Jerry Brown's Climate Road Show Meets Up With the Pope in Rome

Governor Jerry Brown, pressing the California agenda on renewable energy and climate change, followed up his successful appearance earlier this month at the Climate Summit of the Americas in Toronto with what looks like an even more successful appearance at the Pope's summit on Tuesday and Wednesday in Rome.

When Brown, invited for California's pioneering programs and his own long history on energy and environmental matters, spoke on Tuesday at the Vatican, he described the climate crisis in ominous terms, saying the world may have already "gone over the edge." He denounced largely Republican denialists in the US as "troglodytes," judging the existential threat posed by climate change as akin to that of nuclear weapons.

On Wednesday, Brown took note of the fact that the Vatican is inside Rome, once seat of the greatest empire of antiquity. "Radical change," he said, can end arrangements that seem permanent, as the fate of the Roman Empire teaches us.

"Being right here in Rome where we can walk through the ruins of a great Roman Empire gives us an example," he declared. "It was defeated not by another empire, but by 12 Galileans who had no money, who didn't even speak Latin but who began the process of taking down the Roman Empire and replacing it with Christianity."

He also noted the much more recent example of the British Empire, on which the sun never set, being tossed out of its lynchpin dominion of India just after emerging victorious in World War II.

"It was a man who just had a little cloth on, who used to go around in his underwear," Brown said. "Mr. Gandhi who, I think, Churchill was rather contemptuous of. And yet, Gandhi speaks more to where we are than Mr. Churchill or any of the other politicians."

It's generally forgotten that Winston Churchill, who is nonetheless a personal hero of mine, identified two great threats during his wilderness years of the 1930s. Hitler and, er, Gandhi. It's also usually forgotten that Gandhi screwed up at the end over the partitioning of India between Hindus and Muslims, which he opposed.

This is all part of Brown's drive to to take California's pioneering programs on to the world stage to develop change there in advance of the United Nations climate summit in Paris from November 30th to December 11th. Past UN climate summits have ended in various stages of failure, and the proverbial eleventh hour is chiming its arrival.

Brown was at the Vatican, the papal seat of the Roman Catholic Church, for the new Pope's global conference on climate change and human slavery, which, yes, does still exist. Pope Francis, nearly a year and a half older than Brown, is positioning the Catholic Church as a major new leader in the fight against climate change. Brown was the highest-ranking American official on hand at the gathering, which focused on subnational leaders, especially mayors, such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (who said he will implement programs in the Big Apple modeled on California's), San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.

In addition to speaking on Tuesday and Wednesday, Brown appeared on panels, gave many media interviews to outlets around the world, and talked with both the new Pope and the head of the Jesuit order, Adolfo Nicolas, who is also older than Brown.

Brown, of course, is a former Jesuit seminarian. Pope Francis is also a Jesuit.

The Jesuits have long played a leading edge role in the Catholic Church as, so to speak, its intellectual shock troops. While Vatican City is, geographically, a tiny enclave within a legendary world city, it has its own unique sovereignty. And its own geopolitical heft with, in essence, sophisticated foreign policy and intelligence apparats. Jesuits, long famed for their intellectual prowess and debating skills, play leading roles in all this.

The Roman Catholic Church, with its far-flung constituencies, is a "soft power" great power on the global stage. While, as Stalin once rather infamously noted, the Pope commands no divisions, he doesn't really need to. So Pope Francis -- born Jorge Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina -- throwing the Roman Catholic Church into the fight to combat climate change is a very big deal.

As is the ability of Brown, the most prominent Irish-Catholic politician in America, to work with the Church.

Of course, Brown, a Zen adept who spent the better part of a year studying Buddhism in Japan, is not simply a Catholic. While it's amusing to think of the road not taken -- Pope Jerry? -- he is a far more protean and secular, though undeniably spiritual, figure than that.

Indeed, it was Brown the Berkeley classicist more than Brown the former Jesuit seminarian who was in evidence on Wednesday.

There in the wonderful "Eternal City," ever-ripe with historicity, Brown -- accompanied only by First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown, Executive Secretary Nancy McFadden, Press Secretary Evan Westrup, and a few security and California media folks -- hammered home the point that even the greatest of empires can fall prey to rapid change.

The Roman Empire, he noted, was humbled and brought down by the preachings of a relative handful of provincial religionists. Which is true enough, and a nice way of putting it given his hosts. Actually, after three centuries of trying to suppress Christianity, Roman Emperor Constantine declare Christianity to be the Empire's chief religion, attempting to accommodate radical change. But, suffering from imperial overstretch and corruption, Rome continued to weaken and finally fell to barbarians 150 years later.

But the Roman Catholic Church lived on and not only prospered but rose to become arguably the greatest power of medieval times.

Ironically, given the new Pope's aggressive pro-science stance on climate change, the Church often moved in the past to suppress any science that challenged the status quo, especially the belief that the sun, planets, and stars all revolved around the Earth. In this, it followed in the footsteps of the reactionary mysticism that ultimately blunted and largely erased the Ionian Awakening of half a millennia before Christ. Only the coming of the Renaissance, especially present in Italy, and the Enlightenment provided light after centuries of darkness.

Now the Pope has placed the Church firmly on the side of the light of science and rationality and intellectual freedom. Perhaps just in the nick of time. Humanity is at another inflection point. Brown suggests that existential challenge of climate change is as great of that of nuclear weapons, but it may actually be greater.

For preventing the use of nuclear weapons, as great a challenge as that is, does not require fundamental changes in the course of industrial and consumer culture. It merely requires that political and military leaders exercise a certain degree of intelligent forbearance.

Brown's listeners in Rome reportedly responded well to him, as they did earlier this month in Canada, where the Globe and Mail described Brown's performance as akin to "the Harlem Globetrotters interrupting a polite neighbourhood game of pickup basketball."

These are mostly improv presentations on Brown's part, not unlike jazz performances around a set of themes and ideas. As befits someone influenced by beat culture.

Brown was never a hippie, notwithstanding rock queen ex Linda Ronstadt and the gibes of some opponents. Remember that he is not a baby boomer. He's the product of the generation in between the boomers and the World War II generation, the one that looks set to become the first generation in American history not to produce a President of the United States.

Unless Brown has to jump in at the last minute to try to save the Democrats in the event of a Hillary Clinton collapse, which I'm not anticipating.

In the meantime, he has a big state to run for another three-and-a-half years and a long-term crusade to save the planet. That's probably busy enough.

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