Green Giants: Conversations with Global Environmental Leaders
As President Clinton campaigns on Gavin Newsom’s behalf, the would-be California governor shares an ambitious—and controversial—vision for the world’s eighth-largest economy.
Gavin Newsom is the youngest mayor of San Francisco in more than a century, and with President Clinton’s historic endorsement, he just upped his bid to become governor of the Golden State. If he wins the 2010 election and the adage “as California goes, so does the nation” still applies, then America may be poised for a green revolution of the highest order: Newsom, 41, has put the City by the Bay at the forefront of local efforts to combat global climate change. The Daily Beast recently sat down with the gubernatorial hopeful in his office at San Francisco’s City Hall.
Your father, Bill Newsom, has been a committed environmentalist for decades, serving as a trustee for the Environmental Defense Fund and on the boards of several other organizations. Is that where your passion comes from?
Yeah. I joke with people that I grew up getting to know my father on rivers—the Tuolumne, the American, and the Colorado River, when I got old enough to go down it. And we’ve taken trips to Africa and other parts of the globe. So, classic divorced family, getting to know him on summer vacations.
“Bloomberg’s got a great bully pulpit. I’ve joked that when we did our alternative-fuel taxis a year before New York I announced it on local cable. Bloomberg announced his on the Today show.”
My father always seemed to be traveling to some exotic place to raise awareness on deforestation issues and species protection. I was always very proud of him. It’s how I learned to really respect and honor him.
The list of green initiatives you’ve introduced since becoming mayor five years ago is a long and sometimes risky one. What lessons would you take to the governor’s office?
I’m reminded of the old Michelangelo line “The biggest risk isn’t that we aim too high and miss it, it’s that we aim too low and reach it.” And so I’ve always framed my environmental policymaking with that in mind. We’re willing to fail, learn from our mistakes, and move on. So we have a very entrepreneurial approach to the environment. At times that has been a peril politically, but what happened five years ago was a remarkable constellation of events.
We hosted World Environment Day. It was the United Nations’ 60th anniversary. I flew back from the World Economic Forum in Davos with Al Gore and a couple other friends, and the vice president showed us his slideshow—he had only presented it to the young global leaders, as the main forum didn’t afford him the opportunity to show it to the larger group. I asked him if he would show it in San Francisco. It wasn’t a movie yet; it was just this slideshow on his laptop. We organized the event with over 100 mayors and focused on a frame of consciousness that the environment was really about us as city representatives.
• Nicole LaPorte: Hollywod’s Political Crush on Gavin NewsomParticularly given that cities consume more than 70 percent of the world’s natural resources and produce the equivalent in pollution.
Exactly. It’s incumbent upon us to implement real change. So 2005 was a dramatic point where we really started pushing even further.
And more than 100 mayors signed on to the Urban Environmental Accords as a result.
Including the mayor of Tehran, which we thought was particularly interesting at the time, considering relations between Iran and the U.S
All the more interesting now. Are the signatory mayors honoring their commitments?
That’s a great question—the accountability. In San Francisco, we’ve exceeded in almost every capacity. We took it on with green building, public transit, alternative fuel and power, recycling, and other issues. We advanced a plan to roll back our CO2 emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2012—much more than even the accords called for. And we just became the first city in California to submit our emissions to a third party for verification. The analysis shows that as of last year, we were already nearly 6 percent below 1990 levels.
You are in contact with a lot of these mayors internationally?
We have a great, enlightened competition. I go back to Davos every year, and we mark our progress with other mayors across the country. We put out a best practices book each year that aggregates what cities are doing.
So who is moving ahead and who is falling behind?
All of us are ahead in certain aspects and way behind on others. [Former London] Mayor Livingstone and I founded SlimCity together and we debated the issue of congestion pricing. He had taken the idea from Singapore and Stockholm. New York elevated the bar in America. We just announced our 70 percent recycling rate. New York has some very interesting energy efficiency and green building programs that we are emulating. Chicago has green roofs—Mayor Daley has done some very interesting things on that front.
We’re globally aggregating these best practices and now finding these new sustainable developments being built from scratch—literally cities from the ground up.
Like Masdar, the renewable energy institute and zero carbon city currently being built in Abu Dhabi.
You got it. So that’s even raising the bar more. Bill McDonough and Jim Rogers, head of Duke Energy, are both a part of SlimCity. We’re trying to get some of the biggest coal burning producers in the world on board, too. It’s a real public-private partnership—kind of like the Clinton Initiative’s C40.
While we’re on the subject of leadership, how do you rate Gov. Schwarzenegger’s environmental record?
I think the bar is too low and he’s raised it comparatively. I give him tremendous credit, but people need to remember that [Assemblywoman] Fran Pavley and former Speaker Fabian Núñez are the real champions here. What Fran did ultimately became [California’s landmark climate legislation] AB32. The governor’s initial instincts were to veto it, but he decided to embrace it and then ultimately became the champion of it. Though to me rolling back CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 is not that extraordinary.
But controversial within Republican ranks nonetheless.
And he boldly did it. Arguably you’ll look back on his two terms and it will be his crowning achievement. It wasn’t Nixon to China—again, San Francisco’s plan is to go 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. But he made the decision to be on the right side of history.
A recent report issued by the White House estimates global sea levels will rise 3 to 4 feet in this century as a result of climate change. What challenges will this present for San Francisco and other coastal cities?
It’s huge. San Francisco is surrounded on three sides by water. We have to look not just at prevention but adaptation.
So what’s the plan?
We hosted a big conference with folks that run water and sewer systems from all over the country about two years ago to talk about land use strategies, mapping the water level rises and looking at areas for redevelopment. For example, the lowest point for a sewer system is right at water level, so all of the sudden sea water is coming in your sewage system and you have a substantial problem. These are the things we are—controversially—beginning to plan for.
What is creating the most controversy?
The land use issue. If you say you are going to build on a piece of property that’s right at water level and we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on public infrastructure, and 30 years from now it’s going to be under water and we’re going to have to mitigate it by spending hundreds of millions more, that’s a land-use decision. A lot of the big developers don’t want to see a map that shows their project may be under water in three decades. It makes it so you can’t finance it.
In a recent talk for The Long Now Foundation, you indicated that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has gotten credit for being first to introduce initiatives that actually started in San Francisco.
Absolutely. It’s just a fact. And I love that because I’ve stolen a lot of ideas from him and taken credit for it. So it’s all good. This is exactly the kind of competition cities need to be having. I admire his leadership. He’s got a great bully pulpit. I’ve joked that when we did our alternative-fuel taxis a year before New York, I announced it on local cable. Bloomberg announced his on the Today show. But he’s doing a great job with Pavement to Parks, and I’ve picked up a lot of those ideas.
While on the subject of competition, what does Portland [Oregon] have that San Francisco doesn’t? They consistently squeeze you out for the top spot on America’s greenest cities lists.
They have done such a wonderful job with their bike plan, boulevards, and enhancements of streetscapes. We’ve been struggling because we had a court injunction that stopped us from expanding our bike network. But it should be lifted soon, so you just wait. We’re going to double the number of bike lanes and substantially enhance our pedestrian right of ways. And we’re doing it with Sunday Streets—opening boulevards to bicyclists, roller skaters, people doing hula hoop and yoga lessons. It’s become a phenomenal success and at first it was wildly criticized. This is the future of big cities.
Matthew Dakotah is conducting a series of interviews with global environmental leaders for The Daily Beast. An award-winning journalist, he has directed 14 magazine and Web site redesigns and worked at Hearst and Emap. As vice president, group editorial director of Homes & Lifestyles Publishing, he initiated coverage of sustainable development and secured contributors from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Architectural Digest and Princeton. Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewdakotah.