A milestone event in the story of the world’s evolving attitude towards environmentalism happened a few weeks ago. In July, the Pope convened a Vatican conference for the world’s mayors with a call to action on the risks of climate change with, among others, California’s Governor Jerry Brown in attendance.
Sitting in attendance at this global event, Jerry Brown was far from the early days of his career when framing these same issues made him a political maverick. From fighting oil companies and blocking offshore drilling, to advocating for clean energy and supporting limits on greenhouse gas emission, he operated far outside the political mainstream on many issues. Ultimately, this put him on the national map and earned him the nickname “Governor Moonbeam”.
Brown’s administration pushed for more energy efficient buildings rather than suggesting that people make difficult sacrifices, such as reducing the use of heat in the winter. But they were ahead of the public who were slow to change behavior and consumption models until the 1990s. Only then did recycling, reuse, and ridesharing become part of mainstream America. As public support grew, policymakers in Sacramento pushed through a multitude of significant environmental legislation, including preserving more than 1,200 miles of Northern California Rivers, and the California Environmental Quality Act.
Now, in his second round as California’s Governor, Brown continues with the same ideas he pushed in the 1970s but with increased public awareness and support. Earlier this year, he issued an executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 - the most ambitious target in North America and consistent with California's existing commitment to reduce emissions 80 percent under 1990 levels by 2050. In his inaugural address this year, Governor Brown announced the lofty goal that within the next 15 years, California will increase from one-third to 50 percent the electricity derived from renewable sources; reduce today's petroleum use in cars and trucks by up to 50 percent; double the efficiency savings from existing buildings and make heating fuels cleaner; reduce the release of methane, black carbon and other potent pollutants across industries; and manage farm and rangelands, forests and wetlands so they can store carbon. (www.gov.ca.gov/news)
Enter Pope Francis. Above the political fray and speaking to a massive global audience, Pope Francis has added perhaps the clearest and most respected voice to the cause of environmentalism. He has thoughtfully linked with the best scientists on this historically divisive issue. In doing so, he may well re-set the bar for international discourse, and now shift environmental protection out of the zone of partisan politics and into the zone of social consensus.
With Jerry Brown and other former mavericks, now arguably moderate on environmental issues in attendance, Pope Francis, in a sweeping statement, has directly joined the conversation, asserting that we have moral and ethical responsibilities to be "green", particularly in light of the risk of climate change. Papal encyclicals are typically focused on theological issues, and do not often tackle specific “hot button” political issues, making the substance and expansiveness of this encyclical particularly noteworthy.
This brings the conversation to a global scale as other international players, many historically opposed to the economic limitations of environmental regulation, are stepping up, as well. For example, in 2014, China and the U.S. pledged to work together to reduce their carbon footprints, agreeing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by setting goals in five-year increments.
Other countries, such as Brazil, are making headlines by bringing environmental action to popular events. The FIFA World Cup is the world’s most watched sporting event, and when Brazil hosted the soccer championship in 2014, Minister of the Environment, Isabella Teixeira, decided to make the event the “greenest” one yet. Everything from the care of the field and the lights in the stadium to the advertisers earning “green seals” of approval, promoted environmental change to the over 900 million viewers across the globe.
Now, we find ourselves in this new global paradigm where Jerry Brown, the maverick environmentalist from California, is at the Vatican sitting squarely in the center of a conference dedicated to environmental issues fully aligned with the Pope, continuing to promote a cause he championed 40 years ago from the political fringe. This is certainly a milestone in the continuing story of the world’s evolving views towards environmentalism and a strong sign of the political and regulatory changes to come.