On this China trip, new role for Brown

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Mege­rian, John My­ers and Jes­sica Mey­ers

When Gov. Jerry Brown flew across the Pa­cific four years ago to meet with lead­ers and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives in China, the world seemed much dif­fer­ent.

Pres­i­dent Obama had com­mit­ted to fight the warm­ing of the planet, while China re­mained a re­luc­tant ac­tor yet to take a firm stand. On Fri­day, when the sea­soned Cal­i­for­nia gover­nor heads back to China for a se­ries of busi­ness and gov­ern­ment meet­ings, the po­lit­i­cal roles will have re­versed.

Now, it’s China that is poised for global lead­er­ship. And as Pres­i­dent Trump re­treats from the na­tion’s pre­vi­ous path on en­vi­ron­men­tal policy, Brown has the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing Amer­ica’s un­of­fi­cial am­bas­sador on cli­mate change.

“Trump is go­ing against sci­ence. He’s go­ing against re­al­ity,” Brown said in an in­ter­view with The Times on Wed­nes­day. “We can’t stand by and give aid and com­fort to that. We have to do what’s right.”

Trump’s vic­tory and his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fo­cus on rolling back en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions have left Brown to serve as a po­lit­i­cal and policy coun­ter­weight.

“We want to fur­ther strengthen our re­la­tion­ship with China,” the gover­nor told The Times. “The world is mov­ing in a di­rec­tion that

I want Cal­i­for­nia to be a part of.”

The trip be­gins just one day af­ter Trump an­nounced that the U.S. would with­draw from the Paris ac­cord on cli­mate change. It was an ac­tion to which the Demo­cratic gover­nor quickly re­acted, call­ing it “in­sane” and “de­viant be­hav­ior.” Brown will now try to demon­strate to the Chi­nese — and by ex­ten­sion, other world lead­ers — that some parts of the coun­try are still mov­ing for­ward.

“We tra­di­tion­ally point to Wash­ing­ton as prop­a­gat­ing for­eign policy. But when Wash­ing­ton leaves the scene on im­por­tant top­ics like cli­mate change, oth­ers fill in,” said David Vic­tor, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at UC San Diego. “Cal­i­for­nia gains a much more cen­tral role in shap­ing the U.S. re­la­tion­ship with the rest of the world.”

While the tim­ing of the trip seems serendip­i­tous con­sid­er­ing na­tional events, it presents prob­lems for the gover­nor back at home. Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers are less than two weeks away from pass­ing a new state bud­get, and Brown’s de­ci­sion to skip some of the ne­go­ti­a­tions is a no­table break with prece­dent. His ad­min­is­tra­tion is also en­meshed in ef­forts to ex­tend the life span of the state’s land­mark cap-and­trade pro­gram, which re­quires com­pa­nies to buy per­mits to re­lease green­house gas emis­sions.

None­the­less, he de­parts on Fri­day for a week­long trip with high-rank­ing mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion and busi­ness lead­ers or­ga­nized by the Bay Area Coun­cil, a San Fran­cisco-based ad­vo­cacy group.

He’s sched­uled to meet with pro­vin­cial of­fi­cials in cities with rep­u­ta­tions for pro­gres­sive views on the en­vi­ron­ment be­fore trav­el­ing to Bei­jing for an in­ter­na­tional clean en­ergy sum­mit.

When Brown vis­ited in 2013 with a del­e­ga­tion of nearly 100 busi­ness of­fi­cials, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping had just as­sumed power. The gover­nor rode the coun­try’s sleek high-speed rail, opened a trade of­fice in Shang­hai and pro­moted Cal­i­for­nia’s clean-en­ergy com­pa­nies.

He also laid the ground­work for a cli­mate-change agree­ment in a year when Chi­nese cities dis­ap­peared un­der a layer of soupy gray smog and chil­dren reg­u­larly ended up in the hos­pi­tal gasp­ing for breath. China, just months ear­lier, had fi­nally started pub­lish­ing air qual­ity mea­sure­ments.

On his re­turn to China, Brown will find a coun­try that has be­come the world’s big­gest in­vestor in re­new­able en­ergy. Of­fi­cials plan to launch a cap-and-trade sys­tem for car­bon diox­ide emis­sions this year, much like Cal­i­for­nia’s pro­gram. And they’re con­sid­er­ing rules mod­eled off the Golden State’s to en­cour­age elec­tric ve­hi­cle pro­duc­tion.

Last Novem­ber, Cal­i­for­nia agreed to serve as a tech­ni­cal ad­vi­sor to about 100 Chi­nese cities that aim to re­duce their car­bon emis­sions ahead of a 2030 dead­line.

“China has al­ways looked to Cal­i­for­nia,” said So­phie Lu, a China re­search head for Bloomberg New En­ergy Fi­nance, which an­a­lyzes en­ergy mar­kets. “It’s def­i­nitely a role model.”

Even with its progress, though, China still ranks as the world’s largest emit­ter of green­house gases and the big­gest fun­der of new coal power projects. But Xi now pep­pers speeches with calls for en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship, and is push­ing coun­tries to back the cli­mate pact his coun­try ne­go­ti­ated with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Brown will spend the first two days of his trip in the south­ern Chi­nese cities of Chengdu and Nan­jing re­in­forc­ing the kind of re­gional re­la­tion­ships in which states gen­er­ally have the great­est in­flu­ence.

In Bei­jing, he’ll at­tend a fo­rum on clean en­ergy and dis­cuss cli­mate policy at an an­nual gath­er­ing of en­ergy min­is­ters — in­clud­ing En­ergy Sec­re­tary Rick Perry, the oil-friendly for­mer Texas gover­nor who tan­gled with Brown for years over Cal­i­for­nia’s over­all busi­ness cli­mate.

Even as Trump prom­ises to shrink the role of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment on cli­mate ef­forts, some an­a­lysts still ques­tion whether a state can step into a spot re­served for na­tions.

Dur­ing the Paris sum­mit on global warm­ing two years ago, Robert Stavins, di­rec­tor of the Har­vard En­vi­ron­men­tal Eco­nomics Pro­gram, joked that Brown was stuck at “the kids’ ta­ble” be­cause as a gover­nor he couldn’t par­tic­i­pate in ne­go­ti­a­tions. Last week Stavins said that sta­tus could be shift­ing some­what now that Trump is in of­fice.

“Some­one who was sit­ting at the adult ta­ble has stood up and walked away, and left an empty seat,” he said. “The gover­nor can play a more im­por­tant role.”

Re­gard­less of whether Brown di­rectly crit­i­cizes Trump dur­ing his trip, even ex­press­ing sup­port for the Paris agree­ment and greater co­op­er­a­tion with China could put him in the po­si­tion of con­tra­dict­ing his own coun­try’s chief ex­ec­u­tive while over­seas.

“I know Jerry feels he’s in some­thing of a balancing act be­tween main­tain­ing some sorts of work­able re­la­tion­ships with Wash­ing­ton, but on the other hand do­ing what he thinks is his legacy is­sue,” said Orville Schell, author of a 1978 bi­og­ra­phy on Brown and di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter on U.S.-China Re­la­tions at the Asia So­ci­ety in New York.

In the four years since Brown’s last visit, state en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tors have met scores of times with Chi­nese na­tional and pro­vin­cial of­fi­cials to dis­cuss poli­cies. China is lay­ing the ground­work for what would be the world’s largest car­bon mar­ket for re­duc­ing emis­sions.

“We saw fea­tures of our pro­grams be­ing repli­cated in their pi­lot pro­grams,” said Ra­jin­der Sa­hota, an as­sis­tant di­vi­sion chief at the Cal­i­for­nia Air Re­sources Board.

Hal Har­vey, who runs En­ergy In­no­va­tion, a re­search firm based in San Fran­cisco, has trav­eled fre­quently to China and said the state’s ex­pe­ri­ence has been in­valu­able.

“The ref­er­ence point for China is not Wash­ing­ton, it’s Cal­i­for­nia,” he said. “They would rather learn from Cal­i­for­nia than any other ju­ris­dic­tion.”

But should Brown see his visit to China as a global vic­tory lap, the phone calls he ex­pects to have with staffers back in Sacramento could prove sober­ing. On Wed­nes­day, the leader of the state Se­nate re­jected the gover­nor’s timetable for leg­is­la­tors to ex­tend Cal­i­for­nia’s cap-and-trade pro­gram be­yond 2020. Even then, sub­stan­tial po­lit­i­cal hur­dles ex­ist for a leg­isla­tive plan that could have a pro­found ef­fect on gas prices in Cal­i­for­nia.

Un­daunted, Brown said a con­tin­ued di­a­logue and re­newed part­ner­ship with China are cru­cial — per­haps more now than ever.

“China is mov­ing for­ward in a very se­ri­ous way, and so is Cal­i­for­nia,” he said. “And we’re go­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion of Don­ald Trump.”

Vin­cent Yu As­so­ci­ated Press

GOV. JERRY BROWN does a chin-up on an elec­tric bus dur­ing his visit to China four years ago. Now he’s head­ing back to the coun­try for a se­ries of meet­ings.

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