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California Leaves Another Big Footprint at U.N. Climate Talks -- But Does It Matter?

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Cars and trucks generate the largest share of greenhouse gases in California. (Craig Miller)

Governor Jerry Brown blazed a trail through this year’s round of U.N. climate talks, just concluded in Bonn, Germany. Along the way he spoke at the Vatican, met with key players in the European Union and signed up some more subnational leaders to his Under 2 Coalition for climate action.

But can all this activity really help move the needle toward lower climate emissions?  We put that question to Jonathan Pershing, who  was the chief U.S. climate negotiator under the Obama administration. He now directs environmental programs at the Hewlett Foundation in Palo Alto.

Jonathan Pershing was the lead U.S. negotiator on the Paris climate accord.
Jonathan Pershing was the lead U.S. negotiator on the Paris climate accord. (The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation)

KQED: First of all, where do we stand with respect to the climate agreement signed in Paris in 2015?

Pershing: The last two years, countries have really moved forward. We’ve seen substantial implementation. In fact, by many we’ve seen even more aggressive implementation than required. So two key countries that we care a lot about: on the Chinese side, they’ve made some major strides [to become] the world’s largest purchaser and installer of renewable energy for electricity.

In a case like India’s, they’ve made a pledge to rapidly increase, not just renewable energy, but also electric vehicles. So we’re seeing enormous playing out of the commitments, and in most parts of the world, frankly with the exception of the United States, we’re seeing countries on track and seeking to be even more aggressive than their original targets.


[Ed. note: this year Syria signed on to the Paris accord, leaving the U.S. as the only nation not participating, since the Trump administration’s repudiation of the agreement.]

KQED: The latest installment of the National Climate Assessment is out. Does anything jump out at you as particularly concerning? Do you think that the findings in that report up the ante at all or increases the urgency? Or what’s your take on it?

Pershing: So, every time we come out with a new science assessment, it makes more clear, more explicit, the nature of the crisis — and I use the word crisis advisedly — and the urgency with which we have to act if we want to address it. This report is yet another in a very long series of convincing, compelling articulations about our understanding of the science.

There isn’t a body that looks at this issue that doesn’t have the exact same conclusion. It’s getting worse, faster. The damages are more significant. And every time we do another report, it makes those clearer.

Largest emitters of greenhouse gases, projected to 2020. (Click the image to enlarge). (Center for Climate & Energy Solutions)

KQED: So, let’s talk about Governor Brown, who had a “special advisor” role in Bonn. I’m not sure what significance is attached to that but he has definitely been mounting a major international effort to rally support for climate action. Do you think that he can really make a difference though, without meaningful national policy to back it up?

Pershing: I don’t think by itself it’s sufficient. But I think that meaningful national policy comes out of a host of different places. It’s not as if the chief executive, the president, decides, “I’m going to change the world tomorrow and it changes.” You’ve got to build coalitions of interest. Those often come from historical preferences and efforts mounted by multiple levels of government, by civil society, by whole coalitions of common interest.

So Governor Brown’s trying to do exactly that. And it’s not that he just began this last week. He’s been working in the context of trying to drive state and sub-national action for years now. And this is the next logical step in that program. It’s been given a lot more attention because the executive branch under President Trump has decided not to move. And so Governor Brown’s saying, “Wait a minute. There are those of us who feel that it is imperative that we must move and we’re going to go forward anyway.” And he’s building coalitions of like-minded players.

KQED: And so you see this activity by Brown as being more than just symbolic?

Pershing: Considerably more. He’s got enormous capacity to influence California, to work with the states that California has allied with, which represent about half the states in the nation, to really change the national dynamic…to change emissions, and to change the politics.

There are a couple of things that only happen at a sub-national level. A couple of examples: cities control building codes. If you want to make your buildings more efficient, it’s often the city that dictates what the minimum standard is. States control certain kinds of things like zoning. They control a lot of our transportation infrastructure. They deal with things like state taxes on gasoline. They’re the ones that can provide incentives for new companies to move in — companies like Tesla or companies like GM developing the [Chevy] Bolt. Those are things that happen often with state incentives. Those aren’t done at the federal level. Those are much more local. Those kinds of things then can be driven by an executive, at a state level, or a city level, or a county level that can drive change.

So to me, Governor Brown is tapping into two things. One, the urgency and the need to act and his commitment in California to do so. And two, the fact that governments at these levels have independent authority and autonomy and need to exercise it.

KQED: The governor has claimed that the “Trump factor,” as he put it, will be a minor blip and not amount to a major setback in climate progress. Do you agree with that?

Pershing: I think he’s right, although I’m not sure I would have characterized it quite the same way. If I look at this problem, the United States is responsible for less than 20% of global emissions…which means that 80% is happening elsewhere. And in the other 80%, every other country except the United States are in and are apparently meeting their commitments.

So the United States, therefore, does represent a small share. And with states moving forward and making part of the difference, the difference will be even smaller. But I want to point out a problem with this, because the extension of that could lead people to believe that it doesn’t matter what the U.S. does. And I don’t think that is true. I think it matters deeply. We are a country that is noted for its innovation, for its ability — not just on the technology side — but on the policy side. I think the existence of Paris itself is in part a function of American input and aggressive work on diplomacy. And it will make a difference. We will not succeed as quickly. And if the world moves forward without the U.S., which it’s going to try to do, the U.S. is likely to lose domestically on economic grounds and on climate grounds.

The world is faced with a problem it’s never dealt with before. You need the best minds working on it. And California is usually at the forefront, and I think will remain at the forefront of that discussion.


KQED has asked the governor’s office what potential reduction in carbon emissions is represented by the more than 200 members of his Under 2 Coalition. We are told they have not made that calculation.

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