Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown, Pope Francis meet on climate change from worlds apart

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, flanked by Baden-Wurttemberg Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann, left, of Germany, and Baja California Gov. Francisco A. Vega de Lamadrid, join others in signing a non-binding climate change agreement in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, May 19, 2015. The memorandum of understanding calls for limiting the increase of global warming average to below 2 degrees Celsius.
Gov. Jerry Brown, center, flanked by Baden-Wurttemberg Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann, left, of Germany, and Baja California Gov. Francisco A. Vega de Lamadrid, join others in signing a non-binding climate change agreement in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, May 19, 2015. The memorandum of understanding calls for limiting the increase of global warming average to below 2 degrees Celsius. AP

Gov. Jerry Brown went off to the Vatican for high-profile talks this week on climate change.

His host, Pope Francis, is an ambassador on the issue, too.

But as much as their visit will highlight shared concerns about the environment, the politician and the pontiff come at climate change from very different points of view.

Like many Democrats, Brown argues that governments can enact greenhouse gas reduction policies without inhibiting economic growth.

The pope?

On the day this month that Brown attended an exclusive gathering of media and technology moguls in Sun Valley, Idaho, Francis was in Bolivia, quoting from a fourth-century bishop: The unfettered pursuit of money, he said, is the “dung of the devil.”

Francis was no less forgiving in his encyclical last month on climate change. In that highly anticipated document, he lamented politics “subject to technology and finance,” saying “there are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good.”

In particular, he appeared to criticize a central part of California’s greenhouse gas reduction program known as cap-and-trade, in which polluters pay to offset carbon emissions. Buying and selling carbon credits, Francis wrote, “may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors.”

“(Francis) really views the underlying economic system of a throwaway economy of having overtaken what capitalism is about,” said the Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and executive director of GreenFaith, a New Jersey-based group focused on the environment. “I think that’s sort of, in many ways, the profound tension that’s going to exist for any U.S. politician who’s going to go visit him.”

Few politicians have Brown’s credentials on climate change. California’s environmental polices have long served as a model for other governments, including on fuel efficiency and vehicle emission standards. Brown, a champion of environmental causes since he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, is trying to coalesce support for even more aggressive emission reduction policies ahead of global climate talks in Paris in December.

Brown called in January for measures to reduce vehicle petroleum use by as much as 50 percent within 15 years, to make heating fuels cleaner and increase to one-half from one-third the proportion of electricity the state derives from renewable sources. The Democratic-controlled Legislature is moving forward with bills to implement those goals.

In a nonbinding pact, California and several other governments committed in May to efforts to limit the increase in global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius, a threshold beyond which many scientists predict major environmental disruption.

“Our budget is balanced, our economy is growing and the year-over-year growth from the beginning of this recovery is significantly better than the national average,” Brown said at a conference in Toronto this month. “So that tells me you can deal with climate, you can make the investments, you can have a cap-and-trade program and you can grow at the same time. So this is not a call to put on your hairshirt or, you know, to somehow shrink your conception of what it is to be a human being, but rather to expand it.”

At the Sun Valley conference, hosted annually by the investment bank Allen & Co., Brown repeated his appeal to address climate change.

Cathy Zoi, a SunEdison Inc. executive who joined Brown on a panel at the conference, said Brown was “just unwavering in his commitment to, ‘No, we’re going to strengthen the economy and we’re going to protect the environment.’ ”

David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the book “Global Warming Gridlock,” said Brown is so far ahead on climate change policy that he is “at the outer edge of what’s politically feasible.” Yet while Brown is “getting things done” on climate, he said the emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions “has in some ways sucked the oxygen out of other issues related to the environment.”

“Climate change is an incredibly important priority,” Victor said. “But it has now commanded so much attention and so much money that other environmental priorities, like local air pollution in rural areas from heating and cooking, like degradation of natural wetlands, like protection of endangered species ... have become lower priorities because climate change has been put on this pedestal.”

Brown has faced persistent criticism from environmentalists for his efforts to weaken the California Environmental Quality Act, for allowing hydraulic fracturing and for his management of the state’s environmental agencies. Among other controversies, Brown’s Department of Conservation has come under scrutiny for its regulation of California’s oil industry, including letting oil drillers inject wastewater into wells in protected aquifers.

The poverty rate in California remains the highest in the nation when adjusted for the cost of living, and Brown has resisted calls by legislative leaders to pour more cap-and-trade revenue into programs designed to benefit disadvantaged communities.

Senate leaders, who have proposed spending about $500 million more in cap-and-trade revenue this year than Brown, are still negotiating with the governor.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León characterized the disagreement as one of “minor differences” and said the two sides are “really of the same mindset.”

“We want the same thing, which is we want to reduce maximum amounts of carbon, and we want to make sure that we create jobs, and we want to make sure that we take care of the most vulnerable among us,” he said.

In January, after more than a year of criticism over California’s high poverty rate, Brown suggested income inequality is a force outside of his control, calling it “part of the structure of modern individualism, capitalism, stratification – it’s there.”

But in the following months he proposed – and signed – a budget that included a state version of the federal earned-income tax credit to assist lower-income workers, and he has devoted resources in the state’s ongoing drought to securing water deliveries for poor communities.

In an interview, Brown said the state’s cap-and-trade system is part of a broader, “integrated scheme” that is “completely consistent with the encyclical.” Like Francis, Brown has railed against “excessive consumption,” while acknowledging tension between the teachings of the market and the church.

“There is a tension because there’s the market, where profit, return on investment is the central criteria,” he said. “And religion is dealing with long-term tradition, from long in the past to way into the future. So the pope can speak out of a much broader context, and that’s what he’s doing.”

Last week, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment sued the Brown administration on behalf of a Kern County family, claiming California’s hydraulic fracturing regulations discriminate against Latino children disproportionately affected by oil-drilling operations in their neighborhoods.

In the encyclical, said Brent Newell, a lawyer for the center, Francis “made a very interesting point that ... people who are working to address climate change, and in particular the effects climate change has on the world’s poor, are ... worthy of celebration.”

He added, “And I don’t think Jerry Brown is really concerned about climate change and poor people.”

Brown, who left California on Friday, will join local government officials from around the world at the Vatican on Tuesday and Wednesday for talks on climate change and human trafficking.

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate change scientist who serves on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an organizer of the conference, said he proposed inviting Brown to speak because California offers proof that climate change is “not an unsolvable problem.”

The world’s poorest people, less able to pay for mitigation measures ranging from air conditioning to sea walls, will suffer most from climate change, said Ramanathan, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

Brown’s policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will help those people, he said, even if they are are not expressly designed to do so.

“California to me,” Ramanathan said, “is sending a message of hope to the world.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders