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Science & Environment

When Gov. Brown Leaves Office, He Plans To Still Battle Climate Change

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After twice serving as the governor of California, Governor Jerry Brown is getting ready to leave office. The New York Times asked Brown what he'll miss, and he said pretty much everything. Quote, "I like sparring with the press. I like attacking my opponents. I like being attacked. I like the whole thing," he said. He went on to say people in this business like attention, and you get a lot of attention as governor. Jerry Brown got attention for a lot of things, especially for being one of the most outspoken leaders on the environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY BROWN: Climate change is real. It is a threat to organized human existence.

MARTIN: Lauren Sommer of member station KQED and NPR's energy and environment team looks at what Jerry Brown accomplished to combat this threat and what he could not.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: One thing Governor Jerry Brown likes to clear up - he doesn't talk about climate change for himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: This isn't for me. I'm going to be dead. It's for you. It's for you, and it's damn real.

KEN ALEX: Jerry Brown thinks about this day and night. I don't think that's an exaggeration.

SOMMER: Ken Alex would know. He's been the governor's climate policy adviser for the last eight years. He remembers a couple Christmases ago when he put an out-of-office message on his email.

ALEX: 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? (Laughter).

SOMMER: And Brown has been engaged for a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you going to listen to any more whales?

BROWN: Well, we're going to play yesterday's whales.

SOMMER: That's him in 1977, the first time he was governor, with scientists studying gray whales off California's coast, press corps in tow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I heard that you were going to come out here and talk to the whales.

BROWN: No, I came out here to see - the idea of the project is to put these hydrophones in the water.

SOMMER: Environmentalism wasn't exactly mainstream yet.

ALEX: He was promoting solar in the middle '70s - kind of astonishing.

SOMMER: Of course, it was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who signed California's first major climate law, but Brown turned up the volume. He set a goal to put 5 million electric cars on the road. This year, he signed a law requiring 100 percent clean energy by 2045. And when President Trump said the U.S. would lead the international climate agreement, Brown led his own movement of governments. He convened them in San Francisco this past fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: No more talk. Now is the time for action.

SOMMER: He took the message to China, even to the Vatican.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.

SOMMER: Climate change seemed to tap into his spirituality. Before he went into politics, Brown trained to be a Jesuit priest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: When we deal with the environment and the fundamental conditions of nature, that's about as close to theology as, I think, you can get.

SOMMER: Brown even managed something quite rare these days - winning over Republican lawmakers for his climate policies, like California Assembly member Chad Mayes.

CHAD MAYES: My caucus had a seat at the table, literally, in his office. I think Governor Brown has understood that on the big issues, you need to have bipartisan support.

SOMMER: And yet, some of his harshest critics...

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

SOMMER: ...Have been environmentalists.

ADAM SCOW: Well, Governor Brown has been a major disappointment on the issue of fracking and oil drilling.

SOMMER: Adam Scow is with the activist group Food and Water Watch. He wanted to see Brown phase out all oil production in California. The state is the nation's fourth largest oil producer. But Brown, being a political pragmatist, didn't think ending oil production was the answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: The real challenge is the consumption of oil, which has gone up under my administration - gone up 4 percent.

SOMMER: Cars and trucks are still the state's biggest contributors to global warming. Looking back, Brown admits he couldn't make a dent in that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: We have to go even further, and I agree with that. So no, I'm not satisfied at all. We're on the road to disaster.

SOMMER: Governor-elect Gavin Newsom may not have to tackle that alone. Governor Brown says he still plans to work on climate change in his retirement. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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