Renewable energy advocate Branstad tapped for China post

Source: Hannah Hess, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, December 8, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump wants to send Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) to China, as the next U.S. ambassador to a nation known for its leadership in the international fight against global warming.

Branstad has close personal ties to Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he met in 1985 during the first of his six terms as governor. The longest-tenured governor in American history — though he has not served successive terms — has also been a leader on renewable energy, calling for diversifying the nation’s energy portfolio and working to boost his state’s massive wind industry.

China’s Foreign Ministry, which has criticized Trump’s claim that climate change is a Chinese “hoax,” warmly greeted the selection.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said during a regular news conference that Branstad “is an old friend of the Chinese people” and welcomed him to play a greater role in promoting relations between the two powers.

However, Trump has shown an openness to withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and shaking up the cooperative approach the Obama administration took to working with the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. That could have repercussions on other elements of Trump’s foreign diplomacy, make Branstad’s job a challenge and position China to become the global champion (Greenwire, Nov. 11).

Iowa currently has close economic ties to China.

Branstad embarked on an eight-day trade mission to China and Japan in mid-November, his fourth trip to China in the past five years. In 2015, Iowa companies exported $1.2 billion in manufactured and value-added goods to China, making it the state’s third-largest export destination.

The governor has acknowledged the need to recognize climate change as a global challenge, after taking an early interest in the issue.

In the spring of 1990, the same year that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its first report, Branstad asked two researchers at the University of Iowa’s Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research to brief him on the emerging problem. At the time, Branstad was serving as president of the National Governors Association, and he also wanted to hear about the policies that governors might adopt to address climate change.

More recently, his tone has shifted.

In a 2011 interview with Politico, he said global warming was driven by countries such as China that are heavily polluting.

During a 2014 interview with The Gazette, an eastern Iowa newspaper, Branstad expressed skepticism about climate science. He said he believed the planet was currently in a warming cycle, “but we’ve also throughout history seen times when it’s gone the other way and it’s gotten colder. So, you know we had an ice age not all that long ago in this country.”

Branstad then advocated doing “thoughtful things,” like conserving energy.

This year, Branstad is serving as chairman of a bipartisan coalition of governors that supports federal policies to promote wind and solar energy. The 22-member coalition pushed last year for the extension of renewable energy production and investment tax credits, which were signed into law by President Obama as part of the omnibus appropriations deal.

Branstad’s administration — including Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who is poised to become the state’s first female governor if Branstad is confirmed by the Senate — has pressed U.S. EPA to support a robust federal renewable fuel standard. The Trump administration is poised to make early decisions on biofuels (Greenwire, Oct. 12).

Earlier this year, Branstad’s son, Eric Branstad, led a pro-ethanol group, America’s Renewable Future. This summer, he became the Iowa coordinator for the Trump campaign.

Although he stayed neutral in the run-up to the Iowa presidential caucuses, Terry Branstad was highly critical of one of Trump’s leading rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for his opposition to the national RFS (E&E Daily, Jan. 20). Cruz bested Trump in the Iowa caucuses.

Branstad could apply some of the lessons he has learned about energy as governor in China, where officials have publicly committed to stay the course on climate even if the United States goes rogue.

Former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) currently serves as ambassador to China. In a farewell speech to the Senate in 2014, Baucus made clear that global cooperation on the environment would be part of his focus.

“Climate change — we’re all in this together,” Baucus said (E&E Daily, Feb. 7, 2014).