WASHINGTON — Jerry Brown doesn’t want to talk about impeachment.
He won’t say if he has a preferred candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential field and professes not to be following the race all that closely.
At a time when it can feel like Donald Trump and the nonstop coverage of him can blot out the sun, Brown urges people not to obsess so much over Trump and to reject a view of the world that sees the United States as the world’s superpower at odds with China and Russia. “We’re pointing fingers now — pointing at Putin, pointing at Trump,” Brown said during a recent talk at the Center for American Progress think tank. “We have to find a more mutual way to join hands. The environment is all shared. Whatever we do, we’re doing to ourselves as well as to the other.”
After four decades in politics — four terms as California governor, stints as the mayor of Oakland and the state’s attorney general, three failed presidential runs — Brown is throwing his weight behind the cause he deems just as important, if not more so, than impeachment or the presidential race: strengthening the relationship between California, the U.S., and China in the fight against the climate crisis. There’s perhaps no American politician alive today with a better track record and more credibility on climate than Brown. In his last eight years as governor, he instituted a statewide cap-and-trade system, invested heavily in renewable energy sources and electric cars, and took big steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some of this he did with the support of Republican officials. After Trump’s election in 2016, Brown traveled the globe as a sort of alt-president, assuring the rest of the world that the U.S. intended to keep its climate commitments despite the new president’s denialist vitriol.
Brown, who turns 82 in April, plans to channel his post-politics climate crusade into the California-China Climate Institute, housed at the University of California, Berkeley. The institute will give him a way to continue his work linking California’s climate scientists and anti-pollution experts with government officials in China and elsewhere, helping those nations to cut emissions and move toward a carbon-free economy.
After his Center for American Progress talk, Brown, by turns cerebral and puckish, spoke with Rolling Stone about the Green New Deal, Trump, his plans for the California-China Climate Institute, and why international alliances are essential if we hope to have any success combating climate change.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You accomplished a lot on climate in California and you could’ve left it at that. You did your job as governor, that’s enough. Instead you looked beyond California’s borders and reached out to China. Why?
California for decades has been taking specific action to reduce ozone and black carbon that causes respiratory diseases, but also causes global warming. California has the technical and legal framework and has been making significant progress more than anywhere else in the world. Chinese technicians and officials have come to the California Air Resources Board and worked with state officials to figure out Chinese solutions.
That’s good, important, but it’s only a part of the larger challenge, which is air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and too many other countries are nowhere near what they need to do be doing like Australia and India. There’s a crisis here. It’s time for all hands on deck.
That’s why it’s not just on California to do something. The world is in a crisis. California is one of the most important places. And China’s got to step up significantly.
Why is China specifically the focus of your new institute and the work you’re now doing?
China is the biggest polluter in the world. And the U.S. has put more greenhouse gases than any other country into the atmosphere. It’s true that the ambitions of China are colliding with the American view of its place in the world. As is Russia.
As human leaders fret about their geopolitical context, though, the world is deteriorating. The fires in California and Australia, the diseases in China, are all examples of threats that will transcend the Sino-Russia and Sino-U.S. conflict.
There’s a whole other global conflict of diseases and rising seas and destroyed habitats. If that conflict is not confronted, it will just get worse. Even though impeachment and reports on Putin and China are very exciting to the American politician, we have incontrovertible evidence that the global climate is deteriorating. There is an imperative to wake people up.
Do the U.S. and other nations need to center climate in their geopolitics more than is the case right now? The Paris climate agreement was an instance of that.
Paris was a milestone but people are backsliding. We do need a policy of planetary realism. Planetary is the scope that’s the nature of the problem; realism because it’s time to confront the truth of the problem.
The last time I traveled with you, you were going around Europe, Germany, Norway, all of that. And you had this role as an almost kind of climate ambassador for the U.S. Is that where you see the California-China Institute fitting in as well?
In part. But also with actual programs to be implemented in China, in California through our collaboration. So it’s research, it’s training, it’s dialogue, and it’s actual programmatic activities that could lead to regulatory change in California, in America, and in China.
Do you sense an openness from the Chinese to what California has done?
Well, we have this institute [with Chinese leaders]. And if they weren’t allowed to do it, they wouldn’t do it. So there’s something there. Only time will tell.
How does the U.S.-China relationship over the past couple of years affect trying to do this? Are they more open or less open from what you can tell so far?
Hard to say. Probably less open. America is certainly less open. Because the federal government is very suspicious of any technology collaboration. Any even intellectual exchange is viewed as a danger. And I’m sure the Chinese have their own suspicions. So we’re in a world where we see adversary and enemy, and that makes it more difficult.
But because climate is a shared threat, it provides the possibility that that could be the door through which America and China walk through to collaborate.
How do you think about this question of bringing this climate work to places like China, India, South American countries, where they say you’re going to try to strangle the baby in the crib? Economic growth is this focus and you’re going to impose these changes.
I don’t believe that that’s a true statement. That is special interest disinformation. Obviously, if you shut down coal plants, coal miners would be out of a job. The profit, the income stream from those coal plants, will be terminated. However, at the same time, you can create renewable energy that will also have a revenue stream, but it will take government subsidy, and the workers will have to be redeployed, and they will need income assistance from the government. So the great equalizer is government intervention. And if that doesn’t happen then the market will be disrupted.
The market alone, even though the price signals are there, isn’t enough to do it.
Not even close.
Do you feel that way? Writ large or specifically about more developing countries?
No. Writ large. Cap and trade is maybe approximately 20 percent of our greenhouse emission reductions [in California].
That means 80 percent is some kind of government intervention: appliance standards, building standards, a low-carbon fuel standard. Cap and trade, these are government regulations. You must have X amount of non-carbon fuel, and if you don’t, you must pay. So we have government setting the price and government setting the rules. But individual companies making the innovation. Like biodiesel has been very much stimulated by the low-carbon fuel standard, which, by the way, only exists in California and Oregon.
Now, we need to go beyond that. Even Tesla has received an enormous amount of money from the low-carbon fuel standard. And from other subsidies. So the government has to intervene, even though in intervening it’s very subject to political manipulation. And that’s a problem. So the Republicans are right: Government intervention can lead to picking winners and losers, and that can become a problem. But if we don’t do it, we’re doomed. So we have to figure out a way to structure the government intervention. Keep it transparent and promoting the transition to a lower-carbon economy.
What did you learn from, politically, making cap and trade and these other policies, the other 80 percent? What did you learn in California from making those happen from a political perspective that could be applied to, say, Congress?
It requires Republicans.
You got Chad Mayes, then the Republican leader of the state Assembly, on board. That was a big deal.
No, Chad Mayes got himself on board. I would like to say that I thought it up and I got him. Fact is, the Republicans consultants came down to my office. They said, ‘We see the Republicans losing votes among young people, and we need to do something on the environment, and we think cap and trade would be such a move. Could we talk about it?’
From there on we discussed it. Their vote became essential because we had two progressive Democrats, one from Santa Cruz, one from Santa Barbara, who wouldn’t vote for cap and trade because progressives mistakenly, I believe, don’t like cap and trade. So we needed Republican votes because we need two-thirds.
But that was the Republicans perceiving that they needed to broaden their their reach politically. Now, if that awareness could come to the Congress, that would be the way we go forward. And you can encourage that. But Chad Mayes, of course, was stripped of his caucus authority because of — climate change to a Republican is very close to abortion. It’s killing the dream. It’s killing unfettered free enterprise, just like abortion terminates the fetus. And these are deep ideological concerns that the Republicans default to.
How do you break that down?
No, you get the people in the more toward the edge, the more moderate Republicans of which there are always some.
Are you skeptical of the Green New Deal as it’s been sketched out here?
I think the boldness of a green new deal is absolutely great. But I do think there have to be priorities. You can’t do everything at once. So we have to deal with inequality. We have to deal with climate change. And we have to deal with the threat of a nuclear blunder. But we have to do it in a way that we don’t overwhelm the political imagination.
If you were to prioritize something in that green new deal, what would you put?
Reducing carbon emissions.
Through some mechanism like cap and trade, carbon tax?
By all mechanisms. The reason I say that is every year the greenhouse gases go into the atmosphere whether it will be thousands of years, that’s going to make poverty alleviation all the more expensive and politically difficult. So we have to do both. In California, we adopted a lot of anti-poverty measures while we were doing carbon reduction. So it can be done. But can you provide — is free college part of the Green New Deal?
One of the early proposals had a lot of—
I think the Green New Deal will will evolve. But it’s green, deal, new. So I definitely empathize with those three.
When you were up on stage just now, you talked about the imperative of beating Trump, but you talked about not focusing so much on him, the person, the salesman, the entertainer, and more about the people who supported him or elected him.
Well, you’ve got to persuade ’em. I think whatever we can say about Trump is very exciting to enumerate the flaws of Trump.
It gets clicks. People tweet it.
They love it. I know in my own tweets, when we hook Trump in, they go for it. Trouble is, we’ve exhausted that strategy. We’ve got to get beyond that.
We’ve got to get between 45 and 50 percent, 5 percent of the electorate, maybe 7. That could go Trump or could go Democrat. What do they want to hear? What do they need to know? So that’s where the focus has to be.
What do you think they want to hear or need to know?
I think they want something that gives them greater economic security. And I think they do want some moral integrity.
An economic and a moral combination. If you were a candidate in the field of what would you put forward or what kinds of things would you say that would try to hit those two?
Well, my foreign policy would be described as planetary realism. I think, domestically, the investment in America — high speed rail, repairing roads and bridges, advancing battery technology, in all the positive possibilities that are within America’s grasp. And that would be framed in a way that people would feel more secure about their future.