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.”
“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.”
Yet in the polished, grip-and-grin world of diplomacy, Brown can also seem out of place. He has sprinted through his trip on a borrowed charter plane with his tiny entourage—a handful of aides, a small protective detail and his wife and adviser, Anne Gust Brown, straightening his collar. He maintains an exasperatingly loose schedule, suffers posing for photographs and sometimes wanders on stage.
Before he strode into the Vatican headquarters of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a 16th century summer residence for Pope Pius IV, Brown darted for a table of coffee and cookies that waiters were starting to clear away.
“You had to eat, didn’t you, love?” his wife asked her husband, who has a sixth sense for free food.
Throughout his trip, Brown has also carried copies of two articles he wrote about the threat of nuclear proliferation, his principal concern other than climate change. The first, “Nuclear Addiction: A Response,” was written in 1984 for a now-defunct Jesuit publication. The second is Brown’s review in the New York Review of Books last year of former defense secretary William Perry’s My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. Leaving a meeting one night in Rome with Arturo Sosa, the superior general of the Jesuits, Brown squinted over his hawk-like nose and said that while “going around enlisting allies … I bring my two little articles and I pass them around.”
Depending on his audience and mood, Brown vacillates between optimism and dread for the future. Signing a government guestbook in Brussels this week, he quoted Virgil: “Ad astra per aspera”—to the stars through difficulties. Later, when the elevator taking Brown from a meeting went up instead of down, he first complained, half-joking—“Mistake!”—and then said, “That can happen with missile launches, too.”
As frequently as Brown is asked about Trump, Brown has mentioned the president only sparingly on his European tour. Although he has called Trump the “null hypothesis” for climate change, a politician who by “making his case of denial so preposterous, helps the other side,” he insists the problem of climate change is bigger than one leader, and has acknowledged he is trying to make “lemonade out of a lemon.”
A year ago, it appeared that Brown might not be able even to do that. Two nights before the election, he was eating chips and salsa at an airport bar in Durango, Colorado, where he had spent the day campaigning for Hillary Clinton. If Trump took the White House, he said in an interview, it would be “game over” for climate change. “Game over,” he said again.
Asked about it recently, on the tarmac in Los Angeles, Brown said, “I say a lot of things while waiting for a drink in bars across America.”
“We’re fighting,” he added. “The game is over in Washington for the moment … But not in the world.”
Later, at the Vatican, he put it this way: “You should despair, but that won’t help. So be optimistic, and do whatever you can.”
Brown said he has met Trump once, when he was mayor of Oakland in the 2000s and considered bringing a casino to the city. The two flew together in Trump’s plane to Oakland from Palm Springs. The governor recalled being impressed with a Renoir that Trump had hung on a wall in the plane. “I don’t know whether it was real or not,” Brown said last year. “But I thought it was. I thought it was a hell of a statement.”
Brown, more than many politicians, could appreciate the populist appeal that swept Trump into the White House—and that Brown sought to capture in his own three presidential campaigns. In 1976, he called for an “era of limits,” then campaigned against the North American Free Trade Agreement and the influence of corporate money in politics in his 1992 campaign. He refused campaign contributions greater than $100 and, in rhetoric reminiscent of Trump’s “drain the swamp,” criticized “the basic fact of unchecked power and privilege.”
Pat Caddell, the veteran pollster and political analyst who gave advice to Brown in 1992 and Trump in 2016, says, “Brown was way ahead of his time, really … I think if Jerry had run in ’16, he could have won the Democratic nomination.”
Today, Brown’s mind is elsewhere. He deflects questions about his legacy, arguing, “Everything we’re doing can be framed as either a model for everybody else or building my legacy that I’m going to be reviewing in my dotage.” Yet the issues that consume him—climate change and nuclear proliferation—are legacy concerns of humankind.
“Human civilization is on the chopping block,” Brown told an auditorium full of lawmakers and students this week in Stuttgart, his voice rising almost to a yell. “We have to wake up the world. We have to wake up Europe, wake up America, wake up the whole world to realize that we have a common destiny.”
While climate change has afforded Brown a degree of notoriety outside California, he believes that history is not kind to governors and a politician’s relevance quickly fades. “It’s just a matter of time before your irrelevance engulfs your total being,” he said in Los Angeles, chuckling. “I’m pretty focused on today.”
He is at least thinking a little about the near future. Dna Hoover, who is building the Browns’ ranch house, said Anne Gust Brown called recently to ask about stucco samples and a generator, and the couple ran a herd of goats through the property, where the Browns have planted olive trees, to chew down grass to prevent fire. “He’s ready,” Hoover says. “He’s really so connected with that place and is ready to get up there full-time.”
Brown has even discussed the possibility of creating some kind of meeting space on the ranch. Before he was to arrive in Bonn on Saturday, he left his aides behind and swung south to Bremen, Germany, to visit with Silja Samerski, who had once helped him organize a salon he called the “Oakland Table,” attracting intellectuals such as the late social critic Ivan Illich. “We’re going to talk about unfinished issues from the Oakland Table,” Brown said of his visit with Samerski. “The good life, and how are we supposed to lead it. What are we doing? So, that’s getting ready for the Colusa Institute,” he explained, laughing a bit. Colusa is the name of the county where he is building his ranch.
Brown is also contemplating writing when he leaves office, something he tried, but largely gave up, after his first two terms as governor. His work at the time, he says, “didn’t rise to the quality that met my standards.”
Decades later, Brown says, “I have much more to say.”
At an event held alongside the Democratic National Convention last year, Brown had compared his retirement to that of a Roman statesman, “a fellow named Cincinnatus who saved the Republic, and then he went back to the plow.”
Reminded of that comparison recently, Brown smiled and said, “I like to be on my plow.” But he added, “Maybe I’ll be sending out pronouncements from the plow.”
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