SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Unspecified “family obligations" prompted California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday to suddenly cancel his trip to Scotland for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, a huge gathering of international leaders on a subject that is among his highest priorities.
Newsom, who has four children ages 5 to 12, will participate in the gathering virtually, spokesperson Erin Mellon said. Mellon declined to comment when asked to provide details about what prompted Newsom to change his plans.
Newsom asked Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a fellow Democrat, to lead California's delegation to Glasgow. In an interview with The Associated Press, Kounalakis said she spoke to Newsom on Thursday and had a sense she might be asked to go.
“The governor has a young family and we should all be understanding, especially those of us who have been there," said Kounalakis, who has two grown sons.
Democratic state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who is attending the conference, said he suspects Newsom is very disappointed to not be going.
“He loves this issue, he cares about it a lot," Hertzberg said. “It’s a big deal to him, and I’m sure he desperately wanted to go.”
Newsom has spoken passionately about the need to act decisively on climate change issues. Last month, while touring damage from one of the state's many recent major wildfires, he said: “I quite literally have no patience for climate change deniers," adding: that view is “completely inconsistent ... with the reality on the ground."
California has long been a global leader on climate issues, dating back to the 1960s when the state first regulated emissions for cars and trucks. While President Donald Trump was in office, California filed more than 100 lawsuits against the federal government, mostly over environmental issues.
Newsom has sought to extend California's influence further through a series of ambitious executive orders that, should they survive a lengthy and contentious rule-making process, could fundamentally change how people live. So far, Newsom has proposed a ban on the sale of all new gas-powered cars in California by 2035, a ban on all oil drilling by 2045 and outlawing the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment by 2024 or whenever state regulators determine that is feasible.
Most recently, Newsom proposed a prohibition on new oil and gas drilling within 3,200 feet (975 meters) of schools, homes and hospitals in what would be the largest buffer zone in the country in a state that is the country's seventh-largest oil producer.
Newsom not attending the conference in person will impact the state's influence “to an extent,” said state Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Los Angeles-area Democrat. But he said Newsom doesn't need to be in Scotland to be a leader on climate change.
Still, Rendon said he's been frustrated that the state isn't moving faster.
“Our aggressive actions, I think, were cool when we thought the problem was progressing at a certain pace. Now, I’m not sure that they are aggressive enough or immediate enough,” said Rendon, who will attend the U.N. conference. “It’s an opportunity to kind of talk about what we’ve done but at the same time to kind of light a fire under the butts of some of our fellow legislators and have a sense of urgency about an issue that is not only existential but that’s immediate.”
Last month Newsom easily beat back a Republican-backed recall election that sought to remove him from office, solidifying his power in the nation's most populous state. The trip to Scotland would have been his most significant international trip as governor, providing him a global platform to highlight his agenda and urge others to follow California's lead.
Newsom is up for re-election in 2022 and is a heavy favorite to remain office for a second term. Under California’s law governors are limited to two terms.
Canceling the trip is unlikely to hurt him politically, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy communication at the University of Southern California. In fact, Newsom might have been harmed politically as well as personally if he did attend, she said.
“The optics of his leaving the country, assuming there’s something happening that needs his attention at home, would be totally negative,” she said.
“He won’t be able to hobnob and network, but he will be visible,” she added. “As long as there is Zoom, as long as there is a means of virtual face-to-face communication, I don’t think he’ll be off the radar screen.”
Top officials from his administration still plan to travel to Scotland, including natural resources secretary Wade Crowfoot, environmental protection secretary Jared Blumenfeld, California Air Resources Board Chair Liane Randolph, agriculture secretary Karen Ross and senior climate adviser Lauren Sanchez.
“While we have a lot to do still in California and really are going to learn from the international community about what more we can do that they're doing, we also have a lot to teach," said Blumenfeld, who will be in Scotland for a week starting Nov. 1.
Newsom had only recently decided to attend the conference, sending staff, media organizations and other lawmakers scrambling to prepare for the trip. His decision not to go was equally abrupt and more surprising.
Hertzberg credited Newsom for putting his children first.
“At some point, as much as we want to be out there in politics, you’re a human being. You’ve got to take care of your family. And he’s doing it, and I think that’s a good thing,” Hertzberg said.
Associated Press reporter Don Thompson contributed.