Jerry Brown’s Climate Legacy Is Still Being Decided

Jerry Brown’s Climate Legacy Is Still Being Decided

Jerry Brown’s Climate Legacy Is Still Being Decided

The California governor has been a stellar first-generation climate leader, but now science requires leaving fossil fuels in the ground.


Let’s agree: Jerry Brown deserves real praise for his role as a first-generation climate leader. As California’s governor, he helped shepherd the state to a place near the top of the green league standings, by reducing the demand for energy and producing more of that energy with renewables.

But let’s add: Global warming is a timed test, one that now demands stronger responses. And the governor is flunking that test. Rare are the politicians who manage to stay ahead of an issue—usually they stick with the strategies and talking points that served them well initially. Yes, it seems unfair to rag on Brown for losing track of the plot—but boy, would it be nice if he proved the exception to the rule and used the final months of his governorship to help the world move to the next stage of the climate fight.

Brown worked hard to cut energy use and to increase the use of solar panels. But at least since the start of the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline about a decade ago, environmentalists have added a new key strategy: To have any hope of meeting global targets, we also need to keep coal, oil, and gas in the ground. That’s why every new mine, well, pipeline, and terminal gets fought. Since California is a major oil-producing state, activists asked Brown to play a part, by beginning to phase out the routine granting of permits for new wells. (Thus far in his tenure, Brown’s administration has approved about 20,000 of them. Offshore, where he has refused to close down existing leases, Sacramento has permitted four times more wells than the federal government has allowed in the deeper waters it controls.)

This is not a particularly radical idea anymore. Barack Obama, when he vetoed the Keystone project in 2015, noted: “If we’re gonna prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re gonna have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground.” French President Emmanuel Macron announced in 2017 that there would be no new oil or gas exploration in his country’s territories. Earlier this year, Jacinda Ardern, the bold new prime minister of New Zealand, banned all off- shore oil and gas exploration around the island nation: “Transitions have to start somewhere,” she said.

But not, apparently, in California, where the governor is roughly one generation older than Obama, and two ahead of Macron and Arden. In fact, every time the subject has come up, Brown has sounded testy, off his game—not even able to keep up with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who banned fracking across the Empire State. A year ago, when an activist dared interrupt his speech to shout “Keep it in the ground!,” Brown’s reply was caught on video: “Let’s put you in the ground,” he said.

Now, in an interview with The Nation (see Mark Hertsgaard’s article in this issue), Brown relies on a combination of sophistry and slur. He somehow transforms the request for a gradual, managed phase-out of new oil-drilling permits into a demand that he “snap my fingers and eliminate all gasoline in all California gasoline stations.” And if he did that, he continues, “what would happen? Revolution? Killings? Shootings?” The absurdity of this straw-man scenario only proves his unwillingness to lift a finger against the oil companies that have poured millions into his campaigns.

Brown also adopts a favorite talking point of the Canadian tar-sands industry: Stop the flow of our filthy oil and we’ll just end up buying it elsewhere. But the most thorough study of phasing out California’s oil fields found that, even if it slightly raised the demand for foreign oil, the net result would be to cut total world emissions—in fact, at a rate on par with all of California’s other energy innovations.

Economic modeling aside, it’s pretty clear who the greatest beneficiary of halting new oil production in California would be: Californians of color, who overwhelmingly inhabit the neighborhoods where Brown permits oil wells. That’s why so many environmental-justice groups have come together to demand action: more than 800 signed on to a letter this summer asking him to take action, and they’ll be leading a massive march through San Francisco on September 8 to demand he take action.

If environmental racism won’t spur him to action, the plagues that have visited California during the Brown years certainly should: the epic drought, followed by the record wildfires, followed by the record rains, followed by the killer mudslides, followed by—well, this summer, California’s Death Valley set the world record for the hottest month ever measured on our planet. That same month, California saw an essentially unprecedented “fire tornado” that spun for an hour and a half and reached tens of thousands of feet into the atmosphere. Exactly how many signs is a hard-working God supposed to send?

Those horrors add up to a compelling truth: The steps that first-generation leaders like Brown have taken are too small to meet the demands of the moment. Yes, Brown is standing up to President Trump, and yes, he’s done more than other governors have. But when it comes to climate change, it’s physics that we must measure ourselves against—and by that standard, we’re losing.

Brown insists that he can’t do more: “We’ve got a lot of elements in the political landscape that in a free society we have to deal with.” But in this case, that’s not true: He could simply stop issuing new permits. If he did, the fossil-fuel industry would kick and fuss, but it does that all the time anyway—at the moment, for instance, they’re trying to cut the state’s gas tax. They need to be fought, not feared.

And if he chooses, Brown could fight them with more power than any other politician on the planet. He’s got a state filled with engineers who are pointing the way toward the future, and with citizens who support real action. (Hispanic Americans show up in every poll as caring more about climate change than anyone else. Leaders like the state senate president emeritus Kevin de Leon, currently fighting for a 100 percent renewable-energy bill without any help from Brown, make that statistic very real.) And Brown is 80 years old, never running for office again, and in no further need of oil money.

One would hope this would free him to act—even a limited announcement that he would phase out drilling within 2,500 feet of schools, hospitals, and homes would be a real start, one that would win him deserved acclaim. But given the defensiveness that his interview reveals, perhaps we should be prepared to honor him as a pioneer in the early stages of this fight—not as a leader in its current and future battles.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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