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Biden’s priority should be to work with China on climate change

Gov. Jerry Brown, Chair, UC California-China Climate Institute | December 8, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.In 2017, during my final term as governor of California, I traveled to China in search of climate partnerships with both national and local authorities. I knew that California’s path-breaking vehicle emission standards and other climate laws would prove ineffective unless other states — and countries — enacted similar measures.

If California wanted to succeed in forcing the big auto companies to cut their emissions and shift to zero-emission vehicles, there would be no better ally than China, whose market every car company coveted.

U.S.-China relations were less toxic then than they are now, but still very difficult. Nevertheless, I was determined to build an effective climate alliance that would amplify and secure our efforts in California.

That started with meetings with China’s provincial leaders in Chengdu and Nanjing and culminated in Beijing, where I met with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, in the Great Hall of the People. We had met in 2013 when Xi came to California for talks with President Obama and we had discussed the urgency of China and America cooperating on climate.

It was fortuitous that our meeting in Beijing came just days after President Trump announced that he was pulling America out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. It was unusual for Xi to have such a meeting with a state governor, but I understood the clear message being delivered: China at the highest level was committed to meeting its promise in the Paris accord and would work with California to achieve mutual climate goals.

In the meeting, Xi expressed his determination to open the door for more collaboration between California and provinces and other subnational jurisdictions in China on climate-related initiatives. And this is exactly what California has been doing these last three years — on carbon pricing, new building standards and zero-emission vehicles.

Our discussion that day also set in motion the California-China Climate Institute, a joint initiative of the University of California and Tsinghua University, which has begun research on ways to align carbon markets, accelerate a shift to zero-emission vehicles and achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century. We have also brought together top American and Chinese climate leaders.

Through these efforts, California has shown that partnership and cooperation with China are eminently feasible — at least on the profoundly important issue of climate change.

Meanwhile in Washington, Trump has pursued unabashed nationalism, scapegoated foreigners and fostered unrelenting political polarization. Under these conditions, dialogue and building consensus — the very essence of democracy — have become ever more difficult. Beyond our borders, suspicion on every side has led to name calling and avoidance of international cooperation.

Fortunately, it is a new day in Washington. Joe Biden has won the election and made it plain that he is going to deal with domestic and foreign affairs with professionalism and common sense. On climate change, that means accepting the science, which he does wholeheartedly, and making the necessary investments and mobilizing the scientific and technical skills that America has in abundance.

Yet there’s much more to do. Specifically, Biden must commit to the following four goals: zero-emission transportation, zero-emission buildings, zero-emission electric grid and zero-emission industry. Of course, this will take decades to fully accomplish, but without such commitments, the Paris goals and net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century are only a pipe dream. Biden says he thinks of jobs whenever he thinks of climate action — and there is no bigger jobs program imaginable than transitioning the world off fossil fuels.

But America is only part of the problem and must enlist other nations to combat climate change. That is where China comes in. The overarching fact of life in today’s world is that despite totally different systems of government, China and America share a common interest and a common vulnerability. We will suffer the same devastations from a warming planet. We also share a common responsibility as the two largest producers of global greenhouse gases. Either we turn the tide together and put the world on the path to zero carbon emissions or it won’t be done.

That starts with Biden and Xi jointly pledging — in the first week of the Biden presidency — to work together on climate change. With Biden reentering the Paris Agreement and with both China and the U.S. sharing the goal of mid-century decarbonization, we are now heading in the same direction — at least on one of the biggest threats facing mankind.

Next, both countries need to reestablish the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, which was a crucial framework for joint climate actions and mutual understanding, launched during Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s visit to China in April 2013. It led directly to joint climate commitments by Xi and Obama that served as the major catalyst for the success of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Tragically, Trump discontinued this initiative and ended climate cooperation. Biden’s appointment of Kerry as presidential climate envoy will help set the course again for crucial climate action.

Despite the real and profound differences dividing China and the U.S., Biden and Xi can rise to the challenge and embark together on a path of global transformation. Nothing less stands a chance of reversing the warming temperatures now threatening civilization.

This piece was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on December 1, 2020

Comments to “Biden’s priority should be to work with China on climate change

  1. Jerry, due to the increasingly out of control worldwide global warming disasters we are experiencing today, we really need a charismatic spokesperson, like Churchill or FDR, to inform, educate and motivate We The People to demand actions from our politicians and academics to make the right things happen with the greatest sense of urgency.

    One of the most important CALIFORNIA Magazine issues ever published was the Sept/Oct 2006 “Global Warning” special issue that concluded with the cover story “Can We Adapt in Time?” Can We Adapt in Time? | California Magazine ( The paramount conclusion was: “Whether resistance to global warming lies more in the hungers of American culture, or because our species is wired to ignore problems in some far-away future—this matters less now than it may have a few years ago, because the future has arrived.” That was stated in 2006 and all of our establishments have totally failed heed that warning with the required sense of urgency.

    Do you know of anyone who can provide the required leadership today?

    • Reasons leaders failed to meet the challenges of climate change*

      * Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation:
      “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

      * Sir John Maddox’s 1998 Book “What Remains to Be Discovered” Chapter “Avoidance of Calamity”:
      “— the strategies eventually adopted internationally are usually burdened by the compromises required to override the vested interests of many of the participants.”

      * Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” (11 Volumes Published 1935–1975) Conclusion:
      “When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.”

      * California Magazine, Sept/Oct 2006 “Global Warning” issue cover story “Can We Adapt in Time?”:
      The paramount conclusion was: “Whether resistance to global warming lies more in the hungers of American culture, or because our species is wired to ignore problems in some far-away future—this matters less now than it may have a few years ago, because the future has arrived.”

      * Dec. 12, 2020: UN Secretary-General says countries aren’t doing enough to combat climate change
      UN Secretary-General says countries aren’t doing enough to combat climate change | TheHill

      • Never mind Jerry, Joe and Kamala came up with a better way, by enabling more women to make the right things happen at last, with the greatest sense of urgency. Women’s brains have a proportionally larger prefrontal cortex which gives them mental superiority, such as empathy, while men are dominated by their proportionally larger amygdala which limits their ability to make moral judgements. As we have just learned the hard way during the last four years of Trump-McConnell domination, our male leaders have totally failed to protect the human race and our democracy by producing increasingly out of control pandemic deaths, climate change disasters, violence and inequalities.

    • Jerry, one most Inconvenient Truth in California is that former SCE President Michael R. Peevey never should have been allowed to be a CPUC chairman because of his major conflicts of interest. One of SCE’s greatest failures was to enable San Onofre nuclear power plant to be so poorly designed that it became major safety threat to California citizens, as well as a worst case scenario failure to produce reliable nuclear power generation that should have helped to prevent the levels of global warming CO2 that we are suffering the out of control consequences of today (continuing CO2 and global temperature rises, California wildfires, hurricanes, polar ice cap melting, ad infinitum).

      Can you do something about this before time runs out?

      • Never mind again Jerry, I no longer expect a response from you on Berkeley Blog, and George Smoot explained the root cause of our survival problem in his 2007 Edge Annual Question “WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?” contribution “Correggio Domani Sara Peggio!” (Courage for Tomorrow Will Be Worse!)

        “— the history of human society in cooperatively plundering the resources of a meager but beautiful planet with currently abundant resources, who can possibly be optimistic about the long-term future of humanity? How many examples do we have of humans addressing global problems in an efficient way and with enlightened self-interest? Historical experience is that humans have generally been engaged in warfare, exploitation for personal gain and religious strife. Real issues are generally not addressed until they become serious crises and often not even then. We could mention here, various episodes of genocide, large-scale pollution, and ecological devastation, which are often interrelated.”

  2. Glad to have a leader with a level head. Jerry Brown is not like the rest of the politicians, Republican and Democrats, as well as the media, left and right, who have all become hush hush about China as if China no longer exists on earth except when they need a scapegoat to blame for their leader’s incompetence to control the coronavirus. Jerry Brown stood out to tell the truth that US needs to engage the world, including China, to solve global issues!

  3. It’s quite surprising how naive Jerry Brown is on international power plays.
    “In the past two years, China has expanded its coal fleet by 43 gigawatts — roughly the entire coal-fired capacity of Germany — according to Global Energy Monitor, a group that tracks construction in the Chinese power industry using public announcements and satellite images.

    Excluding China, global coal power capacity would otherwise be dropping as countries in Europe and elsewhere decommission old facilities and switch to other energy sources, the group said in a report released Wednesday.

    “To meet Paris climate goals, climate scientists say global coal power needs to be reduced 70 percent by 2030 and phased out completely by 2050,” said Christine Shearer of Global Energy Monitor. “China’s proposal to continue adding new coal power capacity through 2035 flies directly in the face of these needed emission reductions, and jeopardizes global climate goals.”

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