The effort to encourage California to leave the rest of America behind and become an independent country has gotten nowhere. A ballyhooed attempt to put the question before the state’s voters in the form of an initiative didn’t get far, not even making the Secretary of State’s current list of potential future ballot measures.
But that doesn’t keep California from acting a lot like a nation-state right now, even as it tries to fend off one attempt after another by the Donald Trump administration to reduce its autonomy, from controlling air quality to dealing with wildfires and the homeless.
In fact, this fall California and its leadership – elected and appointed – have acted even more like a country than while Jerry Brown was governor from 2011 to 2019, when he traveled the world signing agreements with several foreign countries and with provinces belonging to others, including Canada and China.
So far this fall, action after action has proclaimed California distinct from the rest of America. The most visible of these was a move by the state Air Resources Board (ARB) that will eventually allow polluting companies to buy carbon-producing credits that aim to stop deforestation not only in California, but in major rainforests around the world, including the Amazon, where the so-called “lungs of the world” are said to be threatened by expanding ranches and forest clearance.
This action set standards for the emerging carbon market born from California’s pioneering cap-and-trade system to combat climate change in part by paying for programs that demonstrate absorption of carbons, as trees do. The ARB contemplates helping environmental groups buy wooded lands. This was an unprecedented move by a state government agency, coming just when Trump officially began trying to remove California’s unique ability to regulate its own air quality and greenhouse gas production.
It came as fires both planned and unplanned in Brazil alone last summer put far more carbon into the air than California produces in a full year. Buying up forest land there would keep it from being burned off to make way for new crops and cattle.
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At the same time, California became the first state government to move toward helping finance an interstate bullet train project. This planned railway would initially run from the high desert north of San Bernardino to Las Vegas, a project completely separate from the state’s ongoing, ever-controversial high-speed rail plan to eventually run trains between Northern and Southern California.
Officials led by Treasurer Fiona Ma took the first step toward approving $300 million in tax-exempt private bonds backed by the state as a way to get investors to fund the Las Vegas bullet train project, the kind of plan usually backed by the federal Railroad Administration, which first gave money to this state’s high speed rail plan, but has since tried to renege. The bonds would give Virgin Trains, the outfit behind the Las Vegas plan, about half what’s needed to build its project, which will run mostly across desert lands roughly parallel to Interstate 15.
Next, ex-Gov. Brown made a splash announcing plans for a new joint California-China climate change institute to open at UC Berkeley. It will be among the world’s first international research institutes, but will actually be a joint effort between this state and the planet’s most heavily populated country.
And then, current Gov. Gavin Newsom went to the United Nations to sound a bit like a national leader as he pronounced himself “absolutely humiliated by what’s going on” – or not going on – with climate change in Washington, D.C. “I don’t know what the hell happened to this country that we have a president that we do today on this issue,” he added, while maintaining that California will persist in its own efforts, regardless of Trump. While in New York, Newsom also signed a trade agreement with Armenia, then announced a state-owned climate-tracking satellite.
It adds up to highly visible autonomy, but may end up proving that California really does need to secede in order to pursue what Newsom likes to call its “basic values.”