At the Front Lines: An Interview with California Governor Jerry Brown on 'Laudato Si''
Over the last few weeks I've been reaching out to a wide variety of prominent Catholics in California, getting their reactions to "Laudato Si.’" This week, I'm posting some of their responses.
California Governor Jerry Brown has spent his entire life in public service. After college Brown spent a few years as a Jesuit seminarian. He has spent the 45 years since serving the state of California at every level, from Los Angeles community college district trustee to mayor of Oakland, state Attorney General, governor, candidate for Senate twice, and candidate for the presidency three times. In his 1992 run he carried six states, and came in second in voting at the Democratic convention to Bill Clinton.
Brown is the longest standing governor in the history of California, having served at this point 13 years. He also has accomplished the preposterous but true feat of having been elected governor again almost 30 years after he was first elected. (He was first governor for two terms from 1975-1983. He was reelected in 2010, and has completed the first year of his second term.) When he was first elected governor Brown was the youngest governor the state had had in 100 years. Today he is the oldest governor in California's history.
Brown's father Pat Brown was also the governor of California, from 1959-1967. The gubernatorial careers of both men have been marked by environmental concerns. Pat Brown began the California State Water Project, which first attempted to address water issues in the state. In recent years Governor Brown has worked with his legislature to address many environmental issues, including calling for much more stringent conservation efforts in the wake of California's deepening drought. I spoke to Governor Brown by phone.
What are your initial reactions to the encyclical?
I think it definitely advances the church’s position on the environment. The pope made a very clear articulation of the responsibility and the respect that human beings owe the rest of creation. And he’s taking on a real existential threat to the underlying conditions on which our civilization is dependent, the stability of the climate, which has been very favorable for the last 10 to 12 thousand years. So it’s important for reorienting Catholics to the rules and the laws of nature that can’t be ignored or abused in the name of individual freedom or desire or initiative. As people work out their various ways of living they have to take into account not just what they want to do, but what nature dictates and what science tells us about the way human beings are enmeshed in and dependent on a greater and complex web of life.
The pope is also raising the point, which gets serious opposition from many quarters, of how much material stuff is really appropriate, that there are certain limits and certain ways of living and industrializing and carrying on that are more compatible with a sustainable and healthy environment. The encyclical raises a real challenge to a modern world that is so dependent on the market for authority and for the allocation of life’s goods and services. The pope is raising the ante, saying No, you have to look at the impact. When you’re disturbing the environment you’re going to create negative feedbacks that are going to be felt disproportionately by poorer people, more vulnerable people who don’t have the assets and the capital to protect themselves against the extreme weather and the disruptions that follow in the wake of an impaired climate regime, which is where we’re going.
So all in all I’d say it’s a welcome voice, a clear voice that definitely lays out ideas consistent with the Catholic tradition but also very related to the times that we’re in.
California seems to be on the frontlines of climate change issues in our country right now. What’s that been like? What are you seeing?
Well, we’re on the frontlines in two respects. One, the whole Southwest is experiencing significantly greater temperatures and that’s disruptive. Our fire season is several months longer than it was 20 years ago, and that’s certainly a challenge for livestock and other animals, for human beings and their houses.
But in another sense California is on the forefront in that it is clearly leading the country, I would say even the Western hemisphere and much of the world, by the regime we have in place. The state doesn’t just have a goal or rhetoric; we have a set of laws that set a pathway on how to actually get to the desired reduction of greenhouse gases and have a specification of what that reduction should be not just in 2050 but in 2030.
Last week the California Resources Board put out their report of the inventory of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, and it showed that we have shown a steady decline [in greenhouse gases] since the early 2000s, and that even though California is growing faster than the country, the economy is decarbonizing at an increasing rate. The per capita generation of greenhouse gases has dropped from about 14 tonnes to 12 tonnes—by no means close to where we have to go, but a pathway that is reflective of reduced carbon intensity alongside continuing economic expansion.
The state also has the institutional capacity in the form of leaders, expert staff, regulatory institutions and a collaborative spirit all working toward dealing with this existential challenge of climate change. The California Energy Commission, the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Air Resources Board and the California Independent System Operator are all institutions with highly trained people working to measure the impact on the environment of fossil fuels or human activities that generate greenhouse gases, and to develop rules that will steadily reduce greenhouse gas production to a fraction of what it is today by the year 2050.
And we’ve been on board with this not just during my governorship, but before that. Gray Davis adopted the most ambitious and aggressive tailpipe emission controls and then Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 32, which included commitments to reach those greenhouse goals, including the establishment of a cap and trade program, which is now fully operational.
So in all these ways California is responding to the signals put out by the government in ways that are reducing our carbon footprint.
That’s very impressive. What would you say the rest of the country could learn from California’s experience?
California has this history that really derives from the experience of smog in the Los Angeles Basin, and the response to that over many administrations has led to where we are today. As a matter of fact the standards that were established under the so-called Pavley Law [the first legislation in the world to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in passenger vehicles], were ultimately adopted by the United States as the national standard. Today Los Angeles has ten times as many cars as it did in the 50s, and the air is 95 percent cleaner. That’s a pretty dramatic move, one that countries like China and India are taking notice of.
So we’ve had that history. As far as people’s attitudes I would say that there is a strong preference for favoring policies that nurture the environment as opposed to those that disrupt them.
But if you dig deeper into the use of things or creature comforts, I don’t think we’ve attained the level of enlightenment that Pope Francis is calling for.
You mentioned earlier California’s cap and trade policy. Pope Francis talks specifically about cap and trade in the encyclical and sees it as a kind of shell game that looks good but accomplishes little. And yet it sounds like it’s worked in California?
Our cap and trade is different. First of all, it’s not the only initiative. It isn’t just “Go your merry way, we’ll have a cap and trade program, you’ll buy allowances and then you can go pollute.” No, we have a cap that says you must keep lowering your emissions, and if you can’t you have to buy allowances, in fact you have to pay a fee. And along with that, we have a goal of one third of our electricity to come from renewable electricity; we have very tight standards on all manner of trucks, vehicles and buses; we have rules for the cement industry, and we have rules across our whole economy. So we’re not just relying on one technique or intervention. What we have is an integrated effort, in which cap and trade is one method.
And even under the cap and trade we’ve already raised this year over two billion dollars. And twenty five percent of that money has to be directed to low income communities; it’s to help reduce greenhouse gases, but do so in a way that advantages the most vulnerable and low income.
One thing I’ve noticed—in your talks you frequently bring up how climate change issues impact the poor. For instance in the discussions about the drought, you’ll mention not just the needs of agriculture but of the migrant workers who come here seeking jobs to support their families. Where does that awareness come from?
I think that’s a theme with the Democratic Party and with a lot of people in California. Certainly in the California legislature there’s a strong sensitivity to the predicament of farm workers, low wage workers, people who are totally dependent on government and others for their survival.
It’s also in part that California has been a pretty cosmopolitan state. It has a rather large budget in terms of social services; we’re covering about a third of the people under MediCal; our exchange under the Affordable Care Act is the largest and I think the most effective in the country.
This is the place of Google and Apple and Hewlett Packard and the movie industry and the space industry, and for that matter the oil industry and the solar and the renewable energy. So there’s a lot of dynamism, a lot of creativity.
And within that there is a fair degree of compassion and concern about those who really have been left out.
You mentioned the encyclical’s call to reconsider our creature comforts. Having been a leader of people for a long time, what do you think it’s going to take to help us become open to these sorts of sacrifices and adjustments?
Well I think that’s a very good question, and not one that’s easily answered. We’re in a very materialistic and self-referential period. And while I think California has some good policies, I don’t want to overstate our difference. What does it take? I would say it probably takes the experience of the negative aspects of climate change. But how people become more compassionate or more generous? I think there’s an inherent generosity to people, but how that’s all going to be worked out in our highly competitive, highly individualistic age, I have to leave that as an open question.
I would add though one final thought. I believe the encyclical, coming from the pope, expresses an idea that Ignatius Loyola and Jesuits have certainly been impressed with and promoted, and that is (in Latin) “tantum quantum“—tantum”, so much; “quantum”, how much. It means, If this much is needed, how much should be done or taken or given? It’s a statement of proportionality. [Ed’s Note: One paraphrase of this principle is: “As much as helps (but not more).”]
Now whether or not in a market economy people can come to understand, let alone embrace, “tantum quantum” remains to be seen. But I do think that is a power in this encyclical, and it’s an idea that should spread. And I’ll do my part to see that it has a fighting chance.