Op-Ed: Jerry Brown: Biden’s first task should be working with China on climate change


In 2017, during my final term as governor of California, I traveled to China in search of climate partnerships with both national and local authorities. I knew that California’s path-breaking vehicle emission standards and other climate laws would prove ineffective unless other states — and countries — enacted similar measures. If California wanted to succeed in forcing the big auto companies to cut their emissions and shift to zero-emission vehicles, there would be no better ally than China, whose market every car company coveted.

U.S.-China relations were less toxic then than they are now, but still very difficult. Nevertheless, I was determined to build an effective climate alliance that would amplify and secure our efforts in California.

That started with meetings with China’s provincial leaders in Chengdu and Nanjing and culminated in Beijing, where I met with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, in the Great Hall of the People. We had met in 2013 when Xi came to California for talks with President Obama and we had discussed the urgency of China and America cooperating on climate.


It was fortuitous that our meeting in Beijing came just days after President Trump announced that he was pulling America out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. It was unusual for Xi to have such a meeting with a state governor, but I understood the clear message being delivered: China at the highest level was committed to meeting its promise in the Paris accord and would work with California to achieve mutual climate goals.

In the meeting, Xi expressed his determination to open the door for more collaboration between California and provinces and other subnational jurisdictions in China on climate-related initiatives. And this is exactly what California has been doing these last three years — on carbon pricing, new building standards and zero-emission vehicles.

Our discussion that day also set in motion the California-China Climate Institute, a joint initiative of the University of California and Tsinghua University, which has begun research on ways to align carbon markets, accelerate a shift to zero-emission vehicles and achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century. We have also brought together top American and Chinese climate leaders.

Through these efforts, California has shown that partnership and cooperation with China are eminently feasible — at least on the profoundly important issue of climate change.

Meanwhile in Washington, Trump has pursued unabashed nationalism, scapegoated foreigners and fostered unrelenting political polarization. Under these conditions, dialogue and building consensus — the very essence of democracy — have become ever more difficult. Beyond our borders, suspicion on every side has led to name calling and avoidance of international cooperation.

Fortunately, it is a new day in Washington. Joe Biden has won the election and made it plain that he is going to deal with domestic and foreign affairs with professionalism and common sense. On climate change, that means accepting the science, which he does wholeheartedly, and making the necessary investments and mobilizing the scientific and technical skills that America has in abundance.


Yet there’s much more to do. Specifically, Biden must commit to the following four goals: zero-emission transportation, zero-emission buildings, zero-emission electric grid and zero-emission industry. Of course, this will take decades to fully accomplish, but without such commitments, the Paris goals and net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century are only a pipe dream. Biden says he thinks of jobs whenever he thinks of climate action — and there is no bigger jobs program imaginable than transitioning the world off fossil fuels.

But America is only part of the problem and must enlist other nations to combat climate change. That is where China comes in. The overarching fact of life in today’s world is that despite totally different systems of government, China and America share a common interest and a common vulnerability. We will suffer the same devastations from a warming planet. We also share a common responsibility as the two largest producers of global greenhouse gases. Either we turn the tide together and put the world on the path to zero carbon emissions or it won’t be done.

That starts with Biden and Xi jointly pledging — in the first week of the Biden presidency — to work together on climate change. With Biden reentering the Paris Agreement and with both China and the U.S. sharing the goal of mid-century decarbonization, we are now heading in the same direction — at least on one of the biggest threats facing mankind.

Next, both countries need to reestablish the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, which was a crucial framework for joint climate actions and mutual understanding, launched during Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s visit to China in April 2013. It led directly to joint climate commitments by Xi and Obama that served as the major catalyst for the success of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Tragically, Trump discontinued this initiative and ended climate cooperation. Biden’s appointment of Kerry as presidential climate envoy will help set the course again for crucial climate action.

Despite the real and profound differences dividing China and the U.S., Biden and Xi can rise to the challenge and embark together on a path of global transformation. Nothing less stands a chance of reversing the warming temperatures now threatening civilization.

Jerry Brown was governor of California from 1975-83 and from 2011-19. He is chair of the California-China Climate Institute at UC Berkeley.