Our “Marketplace Tech” series “How We Survive” explores how tech can help the world adapt to climate change. In this installment, we look at what California Gov. Gavin Newsom thinks about tech giants helping with the climate crisis.
California has been a leader in environmental and energy policy for half a century. Now the state is at war with the Trump administration over its fuel emission standards, the strictest in the nation.
California has also been hit hard by climate change. Wildfires in Northern California last year killed more than 80 people and leveled 14,000 homes. Recent years have brought more fires, more extreme heat days and historic drought.
I asked Newsom if he saw the tech industry as having a role in helping communities adapt and preventing more disasters. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Gavin Newsom: It’s a hand in hand in California because effects of climate change are here — they’re real. Just consider that since 2015, 10 of the most destructive wildfire seasons have occurred, and obviously we need to do more to protect those communities from the ravages of the hots getting hotter and the dries getting drier. One billion dollars, by the way, [is what ] we put in this budget [as] additional resources to invest, including suppression strategies, early detection strategies, new infrared cameras, new technology, lighter technology, new satellite technology. All these things are part and parcel of our engagement.
Molly Wood: It sounds like you are describing a market for new technologies that right now venture capitalists aren’t funding because they feel burdened by what happened 10 years ago with green tech.
Newsom: Not only are we describing the opportunities for new investment, we’re also coming up with new procurement strategies to test those technologies in real time rather than going through these processes of the state defining what we need. We’re defining the problem, we’re letting the private sector and tech leaders define the solutions, including, by the way, doing an X Prize, to address the issue of early detection and suppression strategies, be that drone technologies, be it the ability to utilize open-source satellite imagery and data. All of those are technology opportunities, where the private sector and venture capital rightfully should invest, make some money by doing the right things and do it quickly.
Wood: The legacy of Silicon Valley is to want to solve big problems. There is a sense, I think, in the valley — and maybe it’s just me — that these guys should engage on climate change.
Newsom: They are doing it directly through philanthropy a lot more than they are perhaps through the corporate board. No. 2, they’re doing it in the most profound way and, forgive me, on transportation. Autonomy, foundationally, is going to change the trajectory of this debate. Electric vehicle technologies and alternative fuel technologies, which will dominate and proliferate in the next few decades, that perhaps will be the most significant contribution tech will ever make. In some ways, I’m not pessimistic, I’m deeply optimistic because of the investments in R&D and the progress in technology we’re already seeing.
Wood: How big of a deal then is the shift to electric for those carmakers and for this movement overall?
Newsom: There’s not one automobile manufacturer that doesn’t understand where we’re going. They’re making investments today for 2025, 2030. It’s exciting. They see where the rest of the markets internationally are going, they see where their growth will reside. They recognize that consumer choice is changing, and they want to meet consumers where they are. They want to reduce costs, which ultimately is at the pump, and they want to meet consumers with the latest technology, and that means innovation and electric vehicles, but also broadly defined alternative fuel vehicles. But EVs are the game changer. The cost of batteries is dropping significantly, the technologies from a range perspective are advancing. It took us 20 years to sell the first million electric vehicles, [and] it took less than 20 months to sell the second million. This is — I don’t want to argue —it’s Moore’s law. You’re going to see some exponential application and distribution and scale of the sales of electric vehicles in the next decade that I think will really shock those that aren’t seeing the contours of this trend line today.
Wood: What are the things that only government can do?
Newsom: Policy. We set the rules, regulation. We incentivize good behavior, disincentivize bad behavior. We create markets, and private sector either responds to that or gets run over. I really am proud of California and its ethos, its values that transcend the last five or six administrations, and we got to keep that going because of the existential threat that is this new reality of climate change.
Wood: A huge driver of that innovative spirit is here in California and Silicon Valley. You’re very familiar with the tech industry on a lot of fronts having come from the Bay Area. How do you see your relationship with what we’re now calling Big Tech?
Newsom: I’ve known a lot of these folks when they were Little Tech. I’ve seen them grown into Big Tech most of them as individuals and gotten to know the companies more broadly defined. Individuals come and go, the companies persist, and I’ve seen lightened leadership, I’ve seen very self-centered leadership, I’ve seen empathy and I’ve seen a deep lack of empathy. There’s a deep empathy gap with some sectors of tech. I’ve seen the best and the worst up close. Not just as a California resident, not just proximate as a fifth-generation San Franciscan living in the Bay Area, but as someone that quite literally has grown up with a number of these people that are well-known brands in the tech world.
Wood: Since you have known the tech industry since they were Little Tech, and you really do have these personal relationships, do you feel like you have an opportunity in your role as governor and also friend of the industry, sometimes, to push them?
Newsom: The answer is yes, but I have to say, behind the scenes, you go to Google X or someplace like that, and there’s a lot of exciting and enlivening things that are in the leading and cutting edge that are in their dormancy right now and then are going to be made visible in ways that I think get people, sort of calm their nerves that the tech industry is not “doing enough.” But I will say on the philanthropic side, at least, without exception, the thrust of most of the investments, most of these major founders are focused on is in this space. I just had, as an example, the privilege of sitting down with Bill Gates, and the entire purpose of the conversation was his doubling down on his commitment in the climate change space. He’s doing it through his philanthropic arm to create market incentives and take a business mindset to making the green tech investments without worrying about the [return on investment], but investing in an entrepreneurial mindset to solving some of these problems. I’m seeing a lot more that gives me a lot more confidence that the tech industry, including on carbon drawdown technologies, is a lot further along than many of us may believe.
Wood: How important is energy? Batteries are the whole ball game and electric vehicles and otherwise, but also energy independence, this idea of decentralization as a resilience strategy.
Newsom: We’re about to announce that we’ve installed our millionth solar roof … and the way we can scale it to the next level is doing two things. One, implement the new rules that all new construction standards will require [guidelines for] solar on the roof by Jan. 1, 2020. And No. 2, make sure we have adequate storage and meet the technology call to provide that storage at the scale that’s needed to ultimately radically reimagine our grid. California, from a policy perspective, is creating the market incentives for companies to invest in that space. I don’t know that most folks are familiar with this, but we have five times more green energy jobs in California than fossil fuel jobs — 5-to-1. We’re one of the most dominant fossil fuel economies in America, California, and 5-to-1. We are outperforming the fossil fuel industry. The old adage fresh air of progress versus the stale air of normalcy. We see the future, and we want to do well there, which means you got to invest in the future. Trump sees the past, and he’s not interested in investing in the future. He is not going to do very well there.
Related links: more insight from Molly Wood
The climate policy think tank Energy Innovation said transportation emissions are the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions not just in California, but in the United States, and have been for the last three years. The think tank had an analysis piece in Forbes last week that said eliminating the emissions waiver in California could lead to a 4% increase in emissions in the state, and a total increase of 10%, including all the states that currently also have stricter emissions policies than the federal government.
If cars get less fuel efficient or their standards don’t improve, that could cost consumers about $160 billion in additional fuel costs.