How California drought became ammunition in climate policy debate

California’s drought is giving the usually-partisan debate about climate-change deniers a harder and more practical edge, as Gov. Jerry Brown demonstrated on 'Meet the Press.'

Max Whittaker/Reuters
California Governor Jerry Brown speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., March 19, to announce a $1 billion emergency legislative package to deal with the state's devastating, multiyear drought. The state is entering a fourth year of record-breaking drought that has prompted officials to sharply reduce water supplies to farmers and impose strict conservation measures statewide.

California Gov. Jerry Brown took aim at two of the GOP’s brightest lights and their position on climate policy during his appearance on “Meet the Press” Sunday. His ammunition: the havoc that a four-year drought continues to wreak on the state of California.

California has long been a frontrunner in environmental legislation, leading the way for the rest of the United States. But in recent years, the Golden State also has become a sentinel for the effects that climatic shifts can have on an entire region. Less than a week after unveiling a $1 billion emergency drought relief package for the state, the governor lashed out at prominent Republicans for actively actively opposing efforts undertaken by the Obama administration to curb climate change. 

Governor Brown didn’t directly attribute the state’s current weather conditions to climate change but said the extended drought is the kind of event that climate change is making “absolutely inevitable in the coming years and decades.”

Climate scientists have long warned that changing climate will bring more frequent and intensified weather events, from droughts and heat waves to hurricanes and blizzards.

However, Brown lends a different level of credibility to the discussion as an experienced environmental policymaker who has led California through its worst drought in history, says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento.

“Brown has very ably raised the stakes on this debate at a time when it is sorely needed,”  Dr. O’Connor says.

She points out that Brown was one of the prime movers behind the original 1970 Clean Air Act, which tackled air pollution on a national level.

During his “Meet the Press” appearance, Brown criticized Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky for urging governors to defy federal directives to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

“President Obama is taking some important steps,” Brown said. “And to fight that, it borders on the immoral.”

Brown said Senator McConnell was “representing his coal constituents” and putting at risk “the health and well-being of America.”

“You can’t just sit around and engage in rhetoric because some of your donors and your constituents are saying, 'Well, we want to make a profit,’ ” Brown said. “The coal companies are not as important as the people of American and the people of the world.”

Brown also had words for Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who announced his presidential campaign Monday.

“That man betokens such a level of ignorance and a direct falsification of existing scientific data, it’s shocking,” Brown said. “And I think that man has rendered himself absolutely unfit to be running for office.”

While environmentalists have applauded Brown’s barbed attack, some observers question whether his choice of words could be turning off the very people he needs to influence if he hopes to exact change.

“When you question someone’s fitness or morality, you are shutting off any chance for constructive dialogue with that person,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. “Real deliberation would focus on the substance of the issue, not the alleged character defects of the other side.”

Others suggest that Brown’s use of the term “immoral” may have been a deliberate appeal to important elements of the evangelical movement, which has been increasingly mobilizing around climate change.

“Young voters care about it. Latino voters care about it. Educated urbanites care about it. The political cost of inaction is increasing,” says Paul Steinberg, professor of political science at Harvey Mudd College and author of the book, "Who Rules the Earth?"

But some Americans, for their part, may see Brown’s "Meet the Press" comments as being just as partisan as those by politicians he was taking to task, says Villanova political scientist John Johannes.

McConnell and  Brown “are talking past each other; two ships passing in the night, each with his own destination,” Dr. Johannes says.

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