California’s Planetary Realism

A new breed of subnational statesmen takes the lead on climate action.

Governor Newsom meets President Xi. (Office of the Governor of California)

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

The impending threat of climate calamity is forging a new breed of subnational statesmen from California guided by a political philosophy that could be called “planetary realism.”

Their view departs from the old “realist” school of foreign policy that regards nation-states as the principal actors on the world stage engaged in an endless struggle against others in pursuit of securing their own national interests.

Reality these days dictates that this new realism supplants the old when it comes to the convergence of critical common challenges that are beyond the scope of remedy by any one nation or bloc of nations. As the Earth’s biosphere cascades toward unlivable conditions, the security of each depends inextricably on the other.

The new breed of statesmen seeks cooperation across borders at any level because they cannot effectively meet the threat to their own jurisdiction and constituencies without addressing it everywhere else. In this way, as the Berggruen Institute’s Jonathan Blake has put it, “translocalism circumnavigates geopolitics” when vital interests inconveniently transcend boundaries, not least when there is strategic conflict at the top, as in the case of the U.S. and China.

Meeting The Red Emperor On The Green Transition

A prime example of subnational planetary diplomacy was on display last week when California Governor Gavin Newsom toured China’s provinces where clean energy development and climate mitigation are most advanced. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and others to update already extant environmental cooperation agreements with his state and initiate new ones.

For China’s part, it recognizes that the Pacific-facing Golden State with a population of 40 million is nearly a nation unto itself. As the fifth-largest economy in the world, the state’s public policies that shape its huge market set standards for the entire United States, especially when it comes to auto emission controls, electric vehicle mandates and de-carbonizing technologies.

The U.S. and China may well survive the decoupling of their economies from each other. But, as Gov. Newsom understands, the world will not survive the decoupling of climate cooperation by the two largest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet. “Divorce is not an option,” he declared in Beijing.

Despite all other tensions between these two incommensurate political systems, what the governor called the “fundamental and foundational” climate summons must bind the two together in partnership despite rivalry in other realms.

The aims of California-China collaboration are detailed in the memorandum of understanding on “enhancing cooperation on strengthening low-carbon development and green transition” the governor signed on behalf of California with China’s National Development and Reform Commission.

Gov. Newsom follows in the pioneering stead of Jerry Brown, who was governor of California for two separate stints, from 1975 to 1983 and again from 2011 to 2019. Back in 1976, he first coined the term “planetary realism” as a way to conjoin practical politics with mounting environmental concerns that at the time were not yet on the mainstream agenda. Brown was among the first major political figures to thematize the interconnectedness of humans and nature in a whole Earth perspective.

Governor Brown meets President Xi. (Office of the Governor of California)

For all his prescience, Brown was mocked then as “Governor Moonbeam,” only to be regarded as time went on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency as the most grounded politician in America.

When Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, Brown traveled to China to deepen a range of climate collaborations between Chinese authorities and California’s Air Resources Board agreed in a landmark accord that he negotiated in 2013. President Xi broke all previous protocol by meeting for the first time with a U.S. governor, a gesture he repeated with Newsom last week.

During his final term in office, Brown convened a signal gathering in San Francisco of subnational authorities and NGOs from around the world to foster cooperation on climate action going forward. After leaving office, he established the California-China Climate Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and Tsinghua University in China, co-founded by Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate official. That institute, which the Berggruen Institute has helped fund, will play a role in coordinating the various joint projects outlined in Gov. Newsom’s MOU.

In the years immediately preceding Jerry Brown’s second set of terms as governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger also pursued the subnational planetary path. Even as a Republican governor, he did not shrink from battling out-of-state oil companies that sought to overturn the state’s strict environmental regulations, dating from Brown’s earlier tenure, while garnering a bipartisan commitment to further reduce the state’s carbon emissions.

In September 2011, Schwarzenegger organized a Governors’ Global Climate Summit in Sacramento, the state capital, and launched the R20 Charter. The R20, in the mold of the G20, is now known as the Catalytic Finance Foundation. It is a global network the brings together NGOs, subnational provinces and cities with teams of entrepreneurs, technologists and investors to realize clean energy projects and build out green infrastructure in regions across the world.

By reaching out at a time of war on the European continent and in the Middle East when U.S. President Joe Biden has built a bipartisan consensus that aims to contain China, Newsom is exposing himself to considerable political risk. But the governor has proven to be a fighter for big causes he believes in. He is not afraid of blazing new trails, as he showed more than a decade ago when he issued same-sex marriage licenses as mayor of San Francisco.

“I think Newsom is showing some wisdom and some courage in going, because climate is not waiting for Israel, the United States or Vladimir Putin,” Brown said of the current governor’s China trip. “It is inexorable. Every moment, every day, things are getting worse, and so we have to deal with it — you can’t avoid it.”    

That a policy of planetary realism has been consistently practiced now by a string of California governors is the mark of imaginative leadership so sorely missing elsewhere in the face of the most existential of all imperatives for urgent action.