Jerry Brown, President of the Independent Republic of California
VATICAN CITY—On his way to the United Nations climate talks in Bonn, Germany, this week, Jerry Brown stopped over at the Vatican, where a doleful group of climate scientists, politicians and public health officials had convened to discuss calamities that might befall a warming world. The prospects were so dire—floods and fires, but also forced migration, famine and war—that some of the participants acknowledged difficulty staving off despair.
California’s doomsayer governor did not express much optimism either. Seated between an economist and an Argentine bishop at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Brown leaned into his microphone and said, “It is despairing. Ending the world, ending all mammalian life. This is bad stuff.”
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“There’s nothing that I see out there that gives me any ground for optimism,” he went on. Still, he promised action: “I’m extremely excited about doing something about it.”
Even though President Donald Trump has abandoned the Paris climate agreement and called climate change a “hoax,” and even though he is proceeding to scrap the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and promoting the production of coal, Brown insisted to his audience at the Vatican that these policies do not reflect the true sensibilities of the United States.
“This is not just a top-down structure that we have in the United States,” the governor said. The small crowd burst into applause when he added, “Over time, given the commitments that we’re seeing in this room today, and what we’re seeing around the world, the Trump factor is very small, very small indeed.”
In the raw balance of power between a governor and a president, Brown has almost no standing abroad. What he does have is a platform, and a proposition: Crusading across Europe in his Fitbit and his dark, boxy suit, Brown advances California and its policies almost as an alternative to the United States—and his waning governorship, after a lifetime in politics, as a quixotic rejection of the provincial limits of the American governor. In the growing chasm between Trump’s Washington and California—principally on climate change, but also taxes, health care, gun control and immigration—Brown is functioning as the head of something closer to a country than a state.
In his final term, Brown has lobbied other states and regions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, while augmenting California’s already expansive suite of climate change programs. But Trump’s election—and the specter of Brown’s own retirement—have lately set the governor on a tear. In a rush of climate diplomacy this year, Brown traveled to China to meet with President Xi Jinping, then to Russia to participate in an international economic forum. This past week saw him address lawmakers in Brussels and Stuttgart, Germany, and he was preparing for roundtable meetings with scientists in Oslo before arriving in Bonn for a climate conference, where Brown will serve as special adviser for states and regions. And he is preparing for California to host an international climate summit of its own next year in San Francisco.
In one sense, Brown’s fixation on climate change would seem unremarkable, the predictable conclusion of a career steeped in the ecological and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, early Earth Day rallies and the Stockholm conference on the environment weighed heavily on the public consciousness when Brown was starting out in politics, and observers of a certain age will still recall him mystifying audiences with pronouncements about “planetary realism” and the “spaceship Earth.” He was still talking about the need for a fundamental shift in lifestyle when he said at the Vatican that confronting climate change will require “a transformation of the relationship of human beings to all the mysterious network of things.”
“It’s not just a light rinse,” Brown said. “We need a total, I might say, brainwashing. We need to wash our brains out and see a very different kind of world.”
But in his climate diplomacy today, Brown is performing a more urgent, final act. For nearly all his public life—from secretary of state to governor, to mayor of Oakland and state attorney general before becoming governor once again, at age 72—Brown’s near-constant state was to run for public office. Now, for the first time, he is not. Term limits will chase Brown from the state Capitol in January 2019, and today he calls climate change his “campaign,” dismissing the idea that after running unsuccessfully for president three times, he might try again in 2020. “I’ve thought because people like you ask me,” he said in an interview before leaving for Europe. “But no, I’m not running.”
Now, Brown’s future rests on a family ranch in Northern California, where he is nearly finished building a remote, off-the-grid home. These days, he talks more about rattlesnakes and wild boar than the presidential election, and he has turned his focus from electoral politics to more existential concerns.
“I find a lot of what is included in politics doesn’t count that much, at least for my salvation or my peace of mind or my interest in life,” Brown said. The climate, he went on, “is fundamental. It’s not like dietary requirements. It’s not like a tax measure, or a school curriculum, or many of the issues, even a crime bill. It goes to the essence of being alive, living things. Whether it’s humans or fauna, flora, the basis of life is embedded in this chemical structure, biological structure. And it’s threatened.”
Sitting in the back of a Ford Crown Victoria on a tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport, Brown added, “This, to me, seems worthwhile.”
Brown often borrows from the writer Carey McWilliams’ description of California as “the great exception,” a colossus that McWilliams said, “always occupied, in relation to other regions, much the same relation that America has occupied toward Europe: it is the great catch-all, the vortex at the continent’s end into which elements of America’s diverse population have been drawn, whirled around.”
Trump’s election nearly spun that vortex off its axis. In a state where Democrats had already battered Republicans to near-irrelevance, voters last year installed Democratic super-majorities in both houses of the state Legislature. They approved higher taxes and stricter gun controls, legalized marijuana and made certain felons eligible for early parole. They handed Trump the most lopsided loss a Republican presidential nominee has suffered in California in 80 years. Then they slumped in front of their TV sets as the rest of America went the other way.
The morning after the election, the leaders of the state Senate and assembly issued a joint statement in which they said they “woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land.” Brown had joked before the election that if Trump were to become president, “We’d have to build a wall around California to defend ourselves from the rest of this country.”
Now, the state Legislature and a large share of Brown’s constituents expected him to hoist it up—to assert California’s sovereignty in the Trump state. As Trump started dismantling his predecessor’s climate policies, Brown helped organize an alliance of 14 states and the island of Puerto Rico, pledging to meet their share of the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate accord. He redoubled his efforts outside of the United States, expanding on a joint project with the German state of Baden-Württemberg: recruiting nearly 200 mostly subnational governments to sign a nonbinding pact to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold beyond which many scientists predict environmental catastrophe. On top of that, Brown negotiated legislation extending California’s signature cap-and-trade program for an additional 10 years, then signed an agreement with leaders of Ontario and Quebec to integrate their cap-and-trade systems with California’s.
Trump’s election shook Brown and his home state in other ways, too: California relied on billions of dollars in federal health care funding that Trump threatened to undo, and the president’s hard line on immigration sowed fear among California’s large population of undocumented immigrants. When the Trump administration started conducting immigration sweeps in Los Angeles, protesters strung “No I.C.E” signs from freeway overpasses, and Brown—who had signed legislation granting undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses and access to college financial aid—negotiated state legislation curbing local law enforcement officials’ ability to cooperate with federal immigration agents.
By this fall, California’s feuding with Washington had grown so routine that it barely registered as news when, during the span of seven hours one day last month, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced four separate lawsuits against the Trump administration on issues ranging from health care and education to immigration and oil extraction on public and tribal lands.
Before Trump’s election, Brown existed largely at the margins outside California. When he returned to office in 2011, a fellow Democrat held the White House, and no one had to look West for an expression of leftist causes. In that context, Brown presented as a moderate, taking criticism from environmentalists for his permissiveness of hydraulic fracturing, while others dismissed as insignificant the nonbinding climate agreements he pursued.
But then Trump, less than a month in office, told a national TV audience, “California is in many ways out of control.” Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, addressing California Republicans shortly after Brown signed legislation expanding protections for undocumented immigrants, said that if California kept this up, it would eventually “try to secede from the union.” The governor factored so heavily in the specter of a civil war that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, himself a Californian, slipped in a speech last month in which he rebuked one “President Brown.”
The nation’s most populous state was cleaving from Washington, and Brown was its marshaling force.
“Trump is leaving many vacuums, and I think Jerry Brown has long imagined himself as a kind of global player,” says Orville Schell, who wrote a biography of Brown in 1978 and remains in contact with him. “He does see California, as the sixth-largest economy of the world, as capable of playing more of a nation-state-like role.”
Brown “sort of accidentally has had the world thrust in his lap through the climate issue, which he passionately believes in,” Schell adds. “The opportunity has presented itself, the inclination is there, and he’s sort of ratcheting the state up to rush into that breach that Washington is leaving.”
In the role of a statesman, Brown so far has been met with doting audiences in Europe. When he arrived in Stuttgart for meetings this week, local officials sent a seven-car motorcade to the airport to deliver him to his hotel with lights flashing, an unheard-of accommodation back home. And when Brown spoke in Brussels on Tuesday, before the hemicycle of the European Parliament, the body’s president, Antonio Tajani, said the governor’s presence gave Europeans “some comfort” in the era of Trump. Muhterem Aras, president of the parliament of Baden-Württemberg, told Brown through an interpreter, “You and your work are needed more than ever.” She cast Brown as a warrior “facing a mighty lobby as an adversary.”