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For climate change crusaders who trekked to California, the hottest ticket was a private audience with Gov. Jerry Brown

For climate change crusaders who trekked to California, the hottest ticket was a private audience with Gov. Jerry Brown
Gov. Jerry Brown makes his way to the bow of a hybrid ferry cruising the San Francisco Bay at the end of the day's events during the Global Climate Action Summit on Thursday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

It was an off-the-cuff remark from California’s enigmatic chief executive, one that might have faded with the laughter it sparked if it weren’t a sharp reminder of why a global audience trekked to San Francisco for advice on combating climate change.

A reporter asked Gov. Jerry Brown about complaints that he hasn’t done enough to wean the state off fossil fuels. Brown scoffed, lumping his liberal critics together with those on the other side who think his policies go too far.

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“That’s the right view,” Brown said, rebuking conservatives. “Then you have the left view, the center view and then my view. Which is the one that counts.”

The crowd chuckled, but the point was clear. Whatever the reason — the federal government’s environmental retreat or the governor’s insistence that a state can go its own way — when Brown speaks, climate change leaders listen.

And they clamor for access: The hottest ticket at last week’s three-day summit was a private meeting with the governor of California.

“He’s very good at drawing people together,” said Nicholas Stern, a climate change professor at the London School of Economics. “People want to talk to him because he’s so interesting to talk to.”

Stern met Brown more than a decade ago when the governor called him to talk about his research. He said his own private conversation with Brown last week explored how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. The focus, he said, was on efforts in China to improve battery technology.

“Both the Chinese and Jerry are very clear about that,” Stern said. “California is uniquely important among American states. That is why a California governor who is truly an international figure matters so much.”

Similar praise was common at the summit. A convention hall crowd applauded when New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who had his own private audience with Brown, recounted seeking out the veteran Democrat’s advice after being elected last year.

“I said to him on the call I wanted New Jersey to be the California of the East Coast,” Murphy told the audience.

Other Democrats were no less effusive. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Brown “a brilliant strategist.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “indispensable.”

Michael Bloomberg, De Blasio’s predecessor as mayor and a co-host of the climate summit, said Brown’s most lasting legacy may be how to blend scientific advice with political action.

“He figures out where he thinks the world should go, and then he tries to explain to people why and bring them along,” Bloomberg said.

At the summit, that effort played out mostly behind the scenes. A list provided by Brown’s office shows 22 invitation-only meetings, including conversations with government officials from four states and 17 foreign countries.

He talked about land use and forest management with a group representing provinces around the world. The conversation turned to technology and innovation with business leaders including Kevin Johnson, chief executive officer of Starbucks.

And Brown didn’t just offer advice — he sought it out. In meetings with former Vice President Al Gore and former Secretary of State John Kerry, talk turned to ways the governor could stay engaged once he leaves office in January, Brown’s office reported.

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Brown, who turned 80 in April, seemed energized by the discussions. He insisted, though, that he was more messenger than messiah to those who sought his counsel.

“They are looking to California as an example of very imaginative and aggressive climate action,” he said in an interview.

Nor did the governor see his role as different from that of other California leaders over the past half-century. Earlier in the week, Brown pointed out that he stood “on the shoulders of other people” who led California before him, pushing for anti-pollution policies to fight smog in the 1960s and ’70s and the rise in greenhouse gas emissions in the early years of the 21st century.

“We’ve developed the institutional capacity and the bureaucratic understanding to combat pollution and carbon emissions,” he said. “So we are positioned well to deal with the problem.”

Not everyone agrees that Brown has done his fair share. While his decision to keep a low profile at the summit reflected his personal style, it also allowed him to largely sidestep the counter-narrative of protesters. Hundreds marched on Thursday to criticize the governor’s oversight of the state’s oil industry. They accused him of being too generous with drilling permits and too unwilling to better protect the health of low-income communities near those operations.

Brown bristled at the accusations, insisting that environmental policy is still constrained by what’s politically possible.

“Without a doubt, California has the most aggressive green energy plans in the Western Hemisphere,” he said on Thursday. “In the world of dreams, you can do a lot of things. In the world of practicality, there’s a way it works.”

By the time he made a Friday appearance on the event’s main stage, when protesters were poised to possibly disrupt the proceedings, Brown spoke for only 75 seconds — just long enough to announce that California will make plans to launch its “own damn satellite,” as he called it, to collect climate data.

The governors of other states who attended the climate conference said Brown had blazed an important trail, even if some don’t think he’s done enough.

“I understand that people in California always want better,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Molloy said after an event with Brown on Thursday. “But there’s nobody who compares.”

Nor do many elected officials so quickly shift from policy to philosophy and spirituality when discussing environmental danger. Likening the change in human behavior needed to reduce global warming as akin to a religious conversion, Brown told representatives of indigenous populations on Wednesday the path forward is as much about “ambition” as it is government action.

“We will make this reality come true if we can make it true in our immediate surroundings,” Brown suggested as several in the group nodded in approval. “That’s what I’m doing in California.”

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