Greener on the Other Side

Climate justice activists hold California Governor accountable at world summit

by Mara Dolan

Illustration by Katya Labowe-Stoll

published December 1, 2017

The group members, huddling together in the German winter, have banners strewn across their shoulders. Unfurled only moments ago, their messages are still readable: “California Republic of Oil” and “We are the solution, stop the pollution.” The activists, regrouping on the street after being expelled from the US Climate Action Center, are gathered outside the entrance. The muted cheering inside continues.  

Inside, California Governor Jerry Brown is speaking at the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP), the annual international summit on climate change. For two short weeks of every year, tens of thousands of people, representing almost every nation on earth, convene under the COP banner: delegates sent by their nations’ leaders, activists working to pressure negotiators, leading climate scientists and scholars, even ‘green’ corporations hoping to make a buck. These two weeks, this time in Bonn, Germany from November 6–17, were unusually politically charged. Everyone involved in climate policy attends these conferences, and the halls are always humming with a nervous and hopeful energy. But this year, the elephant in the room threatened the fragile optimism of years past. 

Earlier this fall, Syria and Nicaragua signed the Paris climate accord—the contentious and delicate agreement produced at the 2015 Conference in Paris, largely heralded as a triumph of international cooperation. After these two countries signed on, the US became the final, lone dissenter. President Trump’s Rose Garden speech on June 17 announced that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, with a statement from Trump declaring, “I was elected by the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” It is worth noting, however, that the legal process for the US withdrawal would not even be possible until November 4, 2020—one day after the next presidential election.

Trump’s statement still had teeth, though. The symbolism of the US exempting itself introduced doubts over other countries’ commitments and undermined any hope the US would act on climate change. Trump’s statement brought condemnation from both domestic and international academic and political figures and rattled the already fragile sense of cooperation leading up to Bonn. If the US —the largest historical greenhouse gas emitter, and a necessary source of finance for adaptation—was out, would all hopes for international cooperation on climate change fall apart in Germany?


Some of Trump’s most outspoken critics were political leaders in the US, representing cities and states that still want to abide by the Paris Agreement. An unofficial delegation of these officials joined the Conference on November 9. While Trump’s official US delegation—a small group of State Department officials who allegedly received no clear instruction on their stance on climate change—flew under the radar, the “alternative” delegation was packed with star power, political celebrity, and financial clout. 

Five US Senators, including Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, were joined at the Conference by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown. Working to convince the international community that “we are still in,” Governor Brown was widely perceived to have taken up an unofficial mantle as the country’s green political crusader. In the weeks before Bonn, he spoke in venues across Europe on his commitment to climate action. “California will resist this misguided and insane course of action,” he said in response to Trump’s exit from the Paris accord. “Trump is AWOL but California is on the field, ready for battle.”

Parading as California’s climate hero has given Governor Brown the perfect opportunity to become the de facto climate leader for the whole US, the anti-Trump Democrat poised perfectly for a rumored 2020 presidential run (“Don’t rule it out!” he quipped in March). Around the world, Governor Brown, a fiery speaker with deep financial ties to Democratic donors, is seen by many as a powerful and welcome face for the anti-Trump climate movement. 

When Governor Brown arrived to speak on November 11, despite the fact that he had no real negotiating capabilities, the room was packed. The US Climate Action Zone, the hub of the alternative delegation’s activity and the site of Governor Brown’s speech, was awash with red, white, and blue decorations. Thousands of free stickers, bags, and other swag were handed out, all flaunting #We’reStillIn. Hundreds of audience members in suits exchanged business cards and statements of appreciation for Governor Brown’s leadership, eagerly awaiting his on-stage arrival. In the speech, it was expected that he would be announcing “America’s Pledge,” the plan for states and cities to uphold the US emissions reduction goals in the absence of federal action.

Governor Brown stood behind the podium, a sprawling screen behind him proclaiming “America’s Pledge: WE ARE STILL IN.” Less than a minute into his speech, a small group of indigenous activists stood up in the middle of the crowd, unfurling a sign that read, “Still in for WHAT?” More people rose from the audience, adding signs and voices as they begin to chant, “Keep it in the ground! Keep it in the ground!” The slogan is familiar to anyone who has followed the opposition movement to fossil fuel extraction around the country, typically in relation to fracking. Made popular by the Keystone XL protest movement, it has rarely been seen in national coverage in reference to California.

Governor Brown responded in real time, yelling back with a pointed finger, “Someone should put you in the ground so we can get on with the show here!” 

The activists continued to chant, this time with, “No more pollution! We are the solution!” 

He shouted back into the microphone, “I think to get the job done we are going to need to have a little more intellectual content than just repeating slogans.”

As security escorted the protesters outside, Governor Brown hurled one last comment, “And I’m reframing my speech: beyond noise to real climate action!” 

Later that day, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now asked Governor Brown what he meant by his “put you in the ground” comment. “That was a joke,” he responded. “Now, Amy, don’t use your media outlet for this kind of silliness. That was an ironic remark in the face of a noisy demonstration.” 

She pushed back: “But it was Native Americans, and they took it very seriously. Do you apologize for that comment?”

“No! Come on, you know we have the strongest Native American policy of any state in the country. And we have the most environmental [policy], and the toughest rules on oil!”


The activists who joined for the action at Governor Brown’s speech came from a wide variety of organizations. The coalition, called It Takes Roots, is a multiracial “alliance of alliances,” led by “women and gender oppressed people of color and Indigenous Peoples on the frontlines of racial, housing, and climate justice across the US and Canada,” according to their mission statement for the Conference. They joined together in demand for climate justice—the realization that climate change is simultaneously an environmental, ethical, and political issue. These dimensions are inextricable from one another, and climate change is the place and process where the intersection becomes visible. 

The fight for climate justice is an environmental social movement that recognizes that those who have contributed the least to climate change are the ones who will suffer first and the most from its effects. The movement’s proponents state that the vulnerabilities produced by socioeconomic and racial inequalities—which are themselves interconnected—amplify those produced by climate change. The ability to deal with the consequences of climate change—from relocation after displacement, to accessing disaster recovery assistance, to building protective infrastructure—depends on economic capital, political representation, and legal protections. Climate justice demands that “frontline communities”—communities that will bear the brunt of rising sea levels and temperatures, droughts, heat waves, and devastating storms—are prioritized and centered in policy decisions. Around the world, these frontline communities are largely Indigenous Peoples, people of color, and low-income communities. 

Their action at the speech, according to It Takes Roots organizers, aimed to highlight Governor Brown’s hypocrisy. While he positions himself as the political face of climate action abroad, his actions in California tell a different story. He has embraced the transition to renewable energy not as an urgent necessity, but as a gradual process. Fracking, the process of extracting fossil fuels by injecting shale with liquid (a combination of sand and over 600 chemicals) to expand fissures of oil or gas, is associated with a myriad of health hazards. Produced by the leakage of the toxins in the liquid, these include increased respiratory problems, endocrine disruptions in pregnancies, and contaminations of local water sources. 

Some argue that natural gas produced by fracking is a “bridge” fuel, weaning us off coal before the transition to renewables like wind and solar energy. Under this view—that fracking may be risky, but at least it’s better than coal—fracking has flourished under Brown's administration. California is the third-largest state in oil and gas production, and state regulators have approved thousands of new permits for drilling projects in the coming years. These include urban drilling, which many argue is the dirtiest form of fracking and has the most serious implications for human health in populations living nearby. California is one of only two states that has no tax on extraction. Aliso Canyon, the natural gas storage facility that was the site of the largest methane leak in the country’s history, has still not been closed. With all of his rhetoric on clean energy, Governor Brown has made little effort to truly slow oil and gas extraction and production in his own state. 

In March of this year, Maryland became the first state with a known wealth of potential reserves to ban fracking. It joins Vermont, which has not discovered any reserves, but has maintained a ban on fracking for more than five years. And while New York outlawed drilling in 2012, Governor Brown’s administration awarded drilling permits to more than 2,000 wells in Kern County just this year. Kern County, in the San Joaquin Valley, is the largest oil producing county in the entire country. It is also a region heavily reliant on agricultural labor, with a predominantly low-income, immigrant community. The impact of drilling in a place like Kern County illustrate how environmental degradation and racial discrimination can intersect to compound harm. As long as fossil fuel extraction persists in Kern County, it is communities of color who face the greatest risk.  

In an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, one of the protestors, Jean Su, wrote that, in addition to those significant hypocrisies in energy policy, there are devastating health impacts of those policies for California’s people. She wrote, “compounding the climate damage, many California oilfields operate dangerously close to homes and schools, emitting air pollutants that cause asthma, cancer and other health problems.” A striking 14 percent of California’s population lives within just one mile of an oil or gas facility. 

To be sure, California has ambitious goals for renewable energy in the future. It proudly states that it will be 100 percent renewable energy-dependent by 2045. But that goal is impossible if the oil and gas industries continue to flourish—with few regulations and relegated to communities with little political or economic power. 

Indigenous activist Dallas Goldtooth, representing the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) in Bonn, was one of the central organizers of the action at Governor Brown’s speech. Goldtooth is the ‘Keep it in the Ground’ campaign organizer for IEN, and has been at the forefront of anti-fracking movements for years, including the Keystone XL opposition. When asked by the Independent about the intention of the action, he emphasized the need to reveal the truth behind the Governor’s policies. “The action was to call out Jerry Brown and California’s climate policy… Jerry Brown has positioned himself here as a climate leader, meanwhile promoting continued fracking in the Central Valley and the expansion of oil refineries in the Bay Area.” Goldtooth wanted to be clear that the coalition calling for climate justice in California would not stop at the Conference. “Our purpose was to let Jerry Brown know that we are here, that we’re going to be here, and that we will be at the Global Climate Summit in California next year, in full force, holding him accountable for his actions and policies,” he told the Indy.


The demands of the activists were as follows: 

1. End pollution from oil refineries, 

2. Ban fracking in California, 

3. Stop advocating for carbon markets and false solutions, 

4. Address community impacts of recent methane disasters, 

5. Stop importing and refining Canada tar sands oil in California.


These demands recognize that Governor Brown’s climate policies are reinforcing and reproducing environmental racism. As the US, and other parts of the world, celebrate Governor Brown’s leadership, applauding his every mention of global warming, the communities who know his policies best are demanding to be heard. As he shouted them out of his event, the Governor made it clear that their interruption was “noise” to him. It was not “real climate action.” As he silenced their demands, he silenced any meaningful recognition of climate justice. 


Governor Brown is not the only political leader whose hypocrisy must be recognized. At a time when the country is searching for climate leadership, activists like Goldtooth remind us that we cannot allow rhetoric that embraces climate action without climate justice. Environmental leaders must address environmental injustices. If climate policy still disproportionately targets and affects populations based on race and class, it is no true solution. And if this comes to light only once a year in an international conference, we risk losing any true domestic, local accountability. Democratic political leaders at the city, county, and state levels must all answer to the demands of climate justice. Electing leaders who believe in climate change does not mean they will address climate change in an equitable way. 

“Climate justice is more than just ecological damage,” Goldtooth told the Indy. “We’re talking about addressing the social and racial and environmental injustices that communities of color, frontline communities, ocean-dependent communities, forest-dependent communities are facing due to climate change. Climate justice is a holistic approach to take us in the direction we need to go.”

He continued after a pause. “When you have frontline communities, who are speaking up and standing up and saying, ‘your policy is killing our people and killing our relationship to the land, and you must be held accountable to that,’ then we have to stand up and support those voices.” 

MARA DOLAN B’20 thinks Jerry Brown ain't green.