At the heart of California Governor Jerry Brown’s current mission to China is the possibility of a major turn away from climate devastation. Yes, it is also about obtaining foreign investment. Yes, it revives an insider controversy about whether California should have foreign trade offices at all. And yes, the 90-person delegation includes some who represent wealthy interests. But those stories are diversions from the central question of whether Brown can help the US and China forge a common agenda in energy conservation and renewables. Brown may be the key, because he travels unburdened by the growing security tensions, similar to the Cold War, between Washington and Beijing.
During Brown’s childhood, California cities were blanketed in lethal smog, then newly documented by scientists, which threatened human health, the economy and recreation. There was no Air Resources Board, and America’s auto companies had a free ride for their gas-guzzlers in the California market. Yet by the time Brown became governor in 1974, he was critical of the smoggy freeway culture, and imposed dramatic new emissions standards on the Detroit manufacturers. Those gas efficiency standards proved crucial to the survival of US auto manufacturing, were accepted by the United Auto Workers union, and were still being toughened by the Obama administration nearly four decades later.
In addition, Brown killed the California utilities’ plans for nuclear power plants every few miles along the California coast. He blocked a Liquefied Natural Gas terminal on native lands at Point Concepcion. He pushed for a coastal commission, an energy commission, opposed offshore drilling, and launched the biggest conservation and renewables energy economy in history.
Despite derisive doom-and-gloom prognoses from the national mainstream, Brown’s California today is ahead or competitive with the rest of America by nearly every measure – except for its appalling prison population.
Brown and California are a good fit for a China facing an environmental crisis today. The air in Beijing and Shanghai is worse than Los Angeles 50 years ago, but comparable in its causes: polluting industry, government corruption, lax standards, and a public living shortened lives while kept unaware of the facts. Above all, the model of development – extraction of resources by capital-intensive bureaucracies who still define cancer, asthma and pollution as “economic externalities” – is catastrophic in a world of power struggles over diminished resources.
A study released last week calculated that outdoor pollution caused 1.2 million premature Chinese deaths in 2010 alone, fully 40 percent of the global total. The pollution levels have caused “growing outrage in Chinese cities” according to Edward Wong in the New York Times. The crisis will worsen; urban air pollution will become the chief cause of environmental mortality, ahead of dirty water and lack of sanitation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in a report last month.
Brown can say with credibility that he has seen such problems before, and that there are alternatives. That is why the heads of the state’s EPA and Energy Commission are with him, along with those others like Disney executives seeking Chinese tourist dollars. If China takes any steps, however gradual, toward adopting the California model of sustainable development, the global environment will be less at risk. If Brown succeeds in winning Chinese investment in his controversial bullet-train project, that will be a great leap forward for renewable energy in California. If Brown can encourage the view that energy efficiency, renewable resources and economic growth are practical and compatible, he can help edge China away from disaster.
Brown and President Barack Obama should be natural allies, along with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a foremost critic of global warming. The Brown of 1974 already has shaped the national energy standards adopted and being implemented by Obama, who is poised to issue even tougher regulations through his new cabinet chiefs at the energy and environmental protection agencies. “The best way to unlock the stalemate in Washington” is through Beijing, asserts former Sen. Tim Worth. If the US can “cut a deal” with China to reduce methane and phase out heat-trapping HFC’s, “that kills the whole argument that cutting carbon in the US would give China an economic advantage.” (See Rolling Stone, January 31, 2013) The combination of tougher Washington standards, which could eliminate new coal plants and wind down current ones, with green infrastructure initiatives in states like California and New York, offer a plausible path to a viable environmental future.