California isn’t a country, so why are so many in the state headed to climate talks in Paris?

Philanthropist and environmentalist Tom Steyer is among those Californians headed for the global climate summit in Paris.

Philanthropist and environmentalist Tom Steyer is among those Californians headed for the global climate summit in Paris.

(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
Share via

California will have a massive footprint at the United Nations summit on climate change in Paris, a symbol of the state’s political commitment to fighting global warming and the business interest of companies that can benefit from clean-energy policies.

The decision by many of California’s most powerful leaders to decamp across the Atlantic Ocean shows how stemming greenhouse gas emissions is viewed as both an environmental imperative and a potential economic boost for the state.

“You’ve got to get on the side of nature if you want to prosper,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in an interview this week. He’s scheduled to arrive Friday and speak at an event with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the first stop in a schedule packed with ceremonies and speeches.


Besides Brown, if you’re looking for a leading state politician, environmental activist, government regulator or energy executive, chances are, they’re in Paris for the next week.

“We want to export what we’ve been able to accomplish so far,” said Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who has pushed climate change legislation in the Capitol. “What we want to bring back to California is more investment capital.”

Besides eight lawmakers and the governor, a number of top Brown administration officials are going to Paris, including Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols and Environmental Protection Secretary Matt Rodriquez.

NEWSLETTER: Get the day’s top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

There’s also former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican whose administration launched some of the state’s most sweeping climate change policies, and Tom Steyer, a major Democratic donor and environmental activist. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is spending two days in Paris, and a posse of companies working on clean technologies will be there as well.

KR Sridhar, CEO of the fuel cell company Bloom Energy, said he wanted to show how climate policies and economic development can work together.


Gov. Jerry Brown is spending a week at the UN climate conference in Paris.  He says it’s not just countries that can play a role.

“We want not only our company, but companies like ours, to succeed,” he said.

Because California isn’t a country, it won’t be a part of the official negotiations intended to broker a new international accord for fighting climate change. But activists, analysts and government officials said the state has been able to play an important role by demonstrating policies like the cap-and-trade program, which limits emissions and charges fees to polluters.

“They’ve had a significant effect on the dynamics surrounding the negotiations by taking a leadership role,” said Karen Florini, the U.S. Department of State’s deputy special envoy for climate change. Out of all the states, “California is the most visible and most active.”

Attending the U.N. summit is likely to be an intense experience, with 50,000 people descending on Paris and the Le Bourget convention center outside the city. Everywhere California’s representatives turn in Paris, there will be someone looking to swap business cards or discuss an investment or review energy policies.

“Our hope is to soak up as much as possible, to be part of the conversation,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego).

California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), part of a delegation attending the Paris climate conference.


Louis Blumberg, the California climate change director at the Nature Conservancy, described it as a “five-ring circus.” Steyer said he expects it to be “a bit of a zoo.”

Brown’s schedule is bursting with events, including a ceremony hosted by the U.S. ambassador to France on Sunday. It’s a chance to highlight an international agreement among states, provinces and cities, an effort the governor has championed.

“We can’t go it alone,” he said. “California as the exception has to become California as the norm.”

Some events are geared toward certain technologies, like zero-emission vehicles. Others are focused on particular relationships with foreign leaders, such as Chinese environmental officials.

“We are in a global world, and California is like a country,” said Orville Schell, a director at the Asia Society in New York and author of a 1978 book about Brown.

The governor, Schell said, is “acting like he’s head of a sovereign state.”

Brown is also working with Steyer to gather business leaders in Paris as a show of support for climate policies. Among the companies that will be represented are SunEdison, Solar City, Kaiser Permanente, Bank of America and ChargePoint.


NextGen Climate founder and Democratic donor Tom Steyer discusses how clean-energy policy can positively affect the economy.

“Actually doing the right thing in terms of progressive energy policies leads to a more prosperous, better employed society,” Steyer said.

Some participants in the event, such as PG&E and Calpine, are helping cover the travel costs for government officials. Also chipping in are advocacy and philanthropy groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Energy Foundation.

A nonprofit called the Climate Action Reserve raised money to pay for the trip.

The state’s presence in Paris also has included the University of California, which is the only institutional investor in a new clean-energy fund announced by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The university system plans to invest $1 billion over the next five years.

UC President Janet Napolitano, who joined Gates at his announcement, said: “As a public research institution, we take the imperative to solve global climate change very seriously.”

California has been pushing tougher environmental policies for decades, sometimes over the objections of businesses who see view them as bad for the economy.


But with countries committing to new clean-energy goals in Paris, the state’s bets could pay off, said Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at UC Berkeley.

“It really highlights the fact there’s benefit to being the early adopter,” he said. “There’s risk, but there’s also benefit, and California has been reaping.”

Twitter: @chrismegerian


To spotlight climate change, 10,000 religious activists go without food

What is carbon pricing and why is it so important in battling climate change?


World leaders kick off climate talks in Paris: ‘Our goal must be a transformation’