Jerry Brown Is Not the Enemy of Climate Hawks

The California governor has been working to maintain America’s international credibility on climate in the face of Trump’s denialism.

Earlier this year, Bill Maher declared that progressives must learn to understand the difference between an imperfect ally and a dangerous enemy. Apparently, some progressives still haven’t bothered to learn that lesson:

Spare a little pity for Jerry Brown. The California governor has been standing up admirably to Donald Trump on many issues, but especially on climate change—even threatening to launch scientific satellites to replace the ones that Washington wants to ground. This week, he’s in Bonn, Germany, at the global climate talks, spearheading the drive to show that America’s states and cities have not forsaken the promises made last year in Paris. [Last] Saturday, barely a minute into his big prime-time talk, Brown was rewarded for his pains with booing. He was visibly startled when demonstrators interrupted his speech and began chanting, “Keep it in the ground!”

Pity him, then, but not too much. For one thing, Brown responded to the challenge Trumpishly—“let’s put you in the ground,” he told the protesters, who were led by indigenous and climate-justice activists.

I don’t blame Brown one bit for being upset at this sort of rude behavior (although I would have used different language in my response). Brown has been working his tail off trying to maintain America’s international credibility on climate in the face of Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt’s demented denialism; how dare these protesters insult Brown for not being perfect on pollution.

The protesters were apparently ticked off because of Brown’s refusal to ban fracking:

Brown has so far declined to curtail even fracking and urban drilling, the dirtiest and most dangerous kinds. In his Bonn speech, he offered the most tired of explanations: “If I could turn off the oil today, thirty-two million vehicles would stop, and ten million jobs would be destroyed overnight.” But, of course, no one is talking about turning off the flow of oil overnight. That’s the point of “managed decline”—an orderly retreat from the fossil-fuel precipice. And, in truth, no one is better situated than Brown to lead it. California doesn’t depend on oil and gas the way that, say, Russia or Saudi Arabia or Oklahoma does; the state is full of the world’s most vigorous entrepreneurs, many of them making fortunes on the energy transition.

Here’s the thing: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan banned fracking because residents of both states demanded it. Have Californians placed similar pressure on Brown? If not, how about putting the blame on them, not Brown? When it comes to climate, elected officials are always lagging indicators, not leading indicators. Barack Obama would not have rejected the Keystone XL pipeline on his own two years ago this month: millions of Americans had to force his hand.

Booing an imperfect ally is the sort of scornful, obnoxious behavior that needlessly creates hard feelings, and doesn’t do a thing to reduce carbon emissions. Beating up on Brown for not banning fracking doesn’t house a family left without shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, or feed a starving baby in Puerto Rico. It’s not civil disobedience. It’s not the courage Rosa Parks showed when she refused to move to the back of the bus, or when Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest cop brutality. It’s just self-righteous showing off.

If I were the parent of a young adult who booed Brown, I’d be embarrassed: Brown was woke when these folks were sleeping in day care. To take Brown’s track record of climate leadership and mock it as insufficient is offensive. Shall we boo Al Gore and John Kerry the next time they give a speech for their imperfections on climate, too?

No one is arguing that Brown is above criticism. Rather, the point is that the old adage about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar really is true. Those who boo Brown came across as lacking in gratitude, grace and class—and if I recall correctly, the whole point of winning the fight against human-caused climate change is to make sure we have a habitable world in which such qualities can flourish.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.