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Brown's Climate Quest: The California Governor's Big Footprint in Paris

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Governor Jerry Brown addresses a water conference in Sacramento. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Carbon accounting aside, Governor Jerry Brown is leaving an outsize personal footprint in Paris.

Despite cutting a day off the front of his trip, in order to travel to the site of this week’s San Bernardino shootings, the California governor is devoting nearly a week to the U.N. climate talks, known as COP21. Brown plans to participate in an array of events through Wednesday, ranging from keynote remarks to a signing ceremony for his pet project, the subnational climate agreement known as the Under 2 MOU. While California is not a nation-state and hence not an official party to the negotiations, it’s widely accepted that the Golden State maintains a high profile on the transnational climate scene.

On Thursday, Brown expanded a prior commitment to hasten conversion of cars to “zero-emission vehicles,” or ZEVs. A dozen North American and European governments now join California in pledging that they will “strive to make all passenger vehicle sales in our jurisdictions ZEVs as fast as possible and no later than 2050.” California currently has 24 million registered autos — about two for every household in the state.

Prior to his departure for Paris, the governor talked with KQED’s Lauren Sommer about his hopes for the conference and what California can bring to the table.

Sommer: What do you hope to accomplish in Paris?


Brown: My intention is to join with other states and provinces and even countries that are pushing for a real solid response to the threat of climate change. I’ve worked with others to develop our Under 2 MOU. And that says, for all the signatories [now nearly 60 different states and provinces and a few countries] that the signatory will do whatever it takes to keep temperature within the two-degree centigrade target of the U.N. Panel on Climate Change. And in the alternative, the goal will be by 2050 to emit no more than two tons [of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases] per person, which requires radical change and heroic effort.

LS: Why not just leave this work to the United Nations?

JB: Well, the national governments have been a bit timid to say the least. Whereas the states and provinces like Quebec and Ontario or British Columbia, Washington, Oregon — a lot of places are ready to commit themselves to keeping the temperature below two degrees centigrade, and take whatever steps are necessary to achieve that goal. That’s more than the nation-states. They’re far more modest in their commitments, so we have to light the fire, if I could use that metaphor for climate change. We are filling quite a void because the Republican congress and all of the Republican candidates are in a very deep state of denial, despite the vast, overwhelming scientific consensus.

In the run-up to the Paris climate talks, the Alternatiba association organized a "Village of Alternatives" for the environment and the climate, over the weekend of Sept. 26-27. This t-shirt advocates legal rights for Earth.
In the run-up to the Paris climate talks, the Alternatiba association organized a “Village of Alternatives” for the environment and the climate, over the weekend of Sept. 26-27. This t-shirt advocates legal rights for Earth. (philippe leroyer/flickr Creative Commons)

LS: What cues can other places take from California? Why should they listen to us?

JB: We have an aggressive, integrated program to curb greenhouse gases and our economy is growing faster than the national average, so we’re demonstrating both that innovation comes from these environmental efforts: the achievement of reducing greenhouse gases and the generation of new industries, new jobs and aggregate growth in our gross domestic product exceeding that of the nation as a whole.

LS: So, do you see yourself and this state as a force pushing the nation toward climate action?

JB: It doesn’t quite work that way. But as we know, in Silicon Valley or even in Hollywood, California does set trends. And we are deeply and measurably committed to a sequence of actions, which we’re taking. And as we prove that those are not only consistent with economic prosperity but foster it, I believe we’ll get takers, we’ll get people who say, ‘Well yeah, maybe that makes sense.’ And we can give the lie to the [climate science] denialists — which by the way are not only absolutely dominant in the Republican party but are evident in the Wall Street Journal and and other publications that spew the same kind of … false scientific statements that we saw in the tobacco industry.

LS: Your critics say that Californians are bearing the brunt of our climate policies when the state clearly can’t solve climate change alone.

JB: Well you say ‘bearing the brunt.’ If the world and therefore United States goes beyond the 2-degree centigrade, sea level rise, extreme weather events, drought, extreme heat — there is real catastrophe on the way. There’s a big risk here. And people say, ‘go it alone’ — somebody has to wake up the country and those parts of the world that are blind to the real danger.

The migration that is undermining Europe and is destabilizing governments from Germany to Spain is, in part — well, it’s certainly due to all the turmoil. But some of the turmoil is due to famine and drought along with the military threat. So we’re getting an early preview of a warmed planet. And we know that people in Africa and the Middle East — it will get so hot that won’t even be livable. And we’re talking well within the lifetime of most people listening to this show. So this is an imperative. And the fact that the oil companies and the coal companies can silence and censor the entire Republican Party and a number of other sources of power, that doesn’t make it that they are right. They are wrong and we know that. This is real stuff. Now, it may be 30 or 40 years away, but we know there is a threat. We know we can do something about it. And for the most part, we have not yet risen to the occasion.

LS: Speaking of rising to occasion, where does China fit into this picture? It’s the world’s largest CO2 producer by far. It seems that no progress is possible without major changes there, no matter what we do in California.

JB: Well, in many ways China is showing more concerted effort than many other countries. China has a commitment; they’re building huge amounts of renewable energy. They’ve worked with the state of California to develop their cap-and-trade system, their monitoring of pollution. Now they’ve got to go faster, they’ve got to keep their resolve. But it isn’t clear that the leadership in China isn’t more unified and and more determined in their commitment than our leadership. Just looking at the two countries, China’s got a long way to go but they are putting us to shame in some respects.


Authors: Recent polling would appear to support Brown’s climate quest. A new survey from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that 80 percent of Californians consider the changing climate to be a “very serious problem” (though fully a third of Republican respondents said it’s not a problem at all). And nearly half of respondents (45 percent) said the state’s climate actions would encourage job growth, whereas 19 percent said they would cost jobs.

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