‘They’ve played us for fools’: California Governor Gavin Newsom calls out fossil fuel industry to cheers at UN

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks as he attends the Climate Ambition Summit at the United Nations Headquarters on September 20, 2023 in New York City. (Getty Images)

California Governor Gavin Newsom called out the “deceitful” fossil fuel industry during a speech at the United Nations on Wednesday, a rare and excoriating move which drew cheers and applause.

The governor spoke at the UN Climate Ambition Summit – an event championing the first “movers and doers” who are taking more accelerated action to cut the greenhouse gas emissions boiling the planet.

Countries like the United States, China and other major polluters were not given the floor at the summit which UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described as having “no room for back-sliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters, or repackaging of announcements from previous years”.

California’s governor was seated alongside London Mayor Sadiq Khan, another subnational leader who spoke at the same time as his national leader, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, was back in London announcing a rollback of the UK’s net-zero pledges.

Mr Newsom began by sharing details of the work that California has done to phase out fossil fuels and boost clean energy in its plans to be carbon neutral by 2045.

Last week, the state of California filed a lawsuit against some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, claiming they deceived the public for decades about the risks of fossil fuels.

Mr Newsom used his time at the UN to speak directly to the fossil fuel industry’s damaging actions.

“It’s time for us to be a lot more clear. This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis,” he said, to applause and cheers from some attendees.

He continued: “It’s not complicated. It’s the burning of oil. It’s the burning of gas. It’s the burning of coal. And we need to call that out.

“For decades and decades, the oil industry has been playing each and every one of us in this room for fools. They have been buying off politicians. They’ve been denying and delaying science and fundamental information that they were privy to that they didn’t share or they manipulated. Their deceit and denial going back decades, have created the conditions that persist here today.”

His words were echoed by Chile’s president Gabriel Boric and the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, who also addressed the role that the fossil fuel industry had in creating, and continuing, the climate crisis.

Mr Newsom’s candor was lauded by climate organisations.

“UNPRECEDENTED – No political leader said it as is!” tweeted Harjeet Singh, head of political strategy at Climate Action Network International.

“Governor Newsom is showing President Biden what real climate leadership looks like: a commitment to not only scale up clean energy, but also to phase out fossil fuel production and hold Big Oil accountable,” said Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media and a spokesperson for Make Polluters Pay, a new effort to hold Big Oil accountable for climate damages.

“Taking on fossil fuels isn’t just a ticket to the UN’s climate summit, it’s also the way to voter’s hearts, especially the young people and progressive base Biden needs to mobilize for this election. ”

Mr Newsom’s UN speech is the latest in a number of profile-raising moves including setting up his own political action committee, national media appearances and a proposed debate with 2024 Republican presidential nominee, Ron DeSantis.

The Democrat told CNN earlier this week that he has no interest in running for president this cycle, and threw his support behind President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

But his recent headline-grabbing manouevres have provided grist for the mill among political commentators that he could launch a bid in 2028.