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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

BONN, Germany—The camera and lights switched on, and Ole Torp, the Charlie Rose of Norway, leaned in, silver hair flashing, and posed his first question to Gov. Jerry Brown.

“Is the world going to hell?”

“Yes,” Brown answered swiftly.

The interview, taped last week in Oslo, was declared a fabulous success, one the television audience would quite enjoy.

On a nearly two-week swing through Europe—starting at the Vatican and ending at the United Nations climate change conference in Bonn—Brown offered a bleak appraisal of the global future: We are on a trajectory toward hell. It’s a headlong rush to a very unpleasant outcome. Mankind is on the chopping block.

Yet Brown dazzled. His message—the planet is burning up, and our oil-driven way of life must change—brought Vatican scientists to their feet. European parliamentarians in Brussels swooned, calling him a warrior. In Oslo, an international group of scientists paid Brown their highest compliment: inviting him to their inner sanctum for a day-long “dialogue,” a dreary recitation of the looming crash of spaceship Earth. Students in Stuttgart, inheritors of the mess Brown describes, mobbed the 79-year-old for selfies.

It wasn’t all adulation, all the time. A rebuke from a couple of parliamentarians in Brussels led to a sharp exchange over the effect of climate-change policies on the poor. And hecklers tried to shout down the governor during a speech in Bonn as they protested his oil policies.

But the criticism did little to deter Brown, who was on message throughout the trip: Climate change is a serious threat, but California is doing its part—and, especially, come to San Francisco next year for a climate conference that gets things accomplished.

In the absence of climate policy from the U.S. government, or recognition that human activity has played a role in warming the world, Brown has become a de facto climate leader—Al Gore 2.0, as an Afghan journalist here observed offhandedly. During his November trip, Brown was repeatedly called on to voice an opinion on President Trump’s assertion that climate change is a hoax. He told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a taped interview that “Trump better get on board or get out of the way.” On most other occasions, Brown largely held his fire, perhaps not wanting to give the president’s arguments any oxygen.

Mostly, he focused on burnishing California’s “green” reputation—and his own, as he looks ahead to life after Sacramento, a subject he won’t go near. Brown reminded his audiences that the state has the nation’s strictest fuel standards, subsidizes electric cars, and demands the most energy-efficient buildings. He held sessions with members of the Under2 Coalition, a group of more than 200 nations, states and provinces that have pledged to reduce carbon emissions and work with each other to meet the goals of the U.N.’s 2015 Paris climate agreement. That includes a commitment to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The group, which Brown helped create, is gaining in heft, with several new members acquired during Brown’s trip. According to the coalition, it represents more than 1 billion people and nearly 40 percent of the global economy.

Brown argues that climate-change policy is local as much as national or global, and that mayors, governors and regional officials can bring about significant change. That argument swayed the government of Fiji—which currently holds the rotating presidency of the conference—to name Brown to the position of special adviser for states and regions. That position did not give the governor access to the negotiating table, where the U.S. delegation and others are hammering out implementation rules for the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Brown’s stated purpose for going to Europe was to raise awareness about the threat of climate change. At every stop, officials said they found power in his message.

Sandy Pitcher, the chief executive of the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources for the state of South Australia, described Brown as “authentic.”

“He’s channeling something like the tough lesson you have to hear and should hear, ‘You’ll thank me for it later,’” she said. “I don’t think we have someone like him in Australia in the public discourse doing what he’s doing.”

Her state belongs to Under2. These so-called subnationals—or “supernationals” as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said here—will put on their own summit next September in San Francisco. The meeting, sanctioned by the U.N., will bring together nations and industry and require each entity to report its annual emissions and set a reduction goal.

The inclusion of businesses is unique. Brown said that businesses—some of them big carbon-emitters—could potentially provide the technology to solve pressing climate problems. And their presence can send a signal that California is open to, and for, business.

Now Brown and his staff are mostly back in Sacramento. It’s likely to be a hard landing for the governor, leaving the mostly enveloping warmth of like-minded people to tangle with a sometimes-unruly Legislature and get back to the arduous job of managing California.

He returns to a state where not everyone is in the thrall of the climate-crusader message. Critics in the environmental-justice movement, for example, say laws to reduce pollution have not yet made lives better in many low-income communities still plagued by toxic air, water and soil—that Sacramento’s good intentions seem to be scrubbing clean every backyard but theirs.

With legislative priorities looming for his final year in office, Brown claims to not have a comprehensive idea of what he wants to accomplish.

“I don’t have an agenda for next year. I don’t even think about it,” he told CALmatters in an interview during the conference that was only partly disrupted when Arnold Schwarzenegger, also in town for the conference, stopped by to chat.

“I’m a step-by-step kind of guy,” Brown said. “We have continuing work to increase the rehabilitative character of our prisons and jails. We have to up our capacity to transform lives instead of re-imbed and reinforce antisocial behavior. That will require effort, and mental health programs.”

Much of the environmental legislation he has championed is now on the books. With enormous political effort during the summer, he was able to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program until 2030. What’s next? Brown supports an electricity delivery system that spans the West, offering better integration and sharing of renewable power, among other benefits.

Such a plan would cede state decision-making to a regional authority, and Brown admits the highly complex project may take a while.

Control of the grid is a thorny issue. For example, states have varying requirements for the use of renewable energy, and California would hesitate to import coal-fired power from elsewhere. Working out such elements is complex and painstaking.

“We don’t get instant coffee,” he said. “I didn’t do everything the first year. Each year, there are more things that become possible because we’ve done other things. It’s a good idea, and it will come.”

First things first: another summit, which Brown, in his grumpy fashion, said will be more of an anti-summit.

“There’s a lot of talking and there’s a lot of eating at these things,” Brown said. “I’ve talked enough. I want to get something done.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

Aaron Mair in May became the first African-American president in the Sierra Club’s 123-year history.

Mair, most recently a research analyst with the New York State Department of Health, has been an advocate for the preservation of natural spaces and for equal access to public land for decades. One of Mair’s primary goals as president is to address critical socio-economic issues often neglected by the conservation community.

An expert in spatial epidemiology with a degree in Southwest Asian and North African studies from New York’s Binghamton University, Mair is well-versed in the complex relationships between people and the environments in which they live. Mair is known as an advocate for thriving natural landscapes, not only in remote national parks and wilderness, but also in the metropolitan areas where most of the world’s population now lives.

At a time when the Sierra Club struggles to remain relevant to the cultural interests of a population that is growing younger, more urban and more diverse, Mair hopes to shift the club’s mission toward policies that better include the needs and values of under-represented minorities.

James Edward Mills recently spoke to Mair about his background and vision for the Sierra Club.

How did your experiences growing up inform your interest in protecting the natural world?

I’m the son of Ellis Island immigrants from Jamaica, where my family owned land. They were always free people of color, urban dwellers of an agrarian background. Having a garden was part of their life. Going back and forth from Jamaica (with my family), it was going from the concrete jungle of Harlem to the island where it was green.

Most people don’t realize that there were great migrations and structural, political and social economic issues that were forces on blacks of the land throughout the South. Blacks went from having land to being landless and then to being defined by the ghettos that we were placed in when we got to urban settings.

But where we grew up in Northern Westchester, that environment, that green space, made the difference in your life choices and your life outcomes. So if you have that enrichment or that investment and that base, your possibilities and your potential increases.

That diverse community made me stronger. I could network and share and see what other people’s dads—black, white, Hispanic—were doing, or how hard-working they were, and was mentored by that sharing and exchange of values. If you look at nature, when you go into any green space, it’s not monoculture. It’s a diversity of plants and organisms, holistically diverse and connected. So I grew up in one of those suburban middle class blue-collar communities where that type of diversity was organic and informed. Again, it still reflects the divisions and fissures that is America, but it is the core underpinning of my American self.

Was there a particular moment in your career when you became an environmental activist?

When I was doing graduate work at the (State) University of New York at Binghamton, we had to do a project in my master’s thesis class. Ours was basically trying to connect a community to a park. This was right along the Susquehanna River. That was my first time understanding class analysis, access to open space, looking at a community use pattern and actually realizing the impact of urban planning and urban design.

In our society, we look at our government and the places where we live, and we think that nothing is connected. Either you’ve got a park or a road or this or that. But what I realized was that these things are connected; they are designed, and they absolutely shape whole communities. And so one of the things you notice is how the black population was settled in certain portions of (New York City), alienated from this green space … (to which) middle class whites would have access. So even though theoretically, everybody would have access by law, the actual design and plan made the properties that were near this green space more valuable. You start to see the institutional forms of how racism is reinforced and maintained by planning departments, municipal departments, zoning departments, and you realize that this is the power of the vote. This is how political pressure can be brought to bear on the outcome of an environmental system. And that’s when I had the epiphany, in about 1984—that ah-ha moment that just hits you like a ton of bricks.

The Sierra Club has a longstanding tradition of preserving wilderness areas for recreation and the protection of endangered species. What can the Sierra Club and you as its president do to make these environmental issues more relevant to the poor, the socially disenfranchised, the perpetually urbanized and people of color?

What John Muir had recognized was that as our nation was consuming itself, all those natural wonders, all those wild places—we were losing them. That movement then was: If we’re going to rape everything, then we should save these postage stamps of what it used to be. But this preservation occurred among elites who had elitist values, and one could make the case that not all Americans had access to these places and these spaces. These natural wonders were often preserved for the use and exploitation and sport of the top 10 percent of families.

Today, the environmental justice movement is recognizing and taking ownership of the values that people of color hold with respect to their use of the environment. They can play a significant role in protecting it, but things cannot be only from the perspective or point of view of whites. It must include all points of view so that when laws and regulations are fashioned, they’re not advantaging one group over another. The environmental justice movement has affirmed the rights of people of color with regard to their access to clean land, clean air and clean water, and that minority communities cannot, should not, be the dumping ground.

Being the first (black) president, I’m in a position where we’re reshaping club policy. So we’re going after a massive strategic plan about how this organization is operating and making sure that it’s a diverse, equitable, inclusive and welcoming environment. The Sierra Club, in the past, has been a club: You either get in or you get out, and the little localities are very tight and close-knit, and still many are not welcoming places. Now we’re going to the stage of how people of color can step in and become a part of this organization and really shape the culture internally and facilitate that change.

What kind of policies can the Sierra Club create or support to more directly address the issues of environmental justice?

There is some serious intentional and deep work that we have got to do. From the mid ’80s to now, I’ve seen significant change, but it’s still not fast enough or deep enough. We cannot wait for these goals by 2020 and 2050. If they can right now invest a few billion dollars in weapon system programs or a couple of billion dollars in off-shore drilling, they can easily provide those same incentives for the retrofitting and the greening of jobs in urban areas. You would wind up having full employment of the marginalized and underemployed, earning at least living-wage jobs and putting America on the positive side of the feedback loop of taxpayers and homeowners.

President Obama should be as intentional about green jobs as he has been with the “all of the above” carbon strategy by which he has allowed more drilling for oil and natural gas. He should have also been putting in the same amount, buck for buck—in fact, even more—into the green economy, and we would not be seeing the same levels of disparity in a number of our urban centers. But this is where the Sierra Club and powerful old organizations like it—networking with labor and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—can work together through climate-justice initiatives.

The Sierra Club right now is at the ground floor of networking and tying these things together. It’s now working and advocating in places it never traditionally did. You just did not have the Sierra Club doing civil rights marches, because people thought a civil rights march was something different from protecting the environment. But the right to vote shapes land-use policy that protects the environment. In fact, to this day, a lot of the pushback within the Sierra Club is people saying we’re straying away from our mission. My argument is educating them to understand that, no, protecting civil rights and labor rights is critical to our mission. It’s by having a voice from the left, the blue-collar labor and civil rights community, being at the helm of an environmental organization where you are able to see how that all comes together. If you want to know what environmental success looks like, it’s multi-ethnic.

Through your tenure as president of the Sierra Club, how will you define your own success?

What would be success for me is if I could get a hold of the president’s ear to shift him from the “all of the above” strategy that is still fueling our series of climate catastrophes. If I could shift his investment in the re-gridding of America, the retooling of America that provides clean and green jobs for all Americas.

My measure of success is when the voting rights of all citizens are protected so that we have a say in the planning and zoning and land use that allows for sustainable communities. Will I be able to do that within the arc of a year? The answer is no. But what I can do is model the values and belief in the real experience that I have grown up with. And that’s what I bring to this post. I bring a deeper shade of green.

James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and author of the book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. This piece originally ran in High Country News.

Published in Environment