Jerry Brown’s Climate Legacy Is Still Being Decided

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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.


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