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by Andrew Learmonth
28 May 2021
Jerry Brown: 'Don't be optimistic when it comes to climate change'

Jerry Brown: 'Don't be optimistic when it comes to climate change'

“Look,” Jerry Brown tells Holyrood. “Don't be optimistic.”

The 83-year-old former governor of California points to a book, released last year, written by Toby Ord, a philosopher and senior research fellow at Oxford University, cheerily titled The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. 

We only have, Ord suggests, a five-in-six chance of avoiding extinction this century.

“79 years to go,” Brown says. And if we avoid extinction, the veteran politician warns, we may still have to deal with “the unrecoverable collapse of civilisation”.

“This is a time for great seriousness on the great issues,” he says. 

Brown is speaking to Holyrood in his role as global ambassador for Under2 Coalition, an alliance of state, regional and city governments who are committed to limiting the increase in global average temperature to below two degrees Celsius.

The veteran Democrat was one of the original signatories of the agreement back in 2015, during his fourth and final term as governor of California. 

Others to back that initial pledge included the state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany; Baja California in Mexico; Catalonia; Ontario; Vermont, and Wales. 

In the six years since, more than 220 governments have signed up. Together they represent more than 1.3 billion people and 43 per cent of the global economy.

Scotland joined in 2017, when Nicola Sturgeon met with Brown during a trip to California. 

This year, with all eyes on us as COP26 (hopefully) comes to Glasgow, Scotland is now the European co-chair.  

For Brown, the argument for devolved, sub-national governments to tackle climate change intensified after the election of Donald Trump.

One of the billionaire’s first acts in office was to take the US out of the Paris deal.
Trump has, in his time, described climate change as “mythical” and “an expensive hoax" and even “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.

Though he later claimed that was a joke.

Brown fought back. “America is not run by Donald Trump,” he told a meeting on climate change at the UN General Assembly. “We are a country of diverse power centres and mobilising those power centres that are not controlled by the president is still a very worthwhile goal, and very powerful.”

He tells Holyrood that the Under2 Coalition was about finding allies, forging a global movement of those “power centres” to help “transform the world from what is primarily a fossil fuel culture”. 

No country or city is too small to make a difference.

“Who is Greta? She’s a kid. If a kid can have an impact, so can Scotland!” he adds.

We’re speaking on the Saturday after the Holyrood election. During the campaign, the climate emergency barely got a look in. Or certainly, didn’t get the look in it deserved. 

The only real discussion was when Patrick Harvie and Douglas Ross clashed in the STV debate over the end of North Sea oil and gas production.

The Greens called for an end to new exploration licences, and subsidies for oil and gas firms in the next decade, while Ross warned this could lead to 100,000 jobs in the north east and right across Scotland lost.

The clash between urgency and jobs is one Brown knows all too well. 

How easily does the solution come? “Politically, not easily. Economically, not easily, however, let's face the facts,” he says.

“We're already at one centigrade increase, we're headed for one point five probably in seven or eight, 10 years. The more we wait the more expensive it is. 

“So when people say, go slow. What they mean is, their children should pay an enormous and unnecessary burden. 

“Now, what do you do? It's easy for somebody who doesn't work in a coal mine, or isn't dependent on oil and gas for a job, to say, let's go. 

“Well, I think the government has to provide some form of financial support, subsidy, investment to whatever mechanisms can be created. 

“We can't wait to deal with climate change as aggressively as possible. But that doesn't mean we can't compensate, we can't manage and alter the shape of our economy through government intervention. 

“I've been a politician 50 years, do I think that's easy? No. Do I think this could be done right away? Probably not. I think there'll be a lot of resistance, as there is in America, but the resistance is building up a greater burden on ourselves in years to come. And on younger generations. 

“I'm 83. How much more am I going to suffer in the next ten years? But you who are considerably younger, you're going to pay an increasing price in disruption, in pure economic terms, and in health terms, and in political terms.”

Climate change will cause drought, disease, crop failures, he says, which will lead to migration on a massive scale. “People are going to be on the move by the tens of millions. 

“So, I would say, yes, it's difficult, it takes an enormous amount of imagination, but people of goodwill should base themselves on the science, and then take whatever imagined and aggressive actions they can. That's the goal.

“Is California doing that enough? No. Certainly not America. Who is? But that is the task, and I think while we may not have the courage or the will or the imagination to do everything we need, we shouldn't fool ourselves that we aren't piling up more trouble, real painful suffering for people later, because we want to protect ourselves now.

“I understand the impact of climate action falls differentially on different people. So it is hypocritical for some green-type people to say, ‘hey let's go’ when they don't pay the price. 

“We've got to be in it together; solidarity, fair distribution of the burden. And that means government engagement, government interference and intervention.

“Well, that's not so popular, particularly if you're a Tory that believes that government should do the minimum, like Margaret Thatcher who believed that there is no such thing as society, it's just individuals. Well that notion won't hack it, won't do for the kind of collective undertaking that climate action requires.”

Joe Biden is much more aware of the climate emergency than his predecessor. Brown is hopeful the President will help see some form of progress at COP26, but again, politics could get in the way. 

“I think [Biden] has to forge a very close relationship with President Xi of China,” he said. 

“Recognising of course that in today's world, America and China are having quite a - what shall we call it? A debate. I'll use that euphemistically - there's a lot of debate going on, but this is the time for deep collaboration, for joint recognition, for staring reality in the face.

“If Biden and China can get their act together, then I think they can present a more aggressive position, challenging the European Union, India, Brazil, South Africa and other countries.” 

But just as the new Commander-in-Chief needs to bring down emissions, he also needs to win over voters. And again, we’re back at the clash between urgency and jobs.

“Joe Biden and the Democrats are by no means assured of success in the midterm elections,” Brown says. “And so, the same problems you would have in Scotland, Ireland and France you have in America. 

“We're divided fifty-fifty in the US Senate. The country is divided. There are millions, tens of millions of people who don't even believe in climate change, who don't even believe that Biden was elected, they think it's a fraud. 

“So America is highly challenged to be effective in this area. Biden is doing a tremendous amount. Is it enough? That's hard to say because if he mismanaged, if he doesn't do it right, he's gonna lose the House of Representatives, in which case he'll even do less than he's talking about doing.

“Look, don't be optimistic. Take a look at the dark side of this, and then summon the political will, the optimism and the imagination to forge ahead and go as far as these nation states can in Glasgow, and sub-national groups like California and New York and Baden-Württemberg and anybody else. 

“Join the effort and keep pushing. This is going to take more aggressive action. That's all I got to say, don't be discouraged, by no means, but don't be complacent.” 

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