Former Gov. Jerry Brown Announces New California-China Institute to Find Climate Solutions

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Governor Brown signs an agreement with China's Minister of Science and Technology, Wan Gang, to expand cooperation on low-carbon technology and renewables in June 2017. Brown today announced a new initiative with China to continue working on climate solutions. (Courtesy of the office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. )

Former Governor Jerry Brown is continuing his international statesmanship on climate change, even out of office. He's leading a new research partnership between UC Berkeley and Tsinghua University in China.

The California-China Climate Institute, launched Monday, Sept. 23, will focus on research and information-sharing about clean transportation, climate policy and adaptation.

Brown first began meeting with Chinese officials as governor to urge action on climate change, especially after President Trump announced he intends to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

KQED's Lauren Sommer spoke with Brown about what he hopes to accomplish outside of government channels. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Working with China on climate change was something you started while you were governor. What are you hoping this Institute will do?

It will open doors with China at a time when they're being closed throughout the American-China overall relationship. And the door opening will be in terms of climate change, dialogue, joint research, working together on a problem that, no matter what other problems exist, this one is shared by the Chinese, by the Americans, by everyone in the world.

We have a common danger, and because of my work with China and my work as governor, I felt that continuing through the University of California with the top climate man in China at Tsinghua University would be a good next step in my work to reduce climate emissions and work toward a more sustainable world.

And what have you heard from that University and from the Chinese government? What would they really like to partner with California and this Institute on in particular?

We have technical exchanges on cap-and-trade, carbon pricing, appliance and building efficiency, battery storage, zero emission vehicles. Those are all policies that California is pursuing, as well as China. And we need to mutually strive to do much, much more. California is doing more than most places in the world, but it isn't even a fraction of what it will take to get to net zero carbon emissions. Same with China, they're still growing their emissions. So even though there's a lot of good things going on, good research, some good laws and regulations, we need to step up our ambition.

And that's the point of the Institute, to bring trained scientists, policy leaders and other people who can have some impact together and work first on the subject matter, but to push against the climate deniers, President Trump and the Republicans or whomever, who are denying the facts and are working, although they may not know it, to actually cause great damage that will result in suffering and death for untold numbers of people in the world. So this is a matter of utmost significance to China, to California, to the world.

China is the top emitter of carbon in the world and certainly it's a country that still relies on coal power. Do you think an institute like this could actually make a measurable difference in global emissions?

I can't tell you, because it hasn't happened yet, but I'm certainly going to push for quicker retirement of coal, quicker adoption of zero emission vehicle standards. So that California's own effort in these regards can also prosper. I don't want to be isolated in California, but I like the fact that the largest country in the world, China, has California-style automobile emissions standards.

China is burning a lot of coal. America still gets 40% of its electric power from coal. So we've all got a lot to do and rather than point fingers and cursing the darkness, I want to shed some light and work together with China at the state level, but also at the national level.

You mentioned President Trump and the relationship he's had with China through trade tariffs and trade wars recently. What has your dialogue been like with China? Do you feel like the door is still open?

It is open and our dialogue's been positive, but we're not dealing with the South China Sea or intellectual property or cyber intrusion or whatever all the different issues are. We're dealing with the overarching common danger of climate change and we'll continue to do that.

Is there a reason not to leave this for government channels? Is there a reason to do it this way?

Well, if you want to make me governor or president, I can do it through official channels, but pending that, I'm going to work through the University. It’s a venerable institution that has the brightest people in the world connected to it. And certainly UC Berkeley and Tsinghua in Beijing are real powerhouses and I'm going to do my best to direct some of that power at reducing carbon emissions.

Is there something that this Institute, because it's through universities, can do that maybe governments can’t?

They're a little more intellectually honest. Politicians are not known for their depth or, in many cases, for their candor. Hopefully we can do better on both those accounts through working with university people.

Your administration worked on climate change quite a bit. What was the biggest impediment or what was the biggest challenge to getting things done in California?

Inertia. The way it is, the way we are. We are talking about a fossil fuel civilization, from the development of coal and oil. This has driven mass prosperity and driven major population increase. Now what we're talking about is changing the basis of our civilization to renewable energy, to elegant kinds of manufacturing and living so that we get on the side of nature and not create the kind of awful negative feedback that we're doing today.

The last few years haven't dissuaded you from working on an issue like this?

I don't think we have enough evidence for total despair, but we don't have enough evidence that we should be overly optimistic. Yes, there are dark clouds, with the heat-trapping gasses going up, I think, last year by more than ever in atmosphere. So yeah, time is running out and the dangers are real.