On Monday, Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, announced that he’s starting an institute at U.C. Berkeley aimed at tackling the climate crisis with help from what he described as a critical ally: China.
The California-China Climate Institute is intended to help spur partnerships between various state agencies and policymakers in China, as well as researchers at Tsinghua University.
The announcement comes amid a global outcry — led in part by young people — over the broad failure to adequately address climate change.
Tensions between the U.S. and China over trade have continued to bubble, and American universities, including U.C. Berkeley, have taken action against Chinese researchers and businesses over security concerns.
I talked with Mr. Brown about how he sees the institute navigating choppy geopolitical waters, and about why he’s throwing his weight behind this effort. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for length:
Jill Cowan: To start, can you tell me about how this initiative came about?
Jerry Brown: Several years ago during the time I was governor, it became very clear that California couldn’t be an island of climate action. Our rules to reduce carbon emissions, to require renewable tech and renewable sources for electricity, our policy on low-carbon fuel, the cap-and-trade program — all these rules really need to be part of a more global undertaking.
I also saw China adopting some of the same programs and so we started sending people to China and welcoming Chinese policymakers, staffers, technicians here in California.
As part of that, I went over and met with President Xi of China, and he met with me soon after President Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement. After I left the governorship, following up on the agreement that I really made in China before, we have forged this new joint institute.
The goal is to keep open the channels of communication with China at the state level but also the national government level, to exchange ideas, bring scientists back and forth between the two countries, push for a more ambitious policy.
I’m wondering how you and others involved with this initiative are approaching working with Chinese institutions, given recent tensions. This is obviously a very open partnership with the Chinese government.
Well, look, there is a policy that is shaping up in Washington to decouple from China. I don’t think that’s the future. To me, that’s 19th-century thinking. It leads to war and economic decline.
So I believe collaboration with our eyes open — not being naïve, not being utopian, but having smart people, scientists, policymakers face the terrible prospect of a heating environment.
People are dying in the fires. People in Florida, Bangladesh, even New York City, in Shanghai they’re going to be facing rising sea level, climate disruption, drought, tropical diseases.
This transcends the age-old rivalry that national governments have. And I am one who believes we have to recognize that we have imperfections. We’re not a white knight.
I start, in one sense, with the doctrine of original sin. We were born with our intellect darkened and our wills weakened. That applies to nations.
China does a lot of stuff that I don’t like, that other people don’t like, but the answer is not to pick up your baseball bat and go home. It’s to engage and to frankly discuss.
I want to focus our best efforts on finding ways to rapidly reduce to a net zero the global emission of heat-trapping gases. To say that borders on the preposterous. But it also is absolutely necessary.
I might even say we’re doing the Lord’s work, and we’re not going to be deterred by other issues and problems and antagonisms, however they may arise.
You’ve mentioned transportation is particularly important to California. Are there ideas that the institute will be looking at that might have the fastest turnaround for implementation?
We need more zero-emission vehicles right now. The E.P.A. policy is to stop that by taking away the California waiver, so we will encourage more support domestically, in other states, among auto executives — they signed a voluntary agreement with California.
We want to promote all the joint efforts that will increasingly respond to the climate threat.
Are there other specific actions that you’d like to see taken by leaders at the state, national or even local level?
In California we’ve developed the capacity to monitor and audit carbon emissions from industry. The dairy industry, manufacturing industry, oil refineries and many others. And that’s the basis of our cap and trade.
But you’ve got to know what you’re dealing with, and that is measurement. I think there’s a lot that we can contribute to China in this regard.
They could have a much more robust cap-and-trade program. So could all the other states.
The Paris Agreement is very important. But it’s not resulting in what they all thought — namely, nations coming to 2019, 2020 with more advanced commitments of carbon reduction. That’s not happening. Well this is one vehicle to reverse that.
While I’ve got you, any thoughts on the presidential election?
What is it, September? People didn’t used to announce for president until October and November. Bobby Kennedy didn’t even get in until the year of the election. We will have more plans and we will have more gaffes to ponder.
Oh, and how’s Colusa and the family?
[Laughs.] They’re fine — Colusa’s fine, Cali’s fine.
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