California Forum

Brown’s successor can do much better on the environment. Here’s how.

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco on Sept. 13. The governor has been recognized as an international leader on climate change policy.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco on Sept. 13. The governor has been recognized as an international leader on climate change policy. Los Angeles Times/TNS

Jerry Brown helped start a green revolution in California when he was governor in the 1970s and 1980s. Since his election in 2010, Brown has continued to move that revolution along.

But his latest shade of green has been muddier.

Experience as he began his final two terms may have shaded his vision. Or grave concerns about the state’s fiscal stability may have made him more cautious than some hoped. Or it may be that the state and its environmental challenges are just more complicated than ever.

Whatever the cause, the governor deserves credit for some advances and criticism for some avoidable mistakes.

On the credit side, Brown has been a champion of a budgetary conservatism that helped the state emerge from nearly disastrous debt that affected every sector. He was in the right place at the right time. Only someone who had once led an ascetic life had the moral authority to tell the rest of us we could live with less until the economy rebounded.

He has also been an international leader on climate change policy. He demonstrates that – even as the federal government backs away – there are important American leaders who are assertively acting to cut climate pollution.

We can actually see a future when California’s electricity generation will be almost entirely clean, and all cars will plug in and emit little or no tailpipe pollution. We may even be able to wipe out smoggy days if the next governor follows through with Brown’s commitment to cleaner technologies.

One of Brown’s other strengths has been his hiring and appointments. The diversity of his appointments truly reflects California and the state’s brilliance.

So where has he misstepped?

In areas where technology isn’t the answer, Brown has had problems. If it has to do with natural resources, Brown has been disappointing. If it requires directly challenging the oil industry, the most powerful special interest in the state – and probably the world – Brown has been overly cautious.

He has done some great things to improve water efficiency, quality and conservation. But all of this has been overshadowed by the debacle now known as the Delta tunnels project that he continues to push. This outdated money drain would build two gigantic tunnels that would run underground for 35 miles and divert water from the Sacramento River directly to points south.

Nearly every environmental group working on water in the state opposes the tunnels project. It won’t produce new water, but it has produced a lot of ill will and drained political and financial capital.

Brown has also been headstrong about fracking specifically and oil supply generally. He has refused to directly eliminate or even produce a plan for eliminating California’s economic dependence on oil extraction.

California is one of the biggest oil-producing states in the country, so it’s understandable that a governor would be cautious about taking on the oil giants directly. But Brown has bent to their will when negotiating climate bills. And he has left no plan for his successor to help jump-start a transition from oil jobs to cleaner jobs in key regions.

Brown has also wasted time trying to undo the California Environmental Quality Act at every turn. His initial answer to solving a funding crisis at the state parks system was to close dozens of parks, until the Legislature intervened. And his forest management strategy has been unclear at best, while at times his coastal strategy has seemed hostile.

The result is that Brown has left the next governor with plenty to do – only better, we hope.

Kathryn Phillips is director of Sierra Club California and a participant in The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Influencers series. She can be contacted at Find the series (with more Monday on the most important thing to watch for in the Nov. 6 election) at