As President Donald Trump reportedly prepares to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, California Governor Jerry Brown is getting ready to take on the role of America’s de facto climate ambassador. Brown will depart Friday for a week-long visit to China, where he will meet with Chinese leaders and members of the global Under2 Coalition, an ad hoc alliance of countries, states and municipalities committed to taking action to keep global temperature rises within two degrees of pre-industrial averages.
While Trump has characterized climate change as a “hoax” created by China, Brown and California have forged numerous climate-action partnerships with Chinese politicians, regulators and scientists. Those partnerships date back as early as 2005 and have involved clean-energy investments, pollution-regulation trainings and sharing of best practices as China builds its first carbon cap-and-trade market this year. In 2013, California became the first subnational body to sign a climate agreement with China’s most powerful economic regulator. Since California and Baden-Württemberg, Germany formed the Under2 Coalition in 2015, two Chinese provinces have joined. Brown will be visiting those provinces and looking to bolster clean energy investment on this China trip.
For years, subnational agreements kept the flame of international climate cooperation burning, despite frosty relations between Washington and Beijing on climate. That frost began to thaw in late 2014, when former President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands on a major bilateral carbon reduction agreement — commitments that cleared the way for the Paris accord a year later. But with Trump now planning to exit that agreement, Brown says the ball is back in California’s court. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has already said that his city will adopt the Paris accord if Trump doesn’t, and Governor Brown will be looking to build on that momentum with his Under2 Coalition.
The WorldPost sat down with the governor in Sacramento and asked Brown about working with China on climate.
In describing California’s outreach to China, you’ve said California is not merely a state but a nation-state. What does that mean in the context of climate change?
California, in terms of its economy, is the fifth largest in the world, with a gross domestic product of more than $2.4 trillion. We have Silicon Valley. We have a fabulous agricultural sector, movies, biotech and many different and diverse businesses and universities. That is a real nation-state.
We have a lot to contribute, and now in terms of climate change, we’re taking bold moves to do what we have to do in terms of electric cars, reducing methane and fostering renewable electricity. But of course, with Washington going the other way, we have to intensify all that we’re doing.
Do you see agreements like the Under2 Coalition between “networks of the willing” as taking the place of agreements between central governments? Can ad-hoc, non-binding agreements fill that role?
That remains to be seen. We’re doing everything we can. With Trump going AWOL on climate change, the rest of the country and the rest of the world have to react, and the reaction has to be to intensify our efforts to decarbonize our economy. Now, we’re not the federal government — we’re a state government. But we’re a powerful state government. We have nine other states that agree with us. We have many other cities that agree.
As Trump does his climate denial, that paradoxically is a catalytic force that mobilizes those who don’t agree with him and those who see climate change as the threat I think it is. [That movement] is inverse to Washington, but I believe Washington will very quickly rejoin the rest of the world and fight climate change. The science is not going away. The ice melt is not reversing. So is it a year? A few years? Sooner or later, Washington will get on board.
“Subnational agreements keep the flame of international climate cooperation burning.”
Is the goal of this China trip practical ― getting more provinces to sign onto the Under2 Coalition, symbolic ― showing that Trump doesn’t represent all of America, or both?
It has nothing to do with Donald Trump. It has to do with climate change. The Under2 Coalition will have reps in Beijing. We’ll meet, we’ll assess where we are, and we’ll challenge people to intensify their efforts. I’m going to be underscoring the importance of cap-and-trade and California doing everything it can. It’s all part of building momentum to make the grand reversal that we haven’t made yet. We’re still in a fossil fuel rich environment, and we have to temper that and ultimately reverse it.
How would you describe the attitude of Chinese leaders in regards to climate change? What has worked well in cooperating with them?
Number one, China is motivated primarily by pollution ― horrible and very unhealthy pollution. In cleaning up that carbon pollution, they reduce greenhouse gases. Number two, China has its own scientists, its own academy of sciences. Those Chinese scientists are in total agreement that the climate threat is real and that the life of the Chinese people will be dramatically worse if we don’t do anything.
The Himalayas are going to melt, and then China and India will be in conflict. The devastation will be real. Therefore, China is acting, and since it has a powerful type of government, it can make decisions; we want to encourage that and make parallel decisions in California.
“Since China has a powerful type of government, it can make decisions; we want to encourage that and make parallel decisions in California.”
In terms of California’s potential to impact China and other countries, is the biggest lever California’s personnel and information exchanges or the example it sets by showing that a state can boom while reducing emissions?
It’s all of that. It’s the relationships, it’s our influence because of our universities like Stanford and the Universities of California. It’s our productivity and our government regulations on climate change. It’s personnel, and it’s proving that a climate change strategy is good for the economy and good for jobs.
The problem is not survival today ― it’s survival tomorrow. Is there enough wisdom to take the action now to make survival possible? That’s the open question. … So we have to get going. That’s why I’m going to do everything I can to encourage China and work with them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.