At the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, Jerry Brown was treated like a head of state and a climate leader par excellence. Heads turned throughout the gargantuan press center as aides hustled the California governor to a row of makeshift studios where the world’s leading television networks waited. As the governor of what was then the world’s sixth-largest economy, Brown took a seat beneath the studio lights and told French TV about organizing the Under2 Coalition: 123 national, state, and local governments, representing more than a quarter of the global economy, that were collaborating to keep the global temperature rise under two degrees Celsius. Days later, the international community endorsed the coalition’s goal by adopting the Paris Agreement, which pledged to limit warming “well below” that mark.
This year, from September 12 to 14, Brown will host a follow-up meeting intended to keep the world moving toward that under-2°C future, notwithstanding the obstructions emanating from Washington. The California Global Climate Action Summit will draw thousands of people to San Francisco, Brown’s staff estimates. Government delegations from China, India, Germany, France, the European Union, Brazil—indeed, from virtually all of the world’s major greenhouse-gas emitters, except the United States—will be there, along with hundreds of mayors, governors, policy experts, business executives, climate activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens.
“We need catalytic events that propel states and people forward to turn the earth away from the catastrophic course we’re pursuing,” Brown told The Nation in an interview this past July. “This summit is a step, but it’s only a step.” He was seated on a couch in his office inside the State Capitol. Outside, the weather was hot (102 degrees Fahrenheit) and dry, foreshadowing the record-setting wildfires that would soon erupt 80 miles to the northwest.
“Is it enough?” Brown asked rhetorically. “No. Are we on a path to avoid catastrophe? No. But I want to do the maximum I can do.”
Although Donald Trump’s shadow will inevitably hang over the proceedings, the California summit was planned well before his election. Arms folded across his chest, an untouched cup of coffee beside him, Brown said the idea first emerged at the conclusion of the Paris summit. “Christiana Figueres asked if I’d do it, and I said yes.” Figueres, the Paris summit’s chair and the top UN climate official at the time, wanted a high-profile event in 2018 to accelerate progress on the way to a crucial third summit in Paris in 2020. An interim conference to share best practices, she thought, would help the world’s governments fulfill their obligation to publish action plans at the 2020 summit detailing the changes they’d make to meet the “well below” 2°C goal.
Figueres wanted California as the host because its record of climate accomplishments was second to none among the world’s major economies. The state was well on its way to reducing emissions to 1990 levels, and in 2015 Brown had signed a law that would go much further. Senate Bill 350 requires California to double its energy-efficiency savings by 2030, and to obtain 50 percent of its electricity from non-carbon sources.