Ben Boychuk

Brown and pope are kindred spirits on climate change

Gov. Jerry Brown, left, delivers a speech as Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino, center, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio listen during a conference on Modern Slavery and Climate Change at the Vatican on Wednesday.
Gov. Jerry Brown, left, delivers a speech as Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino, center, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio listen during a conference on Modern Slavery and Climate Change at the Vatican on Wednesday. The Associated Press

Jerry Brown began his speech at the Vatican by misappropriating St. Paul – the apostle, not the Minnesota city – and ended by invoking Italian Communist Party founder Antonio Gramsci.

“God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap,” the governor said Tuesday, quoting from the apostle’s famous letter to the Galatians. Brown compared Paul’s admonition to a congregation wavering in its commitment to divine law with a wavering faith in modern policymakers’ prescriptions for global climate change.

“We have heard what we’re doing to (God’s) creation,” Brown told the gathering of mayors from around the globe. “And that text that God is not mocked is not susceptible to compromise, to regrets. It’s inexorable, it’s absolutes [sic].”

It’s hardly a wonder that Pope Francis would invite Brown to address this week’s climate summit in Rome. The governor is a moralist par excellence. Brown, who famously dropped out of a Jesuit seminary and later studied Zen Buddhism, often uses biblical language in his speeches and news conferences.

But Brown’s career provides a vivid example of why Catholicism and politics – especially the American variety – are no longer an easy fit.

At least he is a bit more open about the tension between Catholic doctrine and modern Democratic dogma. Most Catholic Democrats will profess a strong devotion to the church, except when it comes to matters such as marriage, family, life and death. For them, settled doctrine is a matter of debate, but questions of prudence become moral imperatives.

Yet the governor has something of a kindred spirit in this pope. For proponents of massive government economic intervention in the cause of combating climate change, Pope Francis is a useful ally – the “Cool Pope,” they call him.

Although conservatives have been cautious with their criticisms of this pontiff, my free-market libertarian pals have no use for him at all. He’s a Marxist-socialist as far as they’re concerned. And judging by many of the people he counts as his environmental advisers – strident anti-capitalists and population control advocates including Naomi Wolf and Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, for example – they might have a point.

That said, if you have relied solely on the commentary surrounding the pope’s much-hailed, little-understood encyclical on the environment, you missed the real importance of the document. Laudato Si’ is not about climate change.

Nor is it a scientific treatise, a political manifesto or a brief for statism. It is nothing less than a theological and moral appeal to the world to think about the “environment” in terms of all creation, not simply the narrow view of “nature” that many environmentalists hold.

And in truth, very little of what Francis has said about the environment has departed from the language of his predecessors in the Chair of St. Peter. Francis is more inclined to use words like “radical,” which conservatives find unsettling. But his condemnation of materialism is well in line with what Benedict XVI and John Paul II said throughout their papacies.

Libertarians don’t understand this. Brown grasps it better than most. But in the end our governor is left to rely on the pieties of environmental politics.

And so it was fitting that the governor would end his Vatican talk not with an exhortation to be more Christ-like, but rather with a call to emulate a much different revolutionary doctrine. “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” Brown said, quoting the radical Gramsci.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is not mocked. The environmental agenda is not susceptible to compromise or regrets. It’s inexorable. It’s absolute. In the end, raw will is the only salvation it has to offer.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at