Catholics Respond to the Encyclical: California Gov. Jerry Brown

July 7, 2015

How are Catholics discussing, living out or applying the encyclical in your parish, diocese, or country?  This cross-post is a shorter version of Jim McDermott’s interview of California Governor Jerry Brown in America, the Jesuit magazine.  Gov. Brown has spent his entire life in public service. After college he spent a few years as a Jesuit seminarian.  Brown has spent the 45 years since serving the state of California at every level.  

The encyclical definitely advances the church’s position on the environment. The pope made a very clear articulation of the responsibility and the respect that human beings owe the rest of creation. And he’s taking on a real existential threat to the underlying conditions on which our civilization is dependent, the stability of the climate, which has been very favorable for the last 10 to 12 thousand years. So it’s important for reorienting Catholics to the rules and the laws of nature that can’t be ignored or abused in the name of individual freedom or desire or initiative. As people work out their various ways of living they have to take into account not just what they want to do, but what nature dictates and what science tells us about the way human beings are enmeshed in and dependent on a greater and complex web of life.

The pope is also raising the point, which gets serious opposition from many quarters, of how much material stuff is really appropriate, that there are certain limits and certain ways of living and industrializing and carrying on that are more compatible with a sustainable and healthy environment. The encyclical raises a real challenge to a modern world that is so dependent on the market for authority and for the allocation of life’s goods and services. The pope is raising the ante, saying No, you have to look at the impact. When you’re disturbing the environment you’re going to create negative feedbacks that are going to be felt disproportionately by poorer people, more vulnerable people who don’t have the assets and the capital to protect themselves against the extreme weather and the disruptions that follow in the wake of an impaired climate regime, which is where we’re going.

So all in all I’d say it’s a welcome voice, a clear voice that definitely lays out ideas consistent with the Catholic tradition but also very related to the times that we’re in.

Signs of the times and California’s transition off fossil fuels “without delay”

California is on the frontlines in two respects. One, the whole Southwest of the US (and northern Mexico) is experiencing significantly greater temperatures and that’s disruptive. Our fire season is several months longer than it was 20 years ago, and that’s certainly a challenge for livestock and other animals, for human beings and their houses.

But in another sense California is on the forefront in that it is clearly leading the country, I would say even the Western hemisphere and much of the world, by the regime we have in place. The state doesn’t just have a goal or rhetoric; we have a set of laws that set a pathway on how to actually get to the desired reduction of greenhouse gases and have a specification of what that reduction should be not just in 2050 but in 2030.

Last week the California Resources Board put out their report of the inventory of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, and it showed that we have shown a steady decline [in greenhouse gases] since the early 2000s, and that even though California is growing faster than the country, the economy is decarbonizing at an increasing rate. The per capita generation of greenhouse gases has dropped from about 14 tonnes to 12 tonnes—by no means close to where we have to go, but a pathway that is reflective of reduced carbon intensity alongside continuing economic expansion.

The state also has the institutional capacity in the form of leaders, expert staff, regulatory institutions and a collaborative spirit all working toward dealing with this existential challenge of climate change.  California’s Energy Commission, Public Utilities Commission, Air Resources Board and Independent System Operator are all institutions with highly trained people working to measure the impact on the environment of fossil fuels or human activities that generate greenhouse gases and to develop rules that will steadily reduce greenhouse gas production to a fraction of what it is today by the year 2050.  And before that Gray Davis adopted the most ambitious and aggressive tailpipe emission controls and then Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law AB 32, which included commitments to reach those greenhouse goals, including the establishment of a cap and trade program, which is now fully operational. Our history with this really derives from the experience of smog in the Los Angeles Basin, and the response to that over many administrations has led to where we are today.  The standards that were established under the so-called Pavley Law [the first legislation in the world to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in passenger vehicles], were ultimately adopted by the United States as the national standard. Today Los Angeles has ten times as many cars as it did in the 50s, and the air is 95 percent cleaner. That’s a pretty dramatic move, one that countries like China and India are taking notice of.  If you dig deeper into the use of things or creature comforts though, I don’t think we’ve attained the level of enlightenment that Pope Francis is calling for.

Cap and trade vs. Pope Francis’ concern that it accomplishes little

Our cap and trade is different. First of all, it’s not the only initiative. It isn’t just “Go your merry way, we’ll have a cap and trade program, you’ll buy allowances and then you can go pollute.” No, we have a cap that says you must keep lowering your emissions, and if you can’t, you have to buy allowances, in fact you have to pay a fee. And along with that, we have a goal of one third of our electricity to come from renewable electricity.  We have very tight standards on all manner of trucks, vehicles and buses.  We have rules for the cement industry, and we have rules across our whole economy. So we’re not just relying on one technique or intervention. What we have is an integrated effort, in which cap and trade is one method.  And even under the cap and trade we’ve already raised this year over two billion dollars. And 25% of that money has to be directed to low income communities to help reduce greenhouse gases, but do so in a way that advantages the most vulnerable and low income.

What is it going to take to help us become open to these sorts of sacrifices and adjustments?

Well I think that’s a very good question, and not one that’s easily answered. We’re in a very materialistic and self-referential period. And while I think California has some good policies, I don’t want to overstate our difference. What does it take? I would say it probably takes the experience of the negative aspects of climate change. But how people become more compassionate or more generous? I think there’s an inherent generosity to people, but how that’s all going to be worked out in our highly competitive, highly individualistic age, that’s an open question.

I would add though one final thought. I believe the encyclical, coming from the pope, expresses an idea that Ignatius Loyola and Jesuits have certainly been impressed with and promoted, and that is (in Latin) “tantum quantum“—tantum”, so much; “quantum”, how much. It means, “If this much is needed, how much should be done or taken or given?” It’s a statement of proportionality. Now whether or not in a market economy people can come to understand, let alone embrace, “tantum quantum” remains to be seen. But I do think that is a power in this encyclical, and it’s an idea that should spread. And I’ll do my part to see that it has a fighting chance.