It was just before sun-up, and Jerry Brown was bound for the airport, pushing through the streets of Paris in the back of a black Mercedes van.
The California governor had spent five days in the city promoting measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lobbying world leaders as they met to negotiate a global climate pact.
On Thursday, with those negotiations entering their final stretch, Brown sat with a sweater on his shoulders, Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich’s concept of counterproductivity on his mind.
“He said if you count the cost of the hours that you have to work to pay for your car and the insurance and the gasoline, and then add that, kind of translate that into time,” Brown said, “you could go faster on a bicycle.”
But looking out the window at the traffic rushing by, Brown said he didn’t “know what to do with all of that, because everybody is working all the time for their car.”
“That’s why this is so challenging,” he said. “What we’re doing relative to what needs to be done leaves open a lot of things to be figured out.”
The big question surrounding the United Nations summit – and Brown’s trip there – is how ambitious an international climate deal might be, and if it could do enough to turn a corner on the most catastrophic risks of climate change.
Brown said this week that he is “optimistic, with some reservation” about the prospects. Yet within the salon of academics in which he immerses himself, there is substantial doubt.
“My joke to myself is, well, whether you want to call it God or whatever, or whoever created this universe, they must be chuckling and saying, ‘Oh, I think we let this species go on too long,” said Sim Van der Ryn, the state architect when Brown was governor before.
The night before Brown left France, the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a mutual friend of Brown and Illich, the late social critic, told the governor in a lecture hall in Paris, “Jerry, you said that you are optimistic with some reservations. I’m pessimistic, with some reservations.”
Dupuy said he felt “somewhat queasy” about the climate negotiations continuing outside the city. Resistance from a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress meant some parts of the accord would not be legally binding.
Dupuy asked, “What is the value of this commitment?”
The following morning, Brown woke at 4 a.m. While in Paris, he had stayed at an apartment lent to him by Diane von Furstenberg, the designer and a longtime friend. He was due in Sacramento on Monday for a meeting with his finance director to go over next year’s budget.
“It’s so hard,” Brown said. “All of these things all over the world, and what we’re saying is we’re going to get everybody moving in a radically new direction. That, on the face of it, seems challenging to say the least. In fact, I’m understating what it is.”
Former Gov. Gray Davis, Brown’s chief of staff when he was governor before, said that “if you’re in politics, you have to be optimistic. That’s imperative, you know, a positive view, because you’re by definition advocating change, and you’ve got to believe it’s going to improve people’s lives.”
Brown said the Paris talks were a “big success.” He signed more jurisdictions on to his nonbinding pact among subnational governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. More broadly, he said people seemed to pay more attention to climate change than before.
Brown propped his feet on the seat facing him.
“Wherever you look, you have a lot of inertia to overcome,” Brown said. “And we’re pushing. We’ll see how we do.”