted by wildfires this year.

The organization, in a statement to the NewsHour Friday, said the impacts of climate change are being felt widely across the country, and California’s fires are another example of the stress being added on communities.  

“Some of these emergencies are impacting people who don’t usually experience a major disaster, while other communities are going through the devastation of disasters multiple times a  year,” the statement read. 

The governor’s response to climate change mirrors a similar nationwide effort by President Joe Biden, who is currently dealing with fractured talks on a $3.5 trillion budget resolution aimed at, among other things, helping mitigate climate-driven disasters. Newsom said the state could no longer wait for Congress to act. 

“We’re deploying a comprehensive approach to meet the sobering challenges of the extreme weather patterns that imperil our way of life and the Golden State as we know it,” the governor said in a statement on Sept. 23. 

Climate groups and the governor say the $15 billion initiatives are  a historic “down payment” for climate resilience in the state, but some say the governor’s actions could go further. 

“The root cause of the climate crisis, — extracting and burning fossil fuels… — there’s nothing in this package about that and there’s a lot he can do without passing new laws, within his own power, to address that,” Ryan Schleeter, spokesman for The Climate Center, said.

The Climate Center, a nonprofit working to reduce emissions in highly-polluted California regions and houses offices in the San Joaquin Valley, plans to push the governor to commit to other initiatives ahead of his scheduled talk at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November. Some of those initiatives include addressing fossil fuel production and improving the state’s electricity grid.

The state’s electric capacity has come under question, including the operations of the largest utility company. On Friday, the Shasta County District Attorney announced 31 charges, including 11 felonies, against Pacific Gas and Electric. The District Attorney said the company was liable for the Zogg Fire, which killed four people last year.  

Schleeter said it’s still unclear how the funding from the package will get to communities, like those in the Central Valley facing extreme heat, high electricity bills and air pollution. But, Schleeter said the governor’s recent “pro-science” message  was important for voters to hear, and he’s counting on the governor to deliver on the promises made to combat COVID-19 and climate change. 

“These are definitely statewide issues. They affect people differently depending on where they live, but they really do affect all of us,” Schleeter said.