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Five Big Things Governor Brown Did on Climate Change

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Governor Jerry Brown speaking at the global summit in San Francisco in September.  (John Larimore, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services)

In 1977, the 39-year-old governor of California led a puzzled press corps to a blustery stretch of coastline near Bodega Bay.

“I heard that you were going to come out here and talk to the whales,” one reporter said to him.

“No, I came out here to see,” said Gov. Jerry Brown. “The idea of the project is to put hydrophones in the water and pick up the sounds that the whales make as they go through their migration south.”

Whale calls could be heard in the background, played by the “Gray Whale Listening Station,” an experimental project by the California-based art and architecture collective known as the Ant Farm.

It was his first tour as governor, and Brown talked about environmentalism long before it was mainstream, promoting the nascent technologies of solar and wind power. At the time, critics thought his ideas were on the fringe. That approach earned him the nickname “Governor Moonbeam.”


Now, more than 40 years later, Brown is leaving office again, having passed some of the most ambitious climate change policies in the country. Under his watch, renewable energy has boomed and carbon emissions have declined.

Still, some say Brown didn’t go far enough, leaving California with the toughest climate challenges to come.

Brown sees it both ways.

“I’d say California has taken more intelligent action on climate change than any state or province in the Western Hemisphere,” he said in an interview with KQED in the weeks before leaving office. “We’ve pushed way beyond what other states can even imagine. And we have to go even further and I agree with that.”

Today, there are few elected officials in the country who talk about climate change more than Brown, who calls it “a threat to organized human existence.”

“Jerry Brown thinks about this day and night,” says Ken Alex, Brown’s climate policy advisor for the past eight years. “I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.”

Alex recalls an out-of-office message he put on his email a few years ago.

During the dry 2016 winter, Governor Brown meets with snow surveyor Frank Gehrke. (Kelly M. Grow / California Department of Water Resources)

“My response said, ‘I’m unplugging, no email, no nothing,’ and he wrote back and he said ‘Why? This is the time to be engaged. What are you doing?’” Alex remembers.

So, as Brown’s tenure ends, here are his biggest climate accomplishments (and what his critics had to say about them).

5. Putting California on Path to Be Carbon Neutral

Three years ago, Brown set an ambitious target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the state. He ordered a 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2030.

But in September, he upped the ante, signing another order that would make the state carbon neutral by 2045, then achieving negative emissions after that. It means California wouldn’t be creating a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

The announcement was called “aspirational” and “stunning.”

What will that actually look like? No one really knows.

As an executive order, the policy is more like a rough guideline. New laws or rules from state agencies would be needed for it to actually go into effect, usually after lengthy scoping processes. And a new governor could simply undo the order (though Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom has been largely supportive of Brown’s climate policies).

In practice, being carbon neutral wouldn’t require California to end all carbon emissions in the state. The state could offset any remaining emissions by finding ways to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.

That includes storage in natural ecosystems by building up the soil or by capturing it from manmade sources and putting it deep underground, a technology that California has struggled to get off the ground, despite millions of dollars of investment.

4. Getting Rid of Gas-Guzzlers

Car-loving Californians are potentially the state’s biggest hurdle to reaching its climate goals. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

“The real challenge is the consumption of oil, which has gone up,” Brown said in September. “Under my administration, gone up 4 percent.”

Last January, Brown set a goal to put 5 million plug-in and electric cars on the roads by 2030.

It’s no small feat, considering there are now only 500,000 on the roads in California. The state has been handing out rebates, carpool-lane privileges and other incentives to try to entice drivers to switch.

Still, some environmental groups thought Brown should tackle the problem at the source by banning oil production. California is the fourth-largest oil producer in the country.

“If we’re going to make real progress on climate change in the next decade, we have to decrease the use of oil and gas,” said Adam Scow of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. “Governor Brown has been a major disappointment on the issue of fracking and oil drilling.”

Brown shrugged off the “leave it in the ground” critics by pointing out that oil production is already declining in California.

“We’re moving in the same direction as the critics,” he said. “They’d just like it to go a little faster.”

3. Extending California’s Flagship Climate Program: Cap and Trade

In 2017, the future of one of California’s core climate policies was cloudy. The state’s cap-and-trade program faced a life-or-death vote in the state legislature.

Few climate policies have been as controversial in the state as cap and trade. Critics blame it for everything from a rise in gas prices to providing funding for the much maligned high-speed rail project.

Under the system, power plants and industrial and manufacturing facilities either must cut their emissions or buy carbon credits from someone else who has cut their emissions.

Since it was only mandated through 2020, Brown and others wanted to see it extended to 2030.

“I’m not here about some cockamamie legacy people talk about,” Brown said to legislators during the debate. “This isn’t for me. I’m going to be dead. It’s for you. It’s for you and it’s damn real.”

But saving cap and trade would require winning over a tough audience for Brown: Republicans.

“He knew that he needed to have Republican support to be able to make that happen,” said Assemblymember Chad Mayes, then the Republican Leader in the Assembly. “Not just from a technical perspective, but also for the sake of credibility.”

Gov. Brown and international leaders sign a climate accord in 2015. (Joe McHugh, California Highway Patrol)

Mayes says he and other Republicans had seats in Brown’s office, where details and compromises were hammered out. Some of those compromises even won over the oil industry, which dropped its opposition to extending cap and trade.

“Somehow, compromise has become a dirty word amongst the activists on both the right and the left,” Mayes said. “I think Governor Brown has understood that, on the big issues, you need to have bipartisan support.”

In the end, Brown and his executive team helped win eight GOP votes. Those legislators faced political backlash from other Republicans.

Some environmental groups thought Brown’s compromises had gone too far.

“He essentially gave away opportunities to get more local pollution reductions from oil refineries–reductions that can protect public health–in exchange for the industry’s support for the cap-and-trade extension,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.

2. Showdown with the Trump Administration

Left-leaning California has tangled with Republican presidents before, but Brown hasn’t minced words about President Trump or climate deniers, whom he deemed “troglodytes.”

The battle came to a head when the Trump Administration sought to revoke California’s long-standing power to set its own clean air rules.

It dates back to when the Clean Air Act was signed in 1970. California was given special permission, known as a “waiver,” to put stricter limits on pollution coming from tailpipes because the state was facing a severe smog problem at the time.

For many years, that meant automakers had two sets of standards to meet when making cars: the federal fuel economy rules and then California’s tailpipe emissions rules.

Twelve other states and Washington D.C. have also signed onto California’s rules. Then, under the Obama Administration, California and the federal government agreed on one uniform set of rules.

The Trump Administration sought to undo that, announcing its own proposal for fuel economy rules, freezing them for cars and trucks from 2021-26 instead of gradually allowing them to get tougher every year. The administration also announced it would seek to revoke California’s waiver, something that had never been tried.

“This cannot be taken lightly,” Gov. Brown said in response. “I take this as an existential threat to America, to California and the world, and I’m going to fight it with everything I can.”

California already has one lawsuit pending against the rules, which likely won’t be the end of its legal defense. In October, the state filed public comments against the proposed rules, saying they would “worsen air quality for the most vulnerable, waste billions of gallons of gasoline, forfeit our best chance to fight climate change …”

1. Leading an International Climate Movement

At the Vatican in 2017, Brown opened a climate change speech as only he could: “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

It was just one of many stops he made on a worldwide climate change tour.

Even under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who helped pass the state’s first major climate law, AB 32, California has seen itself as a leader on the international stage.

But Brown created a new partnerships. In 2015, he banded together with leaders from states, provinces and cities around the world to announce new commitments to cut carbon emissions.

The partnership was called “Under 2 MOU,” with the goal to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists say could avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Today, 220 governments have signed on, though the agreement to cut emissions is not binding.

Brown traveled to China, to international climate negotiations in Paris, and even to the Vatican, quoting from scripture along the way: “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

It culminated in September, when international leaders gathered in San Francisco for a climate summit. Brown announced California would launch its “own damn satellite” to track carbon emissions globally.

“Jerry Brown was received almost as a head of state,” Alex says. “The reception everywhere he went was incredibly warm.”

His movement became higher-profile after the Trump administration announced it would pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate treaty. Brown told international leaders that California would fill the leadership void.

Even in his retirement, Brown says he’ll continue to work on climate issues, to “try to wake people up.”


Otherwise, he’ll be tending to olive trees on his Northern California ranch.

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