Green Leadership on the Golden Coast

By Kaela Cote-Stemmermann (SCR ‘18) Interview Editor

Over the past year, the Trump administration has continually rolled back the climate policies passed by the Obama administration. From repealing Obama’s Clean Power Plan that reduced pollution from coal-fired power plants,1 slapping trade barriers on imported solar equipment,2 to withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, the present administration is tearing down environmental protections in the name of economic growth. With the U.S. federal government retreating from its previous commitments to fight climate change, California has emerged as a leading political actor in the international environmental movement.

One step at a time, California is pursuing its own environmental goals, directly contradicting Trump’s anti-environmental platform. For example, on July 17, 2017, California’s State Assembly and Senate voted to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program, which uses market incentives to limit emissions, through 2030.3 Earlier that summer, Governor Jerry Brown flew to Beijing to meet with international climate leaders on a campaign to mitigate global warming.4 California is spearheading a new era of state-based foreign policy in the United States. This article discusses California’s unique political position and rich history of progressive environmental policy in order to evaluate the state’s current efforts to build multilateral climate policy cooperation at the state5 and international levels. If the Californian executive branch pesses ahead with such aggressive foreign policy, it will find itself in direct confrontation with the Trump administration, who sees California’s actions as a threat to U.S. federalism and an attack on federal authority.

The Power of the Golden Coast

California’s economic and political structure allows the state to pursue alternative environmental policies that are less feasible for other states. California by itself has the largest economy in the U.S., and recently surpassed France as the sixth largest economy in the world.6 The state’s impressive gross state production of $2.6 trillion7 gives the state negotiating power in conducting diplomacy with foreign political leaders. Given the Democrat majority in California (to give context, Clinton won California by over 30 percentage points, one of the largest democratic victories since 19368) the state can effectively take on the powers of a nation-state in conducting pro-environmental foreign policy without the political constraints facing the federal government. California has the worst air pollution in the U.S., with over 90 percent of residents living in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution;9 thus, Californian policy leaders have a large incentive to pursue a climate-friendly agenda. Moreover, after the 2016 election, Californian leaders have actively defined their state as a political focal point for resistance against Trump’s policies. California’s strong democratic majority creates a sturdy liberal base, allowing for climate policies such as the cap-and-trade program and climate deals to pass with relative ease and widespread support.

In his State of the State address in Sacramento, Governor Brown promised that California would continue in the fight against climate change. “Whatever they do in Washington, they can’t change the facts,” Brown stated, “The science is clear. The danger is real.”10 This statement follows a long history of climate protection policies, made possible by California’s liberal base regardless of national party leanings. Starting with the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32), the first program to introduce regulatory and market mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, California has introduced a number of policies to help achieve AB 32’s goal of limiting emissions to below 1990 levels.11 For example, in 2007 the Low Carbon Fuel Standard Executive Order was issued, helping to lower California’s reliance on oil.12 In April 2012, Governor Brown also signed SBX1 2, which requires one-third of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources.13 Such policies paved the way for the adoption of California’s cap-and-trade regulation, adopted in October, 2011. Especially under the current populist Republican administration, California’s black sheep policies are coming into ever starker contrast with that of the rest of the nation.

Accusations of Overreach

But when does California’s freelancing verge on pushing the boundaries of federalism and state limitations? Articles I and II of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government, rather than the states, responsibility for foreign and defense policy.14 Yet the state of California holds considerable power under the Tenth Amendment, which stipulates that the powers not explicitly delegated within the Constitution are left to individual states, thus forming the idea of federalism.15 The boundaries between state and federal authority have been contested throughout U.S. history. While conservatives have typically worked to defend the rights of states to refute federal legislation, liberals prefer a larger government. However, in the aftermath of the Trump election, liberals have adopted the principles of federalism and conservatives are abandoning federalist principles in favor of a strong central government. This role reversal is reflected in several issues, such as drug prohibition, healthcare and gun control.16 Despite controversies over the extent of federal authority, states have typically left dealings with foreign governments and global issues to the federal government.17 However, California is using its political and economic prowess to seemingly push the boundaries of the Tenth Amendment.


The process by which California’s cap-and-trade program was developed provides a case study for how California is challenging and shifting the boundaries of federalism. The cap-and-trade program functions by increasing the cost for companies that emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.18 Sources that emit over 25,000 metric tons of CO2 per year are subject to a cap,19 which limits the total amount of emissions allowed in a certain area over a specified time period.20 The owners of an emission source are able to to buy and sell permitted pollution allowances amongst themselves depending if they are polluting more of less than the annual limit. Therefore, the cost of investing in new greener technology becomes less expensive than buying annual permits. Companies that successfully lower their emissions can then sell their unused carbon permits for a profit, incentivizing green technology and lowering pollution. As the amount of carbon in the atmosphere diminishes, the prices of permits slowly increase and the total number of permits decrease, to encourage further reduction of emissions.

In 2006, the California Global Warming Solutions Act allowed state regulators to develop a market based system that encourages polluters to limit their annual greenhouse gas emissions.21 This policy allowed the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to launch California’s first cap-and-trade program in 2013. Now, over 85 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, such as CO2, CH4 and N2O, are regulated by the cap-and-trade program.22 Regulators are confident that the pollution sources covered under the cap-and-trade program are on track to meet the goal of reducing emissions by 334.3 metric tons by 2020, a reduction of 15 percent from 2015 emissions levels.23 Recently, the California’s State Assembly and Senate voted to extend this program an extra 10 years, until 2030.24 This legislative victory represents a large win for Governor Brown and other California policy makers, and constitutes a defiant rejection of the Trump administration and towards a position of climate leadership.

Taking California to the Global Stage

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Governor Brown and California state lawmakers have taken the state’s green leadership to a global scale. California policymakers have publicized adamant disagreement with Trump’s decision, and now the state is taking steps to replace the U.S. in the area of international climate change. Mario Molina, a Nobel Prize Winning Scientist, noted, “With Trump indicating that he will withdraw from climate change leadership, the rest of the global community is looking to California, as one of the world’s largest economies, to take the lead.”25 Indeed, Governor Brown plans on representing California this fall at the United Nations’ climate change meeting in Bonn, Germany.26 The state’s increasing role in global affairs is placing California at the front of the fight to mitigate climate change.

From climate pacts with Canada and Mexico to foreign policy agreements with China, California is comfortably stepping into the shoes of a global negotiator. California environmental officials are currently working with Canada and Mexico to form what has been nicknamed the “NAFTA of climate change,” or more formally, the Under2 Climate Coalition.27 The coalition includes a number of cities, states and countries that have pledged to limit the increase of global average temperature to under 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists say is necessary to avoid dangerous environmental consequences.28 The coalition includes over 170 jurisdictions, equivalent to 37 percent of the global economy.29 Welcomed to the coalition by Governor Brown, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change remarked, “The governments in the Under2 Coalition, like California, are leading the fight against climate change… I applaud their leadership in reducing emissions and supporting clean innovation.”30 The international arena has welcomed California as an active player in the fight against climate change. According to a statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, President Xi Jinping encouraged California to establish ties with China on the basis of innovation and green development.31 In this way, California draws upon its history of environmental leadership, its successful programs, and economic position in not only contradicting Washington, but stepping up as a climate leader acknowledged by foreign governments.

In April, a delegation from California traveled to Beijing to discuss emissions trading and other climate positive efforts in order to further fill the gap left when President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement.32 Drawing upon the success of its cap-and-trade program, California advised China on how to establish their own cap-and-trade program. Furthermore, Governor Brown and the Chinese Science Ministry signed a pledge agreeing to reduce their emissions.33 This agreement between Governor Brown and Chinese officials introduced state-run foreign policy for the first time in U.S. history. Whereas the U.S. federal government must consider its political interests in China, such as the South China Sea and commitment to human rights, as a subnational actor, California is unencumbered by contradicting diplomatic objectives. This allows California to work more effectively with China on climate issues with fewer conflicts of interest or competing agendas.

A Cleaner Future

While California’s efforts of environmental foreign policy have received support from international actors, they are not nearly so popular in Washington. It is unclear whether the Trump administration will continue to give California free reign to impose its own foreign policy. Many worry that California’s actions detract from broader governmental goals, send a mixed message, and even bend the laws of the Constitution.

The administration could hobble the state’s ability to serve as a national environmental pacesetter by reducing federal spending to the state, similarly to how the Interior Secretary cut Alaska’s funding after Senator Murkowski voted against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.34 Another possible strategy for Washington is to delegitimize federalism. Indeed, Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency Chief responsible for the rollback of Obama’s environmental policies, has already issued strong anti federalist rhetoric. Traditionally a strong federalist and “champion for states rights,” Pruitt even created a Federalism Unit as attorney general, dedicated to combating overreaching federal regulations.35 However, when it comes to states strengthening environmental protections, Pruitt has shown significantly less enthusiasm, stating that California’s action are “not federalism—that’s a political agenda hiding behind federalism.” continuing, “Is it federalism to impose your policy on other states? It seems to me that Brown is being the aggressor here,” Pruitt told the New York Times, “but we expect the law to show this.”36 By arguing that California’s environmental policy does not fall into the realm of federalism but is actually aggressive and illegal, Pruitt calls into question California’s national and international legitimacy.

Moving to counter California’s new environmental policies would be a mistake for Washington. California is now portrayed by western media as a “port in the storm” of a post-Paris Agreement world of climate denial.37 Legally attacking California would not only be reversing the Trump administration’s own overarching platform of federalism, it would also undermine global efforts to mitigate carbon production and protection of the environment. In order to avoid such conflict, California policymakers should focus on increasing cooperation within the state government, increasing transparency in its foreign and domestic environmental policy, and work to minimize the legal risks of its foreign policy actions.38 California has demonstrated its growing influence on the global stage, and its ability to fill in the vacuum left by Washington. It has proven that a subnational actor can successfully go against one of the most powerful countries in the world. California’s actions indicate a new future for independent policies by state governments, and a new norm for conducting environmental foreign policy •


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  5. State is defined as constituent political entity of the United States.
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  13. “Governor Brown Signs Legislation to Boost Renewable Energy.” Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. December 4, 2011. Accessed November 11, 2017.
  14. “The Constitution of the United States,” Article 1 and 2.
  15. “Constitution of the United States.” Amendment 10.
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  34. Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin, “Trump budget cuts deeply into Alaska’s federal funding,” Alaska Dispatch News, September 22, 2017, accessed October 22, 2017,
  35. Natasha Geiling, “Scott Pruitt is a champion for states’ rights - unless they want to strengthen environmental protection,” ThinkProgress, January 18, 2017, accessed October 22, 2017,
  36. Coral Davenport And Adam Nagourney, “Fighting Trump on Climate, California Becomes a Global Force,” The New York Times, May 23, 2017, accessed October 20, 2017,
  37. Christopher Cadelago, “Is Jerry Brown taking Trump’s place on world climate stage?” Sacbee, June 1, 2017, accessed October 22, 2017,
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