Jerry Brown defies Trump on world stage

LOS ANGELES — For the past two years, California Gov. Jerry Brown has been aggressively recruiting other state and local governments to sign on to their own, sub-national climate pact.

But that campaign has taken new urgency under President Donald Trump, who announced Thursday that he’ll withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. It’s a reflection of the roiling conflict between the president and the nation’s most populous state, but also the ambition of a governor who, after a lifetime in politics, is seizing an unexpected opening on an international stage.

“I’m on the side of the angels,” the former Jesuit seminarian said in an interview before flying on Friday to China, where he will rally support for his climate policies next week. “I’m going to do everything I can, and people are going to join with me.”

Brown, now 79 and in his final term, has long championed environmental causes, promoting conservation and smog-related policies when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, and overseeing a dramatic expansion of California’s greenhouse gas reduction standards since returning to office in 2011. Roughly 170 jurisdictions, including Canada and Mexico, have endorsed Brown’s nonbinding agreement embracing efforts to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold beyond which many scientists predict catastrophic consequences.

But world leaders, not governors, sign international agreements with the force of law, and for years, Brown was relegated to a supporting role. Only after the election of Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, did Brown’s climate diplomacy find new prominence as a counterweight to a Republican-held White House.

“If Obama was still in office, this phenomenon would not be occurring,” said former California Gov. Gray Davis, Brown’s onetime chief of staff. “But Jerry keeps pushing … People, when they think of climate change, see Jerry Brown as a legitimate alternative [to Washington]. It’s not make believe. It’s real.”

For a politician, Davis said, “Timing is everything in life.”

Brown, who has called climate change the “existential threat” to humanity, has at times questioned whether it is too late to avert calamity. While campaigning for Hillary Clinton last year, he said it would be “game over” for climate change if Trump were to win.

But last week, when it remained unclear whether Trump would withdraw from the Paris agreement, Brown predicted that the president is a political “realist” and that progress on the issue may be “not as disastrous as we thought a few months ago.” Trump had visited the Vatican, where Brown spoke about climate change in 2015, and was pressed by European leaders to remain in the accord.

If Brown, like the Europeans, was seeking to nudge Trump with his remarks, he abandoned all niceties after news of Trump’s decision emerged.

Following Trump’s Rose Garden announcement Thursday, Brown told reporters, “Today’s announcement is tragic in a fundamental way. But it’s also, I guess, to be expected.”

He called the withdrawal “insane” and said, “California will resist.”

Brown and the governors of New York and Washington said they would establish a coalition of states committed to upholding the Paris accord, while 27 California state senators sent a letter to Brown, urging him to convene a climate summit with “like-minded states and subnationals from around the world, to ensure that we continue to charge ahead without forfeiting all of our historic progress to date.”

California has long served as a model on climate change policy, sharing extensive regulatory experience with bureaucrats abroad. Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at University of California, Berkeley, said, “What California does isn’t just sort of closely watched. In some cases, it is just photocopied into other states and other countries.”

But Trump’s disengagement from international climate politics has left open a political opportunity for Brown, with climate-minded politicians abroad running into resistance in Washington seeking other partnerships in the United States. Even if Trump had moved to remain in the Paris accord, his rejection of mainstream climate science was broadly seen as increasing the significance of climate change efforts at the local and state level, with California at the forefront.

“The absence of a real federal policy has created a vacuum, a hunger overseas for what are Americans doing on climate change. And into that hunger, Jerry Brown offers a menu,” said David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the book “Global Warming Gridlock.” “He’s just kind of nominated himself. But I think that’s the nature of the business.”

In his feud with Trump, Brown has been aided by the president’s myriad domestic controversies and low public approval rating – and by the freedom a governor can exercise in his final term.

When he last visited China, in 2013, California was emerging from a budget crisis and Brown devoted much of his attention to trade-related concerns. This time, he is expected to focus almost exclusively on climate, participating in a global climate summit and meeting with high-level Chinese officials, possibly including President Xi Jinping.

Earlier in his governorship, said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, Brown “had just sort of begun to clean up the financial mess in the state, and he was just beginning to look out. But he hadn’t fully developed this idea, which is now in sort of full fledge, that California ought to start acting like a country.”

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