Capitol Alert

Is Jerry Brown taking Trump’s place on world climate stage?

Three months before Donald Trump launched his improbable presidential campaign, one in which he dismissed climate change as a “hoax” and a “very, very expensive form of tax,” Gov. Jerry Brown was touting California’s collaborations with China on air pollution, clean energy and low-carbon development.

“It is a little bold to talk about the China-California partnership as though we were a separate nation, but we are a separate nation,” Brown said of the state, with nearly 40 million residents and the world’s sixth-largest economy. “We’re a state of mind. I include Silicon Valley, I include the environmental activism, the biotech industry, agriculture. This is a place of great investment in innovation.”

Now, with Trump’s expected withdrawal from the Paris accord to curb climate-warming emissions – an agreement owed largely to the cooperation of the Obama administration and China – the latter is left with no formal governmental structure with which to work.

Enter Brown, and his nation of California.

Brown predicts Trump’s actions will not reverse the momentum of states and other countries to advance sensible climate policies. On Friday, the Democratic governor departs for a week-long swing through Chengdu, Nanjing and Beijing in China to further bolster climate, clean energy and economic ties. While he’s practical about his place in the world, the 79-year-old politician is pushing into the void left by America’s retreat.

“Gov. Brown has been a super-leader on those efforts, and they have been quite dramatic,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who like Brown has made climate change a signature issue and is amplifying his calls under Trump. “We’ve got a president who has called climate change a Chinese hoax. He has acted to dismantle the clean standard for energy production. He’s put in charge someone at the Environmental Protection Agency who has made a career of stopping efforts to defeat climate change.

“So we have to be self-reliant here and mutually supportive amongst our sub-national governments,” Inslee added. “And fortunately that’s happening – big time.”

California, viewed as a vanguard of environmental policy, is working to coalesce support for carbon-reduction efforts around the world.

In his last 18 months in office, Brown is encouraging governments to sign onto a pact limiting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, the point at which scientists believe “dangerous” climate change will commence. The agreement, which now has the signatures of 170 jurisdictions in 33 countries such as Mexico and Canada, pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Sichuan and Jiangsu became the first Chinese provinces to join the Under2 Coalition in 2015, and 23 more provinces and cities have since come aboard, contributing to Brown’s belief that China is stepping into the role of the world’s “great hope” on climate change.

“The great hope was (Chinese President) Xi (Jinping) and Obama, the U.S. and China,” Brown said in an interview Wednesday at the Capitol. “Now, under Trump, the United States government is going AWOL … we are looking at some loss here in terms of our position in the world, and jobs. Trump is saying ‘jobs,’ but he’s really saying anti-jobs, because he’s betting on a dead horse.”

Trump pledged during the campaign to withdraw from the Paris accord, contending it was harmful for jobs in the Rust Belt and western plains. Even as U.S. officials familiar with Trump’s thinking told some news media he planned to pull out, his press secretary said he could not confirm he’s made a final decision.

Brown, part of the environmental movement during his first stint as governor from 1975 to 1983, speaks of the state’s relationship with China going back to before the Gold Rush, turning to the common interest in the environment they now share. Unlike the U.S., states are unencumbered by international historical baggage such as human rights, Tibet, the South China Sea, North Korea and nuclear proliferation, through Brown has at times expressed interest in those topics.

“California has a much easier job partnering with China, which is a tremendously fickle mistress, than does any national government that has to deal with the whole portfolio of issues,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society and co-author of “Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century.”

Brown’s return will see him participate in a meeting of national energy ministers and high-level delegates from nearly two dozen countries. Brown said he’s not been in touch with the Trump administration about climate ahead of his travels, and would not say whether he’s planning to visit with Xi, with whom he previously met in Seattle in 2015 and Indian Wells in 2013, and during a trip to Los Angeles in 2012.

Among the most important aspects of Brown’s stops is providing China reassurances the U.S. is “not completely dropping the ball on its climate commitment,” said Kate Gordon, a senior advisor with the nonpartisan Paulson Institute. “The fact the governor is coming is critically important because in China everything is about the level of the relationship,” she said.

Meantime, the window for direct action between state policymakers and leaders of other counties has widened because of the federal government’s hostilities to climate policy, said David Victor, co-director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego.

“I don’t see the governor trying to replace what the federal government needs to do, nor does he see himself as a substitute for the federal government,” Victor said. Still, he added, “I think insofar as Brown’s visit helps to cement more of that with a California face, that actually would be a big deal in foreign policy terms.”

Before China reaffirmed its commitments under the Paris agreement, it was laboring to curtail greenhouse gases, reduce air pollution and ween itself off of imported oil. Experts say the country recognized its financial interests were being harmed by climate change in demonstrable ways, from rainfall patterns and altered river flows to melting glaciers.

“They know, ultimately, they cannot live by just overusing nature,” said Mathis Wackernagel, founder and chief executive of the Global Footprint Network, a research organization focused on changing how the world manages its natural resources. “But they also know that they cannot live by just getting more from the rest of the world, either, because they are a quarter of the world’s population.”

China is shifting away from a purely industrial economy, efforts punctuated by the shuttering of coal and cement plants and the swapping of two-stroke motorcycles for cleaner alternatives. It is moving to encourage the sale of more zero-emission vehicles while decreasing government subsidies to auto manufacturers. The regulations are similar to California’s mandate, another change in China’s rapidly evolving climate landscape since Brown last visited in 2013.

In California, politicians from both parties have led the way on climate change, from passage of Assembly Bill 32 under Republican former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which put the state on a path to achieving its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, to Brown’s signature last year on Senate Bill 32, calling for reducing emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. On Wednesday, the Senate advanced SB 100, President pro Tem Kevin de León’s bill outlining 100 percent clean renewable energy by 2045.

California’s collaborations with China precede Brown and run the gamut from clean vehicles to emissions trading. The state’s five-year-old cap-and-trade program, launched amid several provincial pilot emissions-trading systems in China, was carefully studied as the country prepares to take its own program national. Air Resources officials shared information about designing their program and talked the Chinese government though the challenges of developing reliable greenhouse gas reporting and verification protocols.

With the jury out on whether California can transition to a low-carbon economy without disrupting the state’s engine, one of the most keen observers is China. “Every time we make a decision, every time we pass a new law or issue another agency proclamation, people pay attention all over the world,” said Jeffery Greenblatt, an energy analyst at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

China also is closely monitoring Brown’s effort in the Legislature to extend cap-and-trade beyond 2020. There would be a loss of confidence in the California market as a working example if the state doesn’t preserve its program into the future, said Gordon, an expert on the intersection of clean energy and economic development.

“I think this trip is almost as important for the governor to demonstrate confidence in the California system as it is to demonstrate leadership globally,” she said.

Schell, who wrote a book about Brown in 1978 and remains in contact, said he doesn’t think the governor has an inclination toward grandiosity as he takes the world stage on climate change.

Brown has long viewed environmental threats like climate change as existential ones that transcend the typical fare of governors. At the same time, he remains “painfully aware” not just of the dangers that the climate change challenge poses, Schell said, but also of the actuarial table on himself.

“He can only do so much. The state can only do so much,” Schell added. “But California is now a real port-in-the-storm of the post-Paris agreement world of Trumpian climate denial in which we now must live.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago