In an ornate room in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, an imposing marble-columned building on the western edge of Tiananmen Square, China’s President Xi Jinping engaged on Tuesday in a discussion with an American official about how the U.S. and China could work together on fighting climate change and developing green technology.
But it wasn’t President Donald Trump who met with Xi in the Great Hall, a building typically reserved for high-level political meetings and ceremonial activities; nor was it Rick Perry, Trump’s energy secretary who’s in China this week for an energy conference. The American envoy in the room was California Gov. Jerry Brown (D).
It’s unusual for a state official to meet with a national leader, but there Brown was, in one of Beijing’s most important buildings, discussing “the importance of expanding cooperation of green technology, innovation, and trade,” according to the governor’s office.
“It’s highly significant that the governor of California can meet with the president of China, talking about very specific issues on the foremost challenge of our time — namely, climate change,” Brown, a Democrat, told reporters after the 45-minute meeting, according to The New York Times.
“I believe [President Xi] definitely gave the green light for more collaboration between China and California, and I would say other states [too], through this subnational arrangement,” the 79-year-old added.
The Beijing meeting — held just days after President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on limiting carbon emissions — was a largely symbolic one, but it sent a powerful message. “[It] underlined the extent to which Trump … is being sidelined on the world stage,” Jessica Meyers from the Los Angeles Times wrote, describing the encounter.
Gov. Brown, a vocal critic of the Trump administration and longtime climate change crusader, was described as “America’s de facto climate ambassador” in the days leading up to his China trip.
Brown was among the 13 U.S. governors and hundreds of mayors who committed to upholding the Paris Agreement in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the accord last week. “We’re on the field ready for battle,” Brown told reporters last Thursday, an hour after Trump’s announcement. “While the president may be AWOL in the battle against the climate, we’re not.”
China has similarly reiterated its commitment to the climate accord in recent days. Responding to Trump’s Paris decision, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that “China will stand by its responsibilities on climate change.”
China, currently the world’s biggest carbon emitter (the U.S. is second), appears eager to take up the mantle of global climate leader as Trump’s administration relinquishes this role. China’s National Energy Administration announced in January that it would invest more than $360 billion in renewable energy projects through 2020. Later that month, the agency canceled plans to build more than 100 new coal plants in the country.
According to a recent Climate Action Tracker report, China is set to significantly reduce its coal consumption in the coming decade and is on track to “overachieve [its] Paris Agreement climate pledges.”
“I can just feel the order of the world shifting a bit east,” Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, told HuffPost last week. “It’s very clear that China is ready to forge new alliances, and deep alliances with others than the United States.”
Or in the case of California, perhaps within the United States too.
The environmental partnership between China and California is actually not a new one. Several climate-related partnerships have been forged between the state and Chinese politicians, scientists and regulators since 2005, reported The World Post. Most recently, China sought California’s guidance in building its first carbon cap-and-trade market.
If Trump and his administration continue to turn their back on the global climate fight, Brown said the importance of this partnership will only grow. “The rest of the country and the rest of the world have to react [to Trump’s climate inaction], and the reaction has to be to intensify our efforts to decarbonize our economy,” Brown told The World Post earlier this month.
“As Trump does his climate denial, that paradoxically is a catalytic force that mobilizes those who don’t agree with him and those who see climate change as the threat I think it is,” Brown added.