Cal­i­for­nia has a his­tory of going it alone to pro­tect the envi­ron­ment. Now, as US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pulls back on cli­mate sci­ence and pol­icy, sci­en­tists in the Golden State are sketch­ing plans for a home-​​grown climate-​​research insti­tute — to the tune of hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars per year.

The ini­tia­tive, which is backed by California’s flag­ship uni­ver­si­ties, is in the early stages of devel­op­ment. If it suc­ceeds, it will rep­re­sent one of the largest US invest­ments in cli­mate research in years. The nascent ‘Cal­i­for­nia Cli­mate Sci­ence and Solu­tions Insti­tute’ would fund basic– and applied-​​research projects designed to help the state to grap­ple with the hard real­i­ties of global warming.

The project could be funded by rev­enue from the state’s cap-​​and-​​trade pro­gramme to reduce greenhouse-​​gas emis­sions, but its polit­i­cal prospects are unclear. Advo­cates say they have received a warm recep­tion from Cal­i­for­nia Gov­er­nor Jerry Brown, but a spokesper­son for Brown would say only that “dis­cus­sions are ongo­ing”. The pro­posal must also clear the state legislature.

The goal is to develop the research we need, and then put cli­mate solu­tions into prac­tice,” says Daniel Kam­men, an energy researcher at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. Although the insti­tute would focus on sci­ence to serve Cal­i­for­nia, Kam­men says Brown and other state lead­ers rec­og­nize that their work will have global impact — par­tic­u­larly now that Trump has promised to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris cli­mate accord. “The term we often use is ‘rule from below,’” Kam­men says.

And Cal­i­for­nia might ulti­mately have some com­pany. At Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity in New York City, sci­ence dean Peter de Meno­cal — a palaeo­cli­ma­tol­o­gist — hopes to build an alliance of major uni­ver­si­ties and phil­an­thropists to sup­port research into press­ing ques­tions about the impacts of cli­mate change. Poten­tial top­ics include local vari­a­tions in sea-​​level rise and the chang­ing avail­abil­ity of fresh­wa­ter resources and food.

De Meno­cal has already tested the idea on a smaller scale. Last year, he launched the Cen­ter for Cli­mate and Life at Colum­bia, enlist­ing cor­po­rate phil­an­thropists to fund the university’s Earth sci­en­tists. The project has raised about US$8 mil­lion. “This prob­lem is big­ger than any one insti­tu­tion,” says de Meno­cal. “What pri­vate phil­an­thropy can do that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment doesn’t do is tar­get assets to solve spe­cific problems.”

Writ large, that is what aca­d­e­mics in Cal­i­for­nia hope to do. The pro­posed cli­mate insti­tute there has drawn sup­port from nearly all the state’s major aca­d­e­mic insti­tu­tions, includ­ing all ten Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia cam­puses and pri­vate pow­er­houses such as Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity and the Cal­i­for­nia Insti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in Pasadena. Sci­en­tists from any insti­tu­tion would be eli­gi­ble for grants to study top­ics rang­ing from ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion to tax pol­icy, Kam­men says; pri­or­ity would go to projects and exper­i­ments that engage com­mu­ni­ties, busi­nesses and policymakers.

The goal is to develop the research we need, and then put cli­mate solu­tions into prac­tice.” — Daniel Kam­men

It would not be the first time that Cal­i­for­nia has stepped up to sup­port an area of sci­ence that has fallen out of favour in Wash­ing­ton DC. In 2004, the state’s vot­ers approved $3 bil­lion to cre­ate the Cal­i­for­nia Insti­tute for Regen­er­a­tive Med­i­cine in Oak­land, after then-​​President George W. Bush restricted fed­eral sup­port for research on human embry­onic stem cells; that cen­tre has since funded more than 750 projects. The pro­posal for a new cli­mate insti­tute began sim­i­larly, as a reac­tion to White House poli­cies, but its orga­niz­ers say that the con­cept has evolved into a reflec­tive exer­cise about aca­d­e­mics’ respon­si­bil­ity to help cre­ate a bet­ter future.

It almost became an inven­tory or indict­ment of our­selves,” says Ben­jamin Houl­ton, direc­tor of the John Muir Insti­tute of the Envi­ron­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, and chair of the com­mit­tee that is devel­op­ing the insti­tute pro­posal. “We real­ized we weren’t doing enough.”

Panel mem­bers aim to bring a com­plete plan to the Cal­i­for­nia leg­is­la­ture this year, in the hope of per­suad­ing law­mak­ers to fund the effort. Kam­men says that the institute’s back­ers would like to have the insti­tute up and run­ning by Sep­tem­ber 2018, when Brown is set to host a global cli­mate sum­mit in San Fran­cisco, California.

But the Cal­i­for­nia ini­tia­tive still faces sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges. Sev­erin Boren­stein, an econ­o­mist at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, warns that aca­d­e­mics will face plenty of com­pe­ti­tion for a lim­ited pool of cap-​​and-​​trade rev­enue. He also notes that efforts to cre­ate such inter­dis­ci­pli­nary cli­mate insti­tutes have strug­gled in the past, largely because it’s hard to rally aca­d­e­mics from dis­parate fields around a com­mon goal. Nonethe­less, Boren­stein favours the cli­mate ini­tia­tive, because he sees global warm­ing as an issue on which Cal­i­for­nia can have a truly global impact.

The main way Cal­i­for­nia can con­tribute to deal­ing with cli­mate change is through inno­va­tion,” he says. “We can invent and test the tech­nolo­gies and processes that will allow the rest of the world to reduce their greenhouse-​​gas emissions.”

Ref­er­ence: Nature, 548, 267–268 (doi:10.1038/548267a