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Q&A: Governor Jerry Brown

Launched in 2019, the California-China Climate Institute (CCCI) is chaired by former California governor Jerry Brown, BA ’61 Classics, and China’s top climate change official, Xie Zhenhua. A partnership between the University of California system and the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University, the institute is co-housed in Rausser College of Natural Resources and Berkeley Law. CCCI is focused on joint research, training, and dialogue between the U.S. and China, with the goal of advancing climate action. Professor Dan Kammen, a former U.S. State Department science envoy who serves on the academic advisory committee for CCCI, recently sat down with Brown to discuss goals for the institute, how research can affect policy more quickly, and reasons for optimism on climate change.

Jerry Broad headshot

Jerry Brown, BA ’61 Classics, co-chairs the California-China Climate Institute. He served as the 34th and 39th governor of California, from 1975 to 1983 and from 2011 to 2019. While he was governor, California established nation-leading targets to protect the environment and fight climate change, and by 2030 the state will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels, double the rate of energy-efficiency savings in its buildings, and reduce petroleum use in cars and trucks by up to 50 percent, in part by putting five million zero-emission vehicles on California’s roads. Under a law and an executive order Brown signed, California will generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

Kammen: You’ve had a long and busy career. Why have you chosen to focus your time now on climate change, and why is UC Berkeley the best place to do so?

Brown: There are many important issues, but to me, climate change supersedes them all. As the premier public university globally and in California, which also happens to be close to Sacramento, UC Berkeley was a natural fit for this institute, and we’re excited to connect leading researchers here with those in China. Additionally, in China there’s a lot of respect for and interest in collaborating with the University of California.

What are your goals for the institute?

Our primary goal is to advance partnerships between the U.S. and China and to encourage dialogue on climate change and all that is entailed in addressing it. So much of the discussion around international affairs is about national security; there’s very little talk of common interests or vulnerabilities. A key objective for this institute is to change that. It doesn’t have to just be about what’s good for California or the United States or what’s good for China: our interests are interwoven just as the web of life is interwoven.

We share membership in the human race, living at a time when technology makes us ever more interdependent. We ought to recognize that and base our actions, thinking, and research on that fact. Scientists know it, but politicians are almost congenitally incapable of recognizing a common interest.

That concept is critical, and it strikes me that with your involvement—having conversations with leaders in both countries—there’s an opportunity for the institute to affect policy quickly. The time to make a difference on climate has shrunk so dramatically. We’ve got to get the ideas right and get action in place.

Exactly. Researchers from all over the world already work together: that’s the hallmark of science. Science leads to technological innovation, and innovation informs government policies. Zero-emission vehicles, carbon pricing, building efficiency, decarbonizing the electric grid—that all has to happen very fast. We must clarify the stakes, elucidate the path forward, explain the economic and social costs, and determine the technological hurdles. We have to move knowledge more quickly from the margins of science and academia into the minds of bureaucrats, policy makers, politicians, and public officials.

I also see the need for more mutual, benign competitiveness, which can motivate and galvanize a greater effort on the part of both the U.S. and China.

So in addition to working on joint solutions, we can encourage friendly competition to see who can accelerate decarbonization more quickly?

Yes. There’s so much attention on what we don’t like about China, with little attention to what we need to do. Honestly facing our hurdles and roadblocks would give us more empathy and insight into what China is facing and allow for more candor and truth about how both nations can operate at the level of change.

We haven’t sufficiently confronted the sheer beast of economic, social, and political inertia in our own country. It’s pretty overwhelming, and in fact I often marvel that you appear to be so…I won’t say optimistic, but you don’t look overwhelmed.

Dan Kammen headshot at a table.

Dan Kammen is the director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. He has parallel appointments in Rausser College’s Energy and Resources Group, the Goldman School of Public Policy, and the Department of Nuclear Engineering. He was appointed the first Environment and Climate Partnership for the Americas Fellow by then–secretary of state Hillary Clinton in April 2010. He shares the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as a contributor to a report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

I’m not overwhelmed, and you’re partly to thank for that. As governor, you presided over the growth of a solar industry in California that went from passionate but small to now employing more people than all three of our state’s utilities. Whether it is solar, battery storage, offshore wind, or integrating food production into urban areas, there are many exciting things that could follow the model that you helped champion.

It starts with someone having a great idea. The institute’s role is translating the good thinking of our researchers into digestible policy suggestions. American politicians don’t spend much of their time thinking about climate change. So we have to get them thinking about it.

Fortunately, the Biden administration has made climate action and green jobs a priority. Are you hopeful about the role of the United States on climate change going forward?

I think it’s very important that America completely move beyond the Trump era and start taking serious actions, and then in that context we can push other major polluters like China and India to do likewise. Federal leadership was on hiatus for four years, but the world has made incredible progress in talking about climate. Now we have to do  climate. The fact that we have John Kerry as U.S. special presidential envoy for climate and Gina McCarthy as domestic climate czar is promising. Biden’s focus on jobs is an integral component of climate action. We need to keep our eye on a path forward, one that will employ billions of people while also avoiding climate disaster.

California is trying its best to be on that path of reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement. Are you optimistic about the state and the nation getting there?

We’re much further today than I would have envisioned just a few years ago. Now we even have a few oil companies talking about peak oil or net carbon neutrality—that’s a sea change. And because of the focus changing at companies here and worldwide, because of the election of Biden and the appointments he’s making, I think we can do it.

We need to keep up the momentum. Governor [Gavin] Newsom has set a target of achieving only zero-emission vehicles in California that’s earlier than the target I had previously set. Good—he’s raising the bar. Let’s do more.

In 2013, China’s top climate change official, Xie Zhenhua (left), and then-governor Jerry Brown signed an agreement to boost cooperation on climate change. Photo courtesty of the Office of Governor Brown.

Here at Berkeley, our biggest source of renewable energy isn’t solar or wind; it’s excited young people. What would you say to our students who are embarking on careers and hope to address the climate crisis?

Ask yourself, What’s my life all about? What is meaningful? When we talk about something as big as climate change and how it will affect lives in California and around the world, it’s…not quite theological but of a similar universal dimension. It’s not about making a little more money or having a better house: it’s about how life is going to be structured going forward. How much can we reduce future suffering by dealing with climate change? Whether you are in biology, political science, chemistry, this is motivating.

When they were building Chartres Cathedral centuries ago, the people doing the work were never going to see the finished structure. But there was a worldview of a divine order, which they were honoring each day by the contribution they were making. Here we are honoring the earth, the atmosphere, and life itself. The humble choice of your major connects to something much bigger that will endure beyond your own lifetime. That, to me, gives the dimension that people desperately need. Climate change is an issue of such transcendent importance and value that you can give your life to it, and it’s worth it. This is big stuff. It doesn’t get any bigger!

Indeed. I’ll close with a lighthearted one. What’s your favorite place on the Berkeley campus?

It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’ll always remember, when I was here as a student in 1960, from the eighth floor of the International House you could look out a window and see the sun setting beyond the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Tamalpais. What a view.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed.