When the international climate talks in Copenhagen collapsed in 2009, many placed the blame on China. At the time, China was not yet the planet’s largest carbon emitter, but it was responsible for more than 40% of global coal consumption.
In the years since, climate change skepticism in China has largely abated. Overwhelmed with global evidence of melting glaciers and polar ice, rising seas and ever more extreme floods, hurricanes, fires and drought, officials in Beijing have become convinced that global warming poses as much a threat to their country as it does to the rest of the world. China has also developed a genuine interest in energy independence.
By the time the landmark Paris agreement was ratified in 2015, climate change was one of the rare issues on which China and the United States — the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 polluters, respectively — could find common purpose.
This shared purpose has been dealt a serious setback by the Trump administration, which withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord last year and is now working to roll back nationwide fuel economy standards and other climate regulations at home.
Although the White House and Congress have retreated from the climate challenge, the rest of the country need not. Fortunately, some local and state governments in the United States are stepping up. In these efforts to battle emissions, California has emerged as a global force.
California’s leadership role will be on display this week as Gov. Jerry Brown hosts thousands of international delegates at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. The gathering will send a message to the rest of the world that some states in the United States are still serious about climate change. By making China a key partner in the summit — Beijing has organized a “China pavilion” at the summit, and China’s former chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua is one of five co-chairs — Brown will also signal that, whatever one may think of the Chinese Communist Party, it will have to play a critical role in any successful effort to curb global warming.
From Silicon Valley to its public universities, California is incubating the next generation of clean energy technologies.
Brown has been advancing a federalist approach to climate change since long before President Trump’s retrograde policy reversals. For years, Brown has worked directly with stakeholders in the private sector, cities, other states and foreign governments to curb emissions. In the process, he has helped pioneer a model that other American states and cities should consider adopting.
Brown has been an environmental advocate since his first two terms as governor, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when he championed solar power, water conservation and the idea that “small is beautiful.”
Building on Brown’s legacy, California has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 9% over the last two decades. Now state lawmakers have passed legislation that would require all utilities to obtain 100% of their power from renewable or zero-carbon sources by 2045.
California continues to set the strictest energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings in the country. It has 420,000 electric vehicles on the road and is adding another 12,000 each month. Starting in 2020, the state will require all new homes to be equipped with solar panels.
Another key element of California’s approach to fighting climate change is its carbon cap-and-trade program, which has served as a prototype for other American states as well as China’s new carbon markets.
When Brown unveiled a plan to extend the program through 2030, he framed the proposal as essential to both American democracy and humanity. “I’m not here about some cockamamie legacy that people talk about,” Brown proclaimed impatiently in 2017. “This isn’t for me. I’m going to be dead. It’s for you. It’s for you and its damn real.”
But the most critical component may well be California’s clean energy research and development program, the largest in the country. From Silicon Valley to its public universities, California is incubating the next generation of clean energy technologies, which, in addition to helping in the climate fight, will be the job engines of the future.
While California adopted these aggressive environmental policies and initiatives, it also increased its GDP by 46% since 2000 to become the world’s fifth-largest economy, proving that a state can reduce emissions and stimulate economic growth at the same time.
During Brown’s second stint as governor, China has shown real interest in California’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and other forms of air pollution. Indeed, in 2015, California became the first state government to sign a memorandum of understanding with China’s government on the regulation of such emissions.
In 2017, as the Trump administration moved to reverse U.S. policies on global warming, Brown traveled to China to meet with climate leaders there. “California’s leading, China’s leading,” Brown said at a news conference after meeting with President Xi Jinping. “It’s true I didn’t come to Washington, I came to Beijing.”
By working directly with China, Brown has developed a form of state-to-nation relations unencumbered by the baggage that usually comes with U.S.-China diplomacy: the South China Sea, nuclear proliferation, Taiwan, trade wars.
With our national leaders unable to recognize, much less address, the most pressing issue of our time, state and local leaders would benefit greatly from following Brown’s example and engaging global stakeholders, including China, to curb emissions. It may be an imperfect consortium, but it’s our best hope.
Orville Schell is director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and the author of “Brown.” David Hochschild is a commissioner with the California Energy Commission. They helped organize Coal + Ice, a documentary photography exhibition that will be on view at the Global Climate Action Summit.