Former California Gov. Jerry Brown sounded alarms on “global horrors” to come with climate change, the possibility of nuclear war, and the bungling of the COVID-19 crisis during a group discussion broadcast Sunday morning on Zoom via All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.
The program was also a tribute to Brown’s remarkable life of public service, first as a trustee with the LA Community College District, then as California secretary of state, then as governor from 1975 to 1983. Brown also ran for president three times, served as mayor of Oakland and as state attorney general, and became governor again, like the first time serving two four-year terms.
During the discussion, hosted by All Saints Rector Mike Kinman and Senior Associate Rector Sally Howard, and including longtime Los Angeles Times journalist Jim Newton, author of the recently released “Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown,” Brown pondered a question posed by Kinman on what inspired his five decades of public service.
Brown, son of former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, was raised in Catholic schools and studied as a Jesuit seminarian in the late 1950s. Not surprisingly, he responded that much of his reason for serving in public office involved the satisfaction of helping others and working for the public good.
“But a lot of what draws people to politics is the excitement, the notoriety, the glory, or the fields of combat, combat not just as a sporting event, with real conflicts and issues, which are very important to people and politicians. But the sacrifice, I did not ever think of it as a sacrifice.
“Maybe looking back I’ll see it as a sacrifice, since so much of my time was devoted to news and talking about this problem and that problem, all of which passed along, as all things in life do. But, if you want to say public service is a sacrifice, the answer is no. Public service is fun. Public service is exciting, and it can be important.”
At 82, a fit and mindful Brown was more than able to keep up with the quickly paced questions and observations posed by the three panelists, once even clearly recalling standing as a little boy with his father as the elder Brown was sworn in as district attorney of San Francisco in 1944. Sunday’s discussion, which focused on Brown’s role in shaping policies and opinions in the realms of climate change, nuclear proliferation and criminal justice reform, at times featured the former governor leading the local religious leaders on questions of moral imperatives and interpreting the Bible’s teaching on how best to live in a finite material world.
“One of the ideas of the Jesuits is to be contemplative in action. Now, that’s easier said than done, because they are contradictory… Then you get back to action, you’ve got to deal with the Legislature, you have to deal with reporters’ questions, you’ve got to raise money from rich people, from labor unions, from property developers, from oil companies. How do the two fit together? I would say that is still a matter of inquiry… That level of frenetic activity has a life all its own, and it has a buzz and an attraction that is inconsistent with a quiet, contemplative presence.”
When asked how he perceived Brown integrating his contemplative and action sides, Newton said he saw them come together in climate change “and in the sense of a humility that is enforced by contemplating the real laws of nature and the place humanity has within that contemplation.”
Regarding climate change, in which during Brown’s time in office California became a leader in innovative ways to reduce carbon output, the state was put on a track to be carbon neutral by 2045, with plans to put 5 million plug-in cars on the road by 2030, extending cap and trade to 2030, and helping the Under2 Coalition, as Kinman pointed out.
“How do we move the needle on this when it is so clear we are moving in the opposite direction?” Kinman asked.
“The environment, the rules of nature, that is something we have to adjust to… These are absolutes. There is a moral absolute. Whatever that might be, there is an absolute that so much carbon is going to produce so much heat, produce so much negative change. So that’s what got me interested particularly in the environment.”
Recalling a friend once quoting St. Paul, Brown said “God is not mocked. The ecology is not mocked. If you abuse the ecology, you abuse it at your expense, which is what we are doing.
“California, we definitely led the way. No one in the Western Hemisphere did as much as California,” Brown said.
“Yes, we are on track in what we are doing ,” Brown said. But, “we have to do so much more.”
Brown pointed out these goals were ambitious, saying “we can’t get there without massive reductions in carbon emissions, and we can’t get there without negative emissions, which means carbon sequestration, (for) which we have no economical means of any scale. So we need massive technology breakthroughs, we need massive social and political change, and we need (support) at the national and international levels, and we are not getting it.
“We are not on track,” he reasoned. “So California, yes, we have an edge here. But relative to the challenge, as much as we are doing, we have to do so much more, and we can’t do it unless others do it too… So we’re all in it together, so that’s the beauty and maybe the horror of the climate threat. It’s something that will only be solved by everyone together in solidarity doing what they need to do, starting with the president and the Congress of the United States,” as well China, a major carbon emitter, Brown said.
Brown sounded another alarm, this time about the possibility of nuclear war.
Kinman pointed out that Brown is friends with former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who believes the chances of nuclear war occurring are greater now than they were at the time of the Cold War.
“At the same time (that we are dealing with “the global horror we are headed for” if climate change isn’t stopped), we — the US government, Congress — are building and voting for billions of dollars of nuclear weapons, and we already have thousands of missiles, and they are on alert, controlled by systems that have been shown to be defective in the past, so that risk is mounting and it’s virtually unmentioned. It’s time to wake up, folks, whether you are in Pasadena or anywhere else.
“Clergy has a big role here. There’s a lot of work here,” Brown said.
The COVID-19 crisis is another instructive example of collective denial .
“So what happens? You have a few cases but its community spread and you’ve got to stop it, but we couldn’t, there’s no national leadership, and the response was slow. … It takes political will, of which we have almost zero at this moment in time, relative to the COVID challenge, the nuclear challenge, and I’ll even go one more relative to criminal justice.
“All that stuff, I’m glad we’re here in church because we have to do some heavy praying,” Brown said.
Newton has authored biographies on US Supreme Court Chief Justice and former California Gov. Earl Warren and President Dwight Eisenhower. The book on Warren was published 14 years ago.
Newton said his biography of Warren, before Brown California’s longest serving governor, allowed him to write a history of California from 1900 to 1950, because in 1953 Warren left office to serve of the Supreme Court. “And so my California story sort of ended when he left,” Newton told Pasadena Now.
“When I set out to do a book a few years ago I was really interested in bringing that history to the present, covering the latter half of the 20th century and interested in finding the right way to tell that story, and of course the right way to tell that story was through the story of Jerry Brown,” the veteran journalist said during the panel’s introduction. “No person has been more influential, and so to my delight after some conversations he agreed to spend a lot of time with me and we talked for years really about history.”
“What was that like? It was thrilling, humbling at times, and it was challenging,” Newton said.