LETTER FROM SACRAMENTO: Is the Governor an Environmentalist?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Dear Sierran,

Jerry BrownIsn't Governor Jerry Brown an environmentalist?

That question, or some version of it, has come to me at various times over the last 20 months from Club members around the state. It typically comes with a tone of incredulity after the governor has said or done something that seems counter to what members expected when they voted for him.

In recent months, the inquiries have been a bit more frequent and the question has been bandied about more often among environmental lobbyists working in the State Capitol.

Why now?

Governor Brown has been especially busy going on the offensive against environmental causes lately. His targets have ranged from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta (big tunnels at huge costs to the environment) to the California Environmental Quality Act (big failed push to weaken it).

In a single recent day, Brown touted fracking as a fabulous opportunity and announced he would "borrow" $500 million for the general fund from money specifically raised to reduce climate disrupting pollution. His administration followed that just days later with the news that it had worked out a deal that we fear gives anti-environment politicians in Nevada too much control over the fate of Lake Tahoe.

So, isn't Governor Brown an environmentalist?

The question makes me think about how the biggest gains for the environment in this state have been won. None was initiated by a governor.

The California Coastal Act, which ensures that beaches along the length of the state are accessible to all Californians, was the product of a combination of legislation and a ballot initiative pushed by stalwart environmentalists, including Club members, who to this day continue to advocate for the coast.

Governor Brown's earlier attempt to build a canal around the delta to move more water from Northern California to Southern California, potentially depriving the delta ecosystem of the flows it needs, was defeated on a statewide ballot in 1982 by a coalition that included environmentalists and delta farmers.

The first tailpipe pollution standard addressing climate disrupting pollutants came about from legislation first proposed by a couple of small environmental organizations and carried by a relatively new legislator. Until just before the legislature delivered the bill to then-Governor Gray Davis's desk, there was no certainty he would sign it.

These are just a few examples. But they prove a point: The biggest gains in California's environmental policies have been initiated by a few smart people outside the Governor's office, and carried to the finish line by a lot of smart people, including voters, who worked hard and believed to their core that California's unique environment is worth protecting.

Occasionally, a governor had to be persuaded to sign a bill or take an action to get the cause over the finish line. But by then it was the only clear choice he had.

I don't know if Governor Brown is an environmentalist. I do know, though, that if we are to keep making environmental progress in this state, it will be because Californians--including Club members--haven't let one guy in one job discourage them from getting clean air, clean water, healthy forests, a thriving delta, and a Lake Tahoe free of pollution.



Kathryn Phillips               

Kathryn Phillips, Director                             
Sierra Club California                                  

Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.