Jerry Brown has been a fact of California public life for so long that countless news outlets have found his impending exit from the governor’s office to be irresistible material, and they have published one wistful story after another about his supposed retirement. “For Jerry Brown, the Face of California’s Old Order, the Ranch Is Calling,” was the headline on the New York Times version of the story. “Gov. Jerry Brown, 79, says his time in public life is almost over: ‘I think it’s getting close to the end.’”
Brown’s path through the public consciousness has indeed been long. As a 30-something bachelor with left leanings and an impatience for political convention, Brown was first elected California governor in 1974 and earned reelection four years later. He subsequently made three failed attempts at the Democratic presidential nomination; ran a losing race for the United States Senate; served as chair of the state Democratic Party; was elected mayor of Oakland and then state attorney general; and won a third gubernatorial term in 2010—35 years after he first took the governor’s seat.
After jogging to easy reelection in 2014, Brown—now the longest-serving California governor—is finishing out his fourth term. He leaves office in January, but starts today in a new position outside government—executive chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I spoke with him recently about his longstanding interest in climate change and nuclear weapons, and about his plans to help the Bulletin raise awareness of—and inspire action to reduce—those existential threats to humanity.
He didn’t sound like someone who was retiring from anything.
John Mecklin: Obviously, the first question: Why pick the Bulletin? You’re the governor of California. There must be many organizations you could join.
Jerry Brown: I think it’s crucial to wake people up to the dangers that still persist so many years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb. The peril grows and in no way diminishes. I think it’s important that scientists, political leaders, and other people who have positions of responsibility take the time to understand and probe into the basic issues that, if not handled right, could eliminate the whole human race.
So I would say that for most people, the possibility of a nuclear accident or blundering into some kind of regional nuclear war or some kind of confrontation among the larger powers is inconceivable and totally remote from anything they’re thinking about. I think that the Bulletin is a very effective vehicle for focusing attention on a subject which is profoundly important to our well-being, if not our survival—and something that gets virtually no attention.
Mecklin: You and I have talked before about how little attention nuclear issues tend to get in major media. Any thoughts about how we can do a better job of forcing the issue into the headlines?
Brown: Unfortunately, the news in the so-called democratic societies, particularly in America, is a function of conflict. It’s the conflict engendered by the president or against the president through tweets, through congressional battles. That dominates a lot of news, and the risk of the end of the world is not news. The risk of even great catastrophe is not news. Smaller issues are.
I would just say that this is a matter that has to be brought to people’s attention in whatever creative ways can be seized. As military budgets and diplomatic decisions are made, the Bulletin can weigh in with the thoughts and words of deeply knowledgeable people. I see that as an imperative, and in order to push it further and wider than it has been [pushed] requires a connection to political people, journalists, as well as people in government and academia. I think in all those ways, the Bulletin can make a contribution, and I would like to help expand that contribution.
Mecklin: As you know, in addition to the nuclear issues, the Bulletin covers climate change rather closely; it’s one of our major subjects, because it could also end world civilization. I was at the Global Climate Action Summit that you arranged in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. Just for our readers who didn’t attend, what were you trying to do with that? What was the purpose?
Brown: The climate action summit was prompted by requests from the UN after the Paris Agreement [on climate change], to make sure that the momentum was not lost leading up to the next conference of the parties [to the agreement]. We had one at Bonn last year. There will be another conference of parties this year in Poland, and all that’s to sharpen the commitment and the rules for complying with the Paris Agreement. So the San Francisco climate action summit was to call together representatives from corporations, from other entities that pollute—states, provinces, and their governors, mayors, prime ministers—and get greater commitments even than have been made up till now. And we did that. We also brought attention to the current state of climate action. That was its purpose.
I have to say that even following the summit, we have Australia burning away even more coal. We have other countries doing the same. We have the threatened pullout from the Paris Agreement of Brazil. We have Trump’s continued recalcitrance. There are big, big challenges ahead on the climate front. The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] brought out a report on what it takes to stay under 1.5 degrees Centigrade increase [above temperatures] at the beginning of the industrial age. To have any chance of that at all will take heroic efforts on the part of leaders everywhere, and we are currently not on that kind of a trajectory. The world is on pace to add heat-trapping gases in an amount that will totally disrupt forests, habitat, human health, political stability, not to mention rising sea levels.
The challenges are profound, and they’re inexorable, and they require good science, which we’re getting. But the dissemination of good science, and the awareness on the part of citizens, prominent leaders, business, academia, the media, entertainment—all the different channels of human activity and communication have to contain information and discussion about climate change. That’s happening a little bit, but I want to see it stepped up dramatically, and the Bulletin can play an important part in that.
Mecklin: Obviously part of the stepped-up conversation would, I hope, include Republicans and people at the top level of business, many of whom you had at the summit. [Former New York Mayor] Mike Bloomberg showed up and was a pretty good speaker, and there were a lot of business people there. How do we light a fire among the people in those communities who know climate change is real? How do we get them to talk about it publicly?
Brown: Look, the problem is that there’s a lot of comfort and complacency and affluence, and people are very busy going about whatever they’re going about. Yet the instability is built into our current modern civilization. We’ve just seen the stock market drop recently. The threat to current nuclear arms agreements between the US and Russia is real. The tension with China is mounting by the day. The field of news entertainment marginalizes to a maximum degree any extended discussion of these deeper problems. That’s something that we have to turn the page on, and that will require getting people like Mike Bloomberg and Ambassador [George] Shultz and others who care about this stuff.
Yeah, it’ll take Republicans. This has nothing to do with parties. It has nothing to do with country. It has to do with human beings and all the whole pattern of living beings that constitute the living organisms on the planet.
There’s a great risk of radical disruption being set in motion, and to turn it back and turn to a sustainable future is something that has to start now. By the time things become absolutely intolerable, it’ll be far too late to make the change. That is the challenge. Can we wake people up before the absolute horror has occurred, while these patterns that are inexorably leading to the horror are building up and occurring?
I will do my part, but right now it’s going to take heroic effort and a lot of creativity and a fair amount of luck to get the job done.
Mecklin: Some of the impacts of climate change … they’re already showing up. As governor of California, I think you’ve been in a position to see some of those impacts, and I don’t think most people really get it. So can you give our readers some notion of what fires have cost California in the last year?
Brown: Fires have taken thousands of homes, killing people, changing the nature of the forest, releasing even more greenhouse gases, taxing our local firefighting services. It’s a reality, and it’s just the beginning. It’s getting worse and will continue to get worse. The hurricanes’ intensity because of the warming of ocean waters, that’s going to get worse. By the time it becomes completely obvious to the deniers and the skeptics, it will either be too late or it’ll be enormously expensive. I can just say that, as the governor of California, we see the fact that fire season is almost year round. We see the phenomena inside fires—the winds, tornado-like patterns completely unprecedented in our records.
We’ve got enough indicators. What we have to do now is put this all together in debate and public discourse, such that we can build the political will to take the hard steps to transform and decarbonize our whole economy.
Mecklin: That almost sounded like a great ending, governor, but I’m going to ask you one more question.
Brown: All right. You’re going to ruin my ending.
Mecklin: I did want to make a stab at a problem that relates to both the climate and nuclear subject areas. It’s really hard to present the facts—what’s actually going on—without being viewed as Dr. Gloom and Doom, or a little off in the head. I was just hoping I could get your thoughts on how can we present this in a way that ordinary people won’t be frightened but …?
Brown: The only way we can present it is to get more credible spokespersons—men and women of prominence and respect and intelligence. The fact is that catastrophic events are denied. Whether it’s a personal health situation that might cause death or serious illness, or it’s a nuclear incident killing millions, or climate change disrupting human life, all life as we know it.
Those are big thoughts. Unless big people express those thoughts and talk about them and respond, then we’re just lost to the desert of tweets and entertainments and sporting events and their scores. It just takes credible people engaging in credible debate and discussion and exploration of what is the human prospect. That’s where I think we can make a difference, and that’s what I intend to do in my work with the Bulletin.