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Interview: Former California Gov. Jerry Brown Launches Climate Change Institute With China, UC Berkeley

Gov. Jerry Brown rides around his ranch with his dog, Colusa, in rural Colusa County, December, 2018.
Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
Gov. Jerry Brown rides around his ranch with his dog, Colusa, in rural Colusa County, December, 2018.

“Like Cincinnatus, I’ve returned to the plow.”

Take one guess at which former California governor tweeted that a few months back.

The reference, to the Roman dictator who voluntarily gave up his power to go back to his farm, accompanied a picture of Jerry Brown. He was sitting in a golf cart — he calls it a “mule” — on his family’s Colusa County ranch, next to the state’s former first dogs Colusa and Cali Brown.


But making olive oil is far from the only thing the former governor is doing during what he hates to call a “retirement.” On Monday, he announced the launch of the California-China Climate Institute at UC Berkeley.

“We’re in the face of a demolition derby coming out of the Trump White House, eviscerating every clean air law in sight,” Brown told CapRadio during a telephone interview last week from his ranch previewing Monday’s launch. “So, it’s particularly important that we mobilize an important set of constituencies and raise awareness.”

The institute, a partnership with Tsinghua University in Beijing, will focus on research and training initiatives, as well as “dialogue” between American researchers, scientists and public officials and their Chinese counterparts.

“Given the rising tension, animosity, competition with China and America, it’s all the more important that California and China forge open communication — pathways of working together and dialogue,” Brown said. “More important than ever.”

Among the issues the program will cover:


–low-carbon transportation and zero emission vehicles

–lcarbon pricing

–lclimate adaptation and resilience

–lsustainable land use and climate-smart agriculture

–lcarbon capture and storage

–long-term climate goal-setting and policy enforcement

Brown says the institute’s work will engage “at a technical level, but also at a policy level that can help China, California and America do more and be more effective in reducing the dangers of climate change by reducing carbon emissions.”

China’s top climate change official attended the launch announcement Monday in New York City, which was timed to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly and Climate Week NYC.

Brown was scheduled to join him, but his office said a “personal matter” forced him to remain in California. His successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom, is in New York this week but did not attend the launch.

“Climate change is a common threat faced by the human society,” said China’s Special Representative for Climate Change Affairs Xie Zhenhua, who leads the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University.

In a statement, Xie praised the former governor for his “great contribution and leadership to addressing climate change during his tenure” and said he hopes Tsinghua University’s institute “can continue deep collaboration with Governor Brown’s team.”

Brown’s interview with CapRadio also touched on China’s trustworthiness as a partner, a couple of other California issues and what else the former governor is spending his time on since he termed out in January after a record four terms spread across two separate stints. (He’s making olive oil and holds a leadership role with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the organization responsible for the Doomsday Clock.)

Interview Highlights

Q: Which issues will be of greatest value to California learning from China, and which the other way around?

A: For China to continue and strengthen their requirements for electric cars, zero emission vehicles, as well as more renewable electricity, that helps the world. But it also helps California. When Trump is trying to undermine our vehicle emission standards. It’s very helpful to have the government of China — which has the biggest auto market on Planet Earth — to follow, and even exceed, the California rules. That really is forcing the auto companies to sign up for California. Because if they give in to Trump and go for more gas guzzlers, they’re not going to sell their cars in four or five years.

We need continuing scientific research — how to implement a cap and trade program. China has not done it at the level of California. They got to audit emissions. We can be helpful. We’ve been doing that. We have third party verification of all our audits of carbon emission. And you gotta know what’s coming out of the tailpipe or the factory chimney if we’re gonna reduce it. So I think there’s ways California can help.

And China has far more money going into new battery technology that will make more electric cars possible, cheaper, go further. And also, we’ll be able to run more cities on wind and sun — because when the wind stops and the sun goes down, we’ll have adequate storage, which we don’t have today. And that takes billions and billions of very careful and productive research. We’re doing some of that in Silicon Valley, we’re doing some of that in other parts of the world. But China is virtually a leader, or close to being a leader.

Q: On whether he’s concerned that giving China a foothold at one of America’s most prestigious universities could give it a competitive edge over California and the U.S. as a whole

A: I’m not prepared to comment on Chinese violation of California law, whether it be intellectual property or cyber rules. But I will tell you this: China is investing an enormous sum of money in storage technology, in renewable energy, in zero emission cars. (If America) can outcompete the Chinese, hallelujah, all the better. And we want to almost engage in a holy competition to bring down the costs of renewable electricity, make our cars more efficient, cheaper, and that’s good.

There’s plenty of issues between the U.S. and China: South China Sea, Taiwan, intellectual property, hacking, you name it. But climate change is not waiting for politicians to work out their various problems. And China is a major player — biggest polluter, biggest investor in renewable technology. And I think California can profit from partnering with them, and so can China profit from partnering with us.

Yeah, there are issues. I’m sure we’ll get into them and see them as we go along. But just sitting on the sidelines throwing rocks, or issuing Trumpian tweets, goes nowhere. We must roll up our sleeves, work with our Chinese partners, and really get an issue on what is a major threat to billions of people on this planet.

Q: On the upcoming retirement of UC President Janet Napolitano, with whom he often sparred during his tenure as governor

A: I don’t want to get into personalities. I would just say, the university still has a long way to go to make itself more — I don’t want to say efficient, but to lower its cost structure in a way that can keep student debt down. And to learn that they’ll get some funding from the state, but they can’t expect the state to underwrite everything that any of the professors want to do.

A lot of that (research is) good; we need more money in various areas of research. In fact, I would recommend California consider that — particularly in the climate area. But there’s always a bit of tension between Sacramento — the state government — and UC. UC is one of the claimants, along with many others, for more money. And there’s a limited amount, so you have to say no. you have to balance stuff out. That’s what I did, and that creates a little bit of tension.

Q: On whether he’s concerned about Gov. Newsom and the Legislature placing a $15 billion school facilities bond on the March 2020 ballot after working to pay down the state’s bond debt during his governorship

A: I’m not specifically commenting on this bond issue. But I would say that whether it’s pension debt or bonded indebtedness, those obligations have to be paid come hell or high water. And as the recession takes hold, and tens of billions of dollars fail to materialize, other state programs — like the university, like health care, like child care — will be squeezed. So it is absolutely imperative to scrutinize every long-term obligation with the clear awareness that the amt of money piling in today will not pile in at the same rate 2 years from now.

Q: On what he’s up to these days besides launching his new climate change institute:

A: I’m getting ready for my third olive harvest, which is the basis of our specialty brand Mountain House olive oil. And we’ll have that sometime in November.

Q: Is it in stores?

A: Well, not yet. But one never knows. So that’s something. Then, of course, we’re gonna have to set the Doomsday Clock. Two minutes to midnight now; we’ll be meeting in November in Chicago with scientists to mull over, should we make it closer to midnight or keep it the same or maybe even pull it back. So that’s that. And lots of other things. So never a dull moment.

Q: On what he doesn’t miss about being governor

A: What don’t I miss? That’s a good question. You know, I like my freedom. I definitely enjoy that. But I enjoyed being governor. Most everything there I liked. And I didn’t get too caught up in the banality of gubernatorial ceremony. I concentrated on interesting, substantive issues and working with a very extraordinary group of people, including leaders in the Legislature.

Q: On whether he missed staying up late on the final night of legislative session each year

A: Oh, that was kind of fun — the final night. But, you know, when you step away from these bills, they don’t seem quite as important.

These interview highlights were edited for brevity and clarity.