Three summers ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown met with the environment minister of Baden-Württemberg, a large industrial state bordering France and Switzerland.
At the trade event in San Francisco, Brown and the German official were bemoaning that despite there being a fair amount of activity in the international realm around climate change, states as consequential as their own had no voice in the global process.
Brown, governor of a state he likes to refer to as its own nation, agreed to draft a local climate pact. The resulting memorandum, born from that moment of mutual frustration, has grown to include nearly 200 participants who consider it a novel approach to helping tackle the crisis of climate change.
With President Donald Trump pulling the United States back from its climate commitments, the Under2 Coalition’s founders are pushing for the pact to take on more prominence. Brown, the special adviser for states and regions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, is bringing on new members while helping governments deliver on the Paris agreement’s goal of keeping the rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
“People now are looking to California,” said Brown, who was in Stuttgart to toast with his co-founders from Baden-Württemberg. “With Trump being elected, and pulling out, this thing has become even more important. And I didn’t anticipate that.”
Next year in San Francisco, Brown will convene governments from across the world – along with entrepreneurs, artists, mathematicians and professors – to determine precisely the emissions of each signatory and report on their achievements.
Signatories to the Under2 coalition agree to limit their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent to 95 percent below 1990 levels, or, to endeavor to get to under two annual metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent per capita by the year 2050.
The distinction allows for both developing and developed jurisdictions to sign onto the same agreement. Each of the members is also asked to draft an appendix setting out what they plan to do to reduce emissions.
Coalition organizers had to make it voluntary because it would be illegal for states to draft and enforce their own treaty. The legally nonbinding aspect of the Under2 agreements has led some experts to question their efficacy.
Robert Stavins, a professor of energy and economic development in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, lauded California’s suite of legislation setting targets and giving regulators tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Stavins, who also directs the university’s environmental economics program, said he was considerably more skeptical of state- and city-level initiatives, particularly when they feature what are aspirational goals without mechanisms in place for achieving real emission-reduction goals.
“The smaller the geographical jurisdiction, the greater is the likely magnitude of emissions and economic ‘leakage’ to other jurisdictions,” he said.
David Victor, who teaches in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego, believes most members joining the coalition don’t really know what they’re committing to do.
“It is relatively easy to make bold goals. A much smaller number of jurisdictions are actually developing viable plans for implementation,” Victor said.
In August, he published a paper showing that none of the industrialized countries are on track to meet their Paris promises. Overall, the world remains far off from stopping warming at 2 degrees – even the Paris pledges submitted by the likes of the U.S., China and India, don’t add up to that.
California, however, is an exception. While the state doesn’t have a detailed vision for exactly how to make 80 percent cuts in emissions, it is chipping away at that, he said, which is the best that can be expected “since nobody has a viable detailed vision.”
Victor said he hopes to see more focus on implementation as Brown brings more partners on board.
Brown stressed that changing the foundation of the economy and civilization is not easy. Weening the world off of carbon and transitioning to a “zero-carbon” civilization is a greater transformation than going from Pagan Rome to Christian Europe, he said.
“It took hundreds of years. We don’t have hundreds of years,” Brown said. “We need to move faster. And we need all the countries and all the cities and the major corporations of the world.”
Supporters of the sub-national pact are focusing on three areas: Helping signatories determine their baseline level of emissions, evaluating the best way to grow their economies as they reduce emissions, and tackling tough questions like how does a locality increase its ability to control methane emissions?
The sub-national groups see value in their quests. Some leaders express that the international process is unwieldy, and believe it doesn’t always reflect their expectations and need to do even more.
Those officials also feel that much of the activity to reduce emissions and take direct action is done locally, where they can be more nimble as test laboratories of sorts. There’s a further upside: Sub-national efforts also go toward what the United Nations calls nationally determined contributions.
Fran Pavley, the former California state senator, said the pact is more attractive when participants show that environmental protection must not come at the expense of business. She suggested California was already demonstrating “you can have an economy and a healthy environment.”
The agreement has been a source of pride for the Baden-Württemberg state that is home to companies like Mercedes-Benz and the software giant SAP, said Winfried Kretschmann, the minister-president.
It’s significance has increased, he said, “especially at a time when we are receiving controversial and conflicting signals from Washington.”
Kretschmann spoke of the connection between the states, but did not mention Brown’s ancestral ties. The governor’s great-grandfather, August Schuckman, was a German immigrant who fled what was then Prussia and came to California during the Gold Rush. While in Germany, Brown said he visited a relative whose great-grandfather was August’s brother. Later, in Baden-Württemberg, Brown quizzed a host on whether they had heard of the Schuckmans. He was treated like family.
A large motorcade met the governor on the tarmac and escorted him to the hotel. At a dinner reception, guests sipped champagne and nibbled on crostini with lox, ham and figs. Brown, joined by his wife and adviser, Anne Gust Brown, signed a gold welcome book: “Getting the carbon out, we make a better world.”
Brown acknowledged that he didn’t envision what it would become when the coalition was first assembled. California at the time received initial interest from U.S. and Canadian states and gathered a dozen members at a signing ceremony.
Before Trump’s election, the Paris climate meeting two years ago helped the Under2 MOU resonate with more sub-national jurisdictions. Membership is headed north of 200, with participants from every continent, representing more than 1.2 billion people and reflecting 40 percent of world’s gross domestic product.
There are breakaway states like Catalonia, which is in a brutal fight for independence with Spain, and there’s Laikipia County in Kenya, whose leader is close with an official at UC Berkeley. There are rainforest states interested in California’s cap-and-trade program.
Other jurisdictions have their eyes on technology from California, sparking questions about trade and technical assistance. There also are nations such as Mexico, Canada and Sweden.
The coalition carries an unspoken appeal: The chance to visit California, or have Brown visit you, as he did Wednesday. Thomas Poreski, a green party member of parliament from Baden-Württemberg, said he followed Brown’s career from the 1970s, when he was governor the first time.
“He was the first known politician for me who cared about practical steps for improving the environment, the smog situation in California,” Poreski said as he waited to greet Brown. The German politician was a child then, but remembered it as a time of transition for his country, as it shifted from “quite a conservative, dissatisfied nation” to one that is more progressive on the environment.
Sub-national organizations provide an example, he said, “for what governments can achieve.”
“It’s a kind of inspiration, but mixed with a very pragmatic access to politics,” he said. “You can’t change everything within a few days, but you have to have goals. You have to be creative. You have to inspire people.”
Christopher Cadelago: @ccadelago