Jerry Brown's Climate Advice to Biden: Rebuild Credibility, Disregard Environmental Advocates

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry unveil the Doomsday Clock during The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists news conference, on Jan. 24, 2019, in Washington, D.C.  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The man who presided over one of the most ambitious climate change agendas in the world has some advice for Joe Biden, who in a matter of weeks will become president of the only nation in the world to have signed and then left the Paris climate agreement.

In an interview with KQED, former Gov. Jerry Brown said Biden will need to rebuild U.S. credibility on the issue, focussing on the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow in November 2021.

Meanwhile, Brown advised, don’t pay too much attention to the “folks that have a banner” or “some great environmental writer who writes columns and gets in all the important publications.”

Brown, who said he was part of “the most successful climate fighting government in the Western Hemisphere,” said some environmentalists will “have their slogans and their framing.” But he said Biden should ignore them and tackle the issue “carefully, engaging different stakeholders,” unfolding policies in a logical sequence rather than all at once.

“That is not satisfying to the advocates,” he said. “It's delayed gratification. But that's how you have to do it.

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Brown suggested the new president create strong international partnerships “so that the work becomes a planetary imperative.”

He called the Glasgow conference “the next pivot point," saying,  "Everything ought to be focused on that.”

Biden’s first order of business should be to immediately talk to President Xi Jinping of China in order to  reestablish a "partnership” that “led to the Paris agreement,” Brown said.

“Now, can that be done with all the China bashing? Only with great aplomb and skill by President Biden. Anything less would shortchange this problem.”

Brown’s focus on China is not surprising. Last September, the former governor announced a climate-focused think tank at UC Berkeley, a partnership with China’s top climate official.

The mission of the California-China Climate Institute is to spur action through joint research, training and dialogue, according to the organization’s website.

The collaboration is also an end-run around the Trump administration, first announced when the U.S. was in the process of withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement and embarking on a trade war with China.

Brown says another environmental priority for Biden should be the reversal of all the regulatory rollbacks initiated under President Trump.

The administration’s deregulation of environmental rules spurred dozens of lawsuits by California, including a challenge to  the science that the Environmental Protection Agency used to roll back emission standards, its justification for new water rules, and its plan to ease methane restrictions.

During his first tour as governor, from 1975 to 1983, Brown promoted solar and wind power, then fledgling technologies. Chicago columnist Mike Royko saddled him with the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” due to Brown’s popularity with young, idealistic voters.

In his second gubernatorial stint, from 2011 to 2019, renewable energy gained significant ground and carbon emissions declined, both while the California economy boomed. But Brown left office two years ago without ever convincing some environmentalists on the left to embrace California’s cap-and-trade program, one of his signature climate policies.

Many environmental justice groups in California still see the program, which allows industry to offset their carbon emissions by buying and trading credits to emit the gases that drive global warming, as a kind of Rube Goldberg mechanism that has allowed companies to pollute in some of the state's poorest neighborhoods.

Brown now says that directly taxing companies that emit carbon “obviously makes sense at some point,” but he's dismissive of environmentalists who call for an immediate end to domestic oil production and other more sweeping climate policies.

This is complicated stuff,” Brown said. “What do we do and in what order? The advocates will be marching around for whatever they want, but the leader has to set in motion a process that can be managed sequentially, not all at once.

“You don't just spill your guts out,” he said, followed by the sound of “Blargh.”

Brown ran through a litany of what he considers to be reductionist slogans. “‘'Carbon price,’ ‘'stop fracking,’ ‘stop the pipeline,’ ‘stop buying fossil fuel cars,’” he recited. "No. When they ask: ‘Why don’t you say something that will make everybody mad and go to the barricades and make sure we are totally ineffective in fighting climate change?' I would say, ‘That is dumb.’”

Brown did say he’s heartened by news reports that Biden is assembling a “climate administration” that might include Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, who worked with him to implement cap-and-trade and other climate policies.