The Hill Interview: Jerry Brown on climate disasters, COVID-19 and Biden’s ‘Rooseveltian moment’
Over half a century ago, former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) warned of the growing threat of climate change, faced unprecedented economic disasters and led the nation’s largest state at times of social unrest.
Today, retired on his ranch an hour north of Sacramento, Brown sees parallels between those crises and the cascade of economic, health and climate disasters that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will face if he takes the oath of office in January.
“I think Biden has a big problem, bigger than the virus — it’s the deficit, the economy, the racial sensitivities and concerns. But all of that can override the individual issues and differences and demands, and it allows for a great undertaking. I think the moment makes the man, and in this case Biden will be quite fortunate in taking over at this particular time,” Brown said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“In a paradoxical way, it makes Biden’s job easier,” he added. “It’s not exactly a 1932 moment, but it does have aspects of a Rooseveltian moment, and I believe Joe can rise to that occasion. This is quintessentially what the Democratic Party has been about in its best years. Not about one group, however righteous their grievance, but about the American people and making the huge investments that we’re capable of.”
Neither the coronavirus pandemic nor the wildfires sweeping Western states, made worse by climate change, were caused by President Trump. But Brown faults the president for what he called a failure to mobilize the nation’s manufacturing industry early on and for ignoring the challenge climate change poses to Americans.
“When Trump first was alerted to the virus, he should have listened to the scientists, and then under the War Powers Act mobilized the full capacity of American manufacturing and produced millions, many millions, tens of millions of test kits on a daily basis. He should have gotten testing going for the whole country. If he did that, we wouldn’t have had to have a lockdown for more than a few weeks. Then we would have identified the 1 percent of the people who actually had the virus. They could be quarantined for 14 days. The rest of the economy barrels on,” Brown said. “But because Trump did not act, and he persisted for months, he’s still persisting in obfuscation, we suffered.”
Brown has watched fires grow worse over the years. On Wednesday, he said he could still see the smoke from nearby fires hanging over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Earlier in the week, the smoke had been so thick it blotted out the sun.
At the same time, stronger hurricanes are pounding the Gulf Coast, denser rain events are causing 100-year floods on a regular basis and stronger tornadoes are whipping across the Midwest.
“This is a huge, huge political hurdle. Trump solves it by pretending it’s not there,” Brown said.
“I wish there were a way to learn by reading a book or listening to a scientist, but it’s going to take, yes, listening to the scientists, but experiencing the toxic air, experiencing the flooding, the fires, the political upheaval in Miami, in New Orleans, in Texas, in New York City, and California and Portland and Iowa,” he said. “One thing we know, things are going to get worse, there’s going to be more suffering, more costs, and at some point on that trajectory the political will crystalize and the government will make the heroic effort required to tackle both problems, coping with the current disasters and taking steps to reduce the current level of emissions to net zero.”
Brown said California, the United States and the world needed to spend “not billions, but trillions” both reducing carbon emissions and making society more adaptable to climate change.
“We have to raise sea walls. We have to hire more firefighters. We have to manage the forests more intensively, more carefully, more scientifically,” he said. “We have this dual track, and we’re not moving on either one at the pace that is required to avert the worst of disaster.”
Brown, a cerebral intellectual who made a habit of quoting obscure philosophers in official addresses, is perhaps the polar opposite of Trump, a bombastic celebrity who demands personal loyalty. But Brown says he understands Trump’s appeal to those who increasingly feel left behind by a changing society.
“The world is changing, our customs are changing, it’s not a world that more conservative, more traditional people recognize,” Brown said. “People are reacting and Trump has been able to exploit their fears. The fact that he is almost a cult figure, that isn’t just his eloquence, it’s that he’s been able to tap in to real fears, real concerns that so many Americans are feeling.”
“It’s a very dynamic world with lots of anxiety and fear, and it’s just made for demagoguery. And that’s exactly Trump’s expertise,” he said.
Despite decades in Democratic politics, Brown has never been a central figure in the national party. He was an outsider when he beat three established politicians to capture the governorship for the first time in 1976, at age 36. He was an outsider when he ran for president three times, most recently in 1992, but later served another two terms as governor before leaving office in 2019.
Today, he sees a younger generation of politicians pushing those in his generation, like Biden, to embrace new change. Asked his views on progressive upstarts like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and, in his own backyard, Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Brown said the activist class would not get all it wanted from Biden — but that they play a role in pushing a president.
“There’s an inherent tension. That’s why we have two legs. One leg steps out and the other leg comes afterwards. We need the people to push us, to push us on equity, on climate change, on nuclear negotiations, all these things. The status quo is too stagnant. And because of the way it functions, its folkways, it will always be stagnant,” he said. “Without the activists pushing, we don’t go anywhere. The activists aren’t going to get what exactly they want, but actually if you check in in 10 years, we’ll be way beyond what they’re even thinking today, although maybe in a different way.”