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Jerry Brown tells indigenous activists at COP23: “Let’s put you in the ground so we can get on with the show here”

California’s governor, Jerry Brown, travelled to Bonn for COP23. On 11 November 2017, he launched “America’s Pledge”, a proposal for states, municipalities and businesses to meet the US commitments under the Paris Agreement. Brown’s presentation was interrupted by climate justice protesters, including indigenous people, chanting “Keep it in the ground”.

Brown’s response was extraordinary. “Let’s put you in the ground so we can get on with the show here,” he said.

The protesters had five demands for Jerry Brown:

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

While Brown enjoys parading internationally as a climate hero, the reality is that he has very close ties to the oil industry. Brown’s cap and trade scheme for California was developed hand in hand with the oil industry.

California’s climate legislation allows Chevron to go ahead with its plans for a major refinery expansion to process tar sands crude oil. 80% of the people living within 1.6 kilometres of Chevron’s refinery are people of colour. The vast majority of the people that Chevron’s increased pollution will kill, will be people of colour. California’s climate legislation is environmental racism.

Some jokes just aren’t funny

Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman asked Brown about the protest, and about Brown’s response to it. The video and a transcript is available on Democracy Now’s website.

Goodman asks Brown to explain what he meant when he said to mainly native American protesters, “Let’s put you in the ground”. Brown says,

“That was a joke. 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 when it’s very hard to even hear, much less keep your thought there.”

Goodman asks whether he will apologise for the comment. “No,” Brown replies.

Brown says that California has “the strongest Native American policy of any state in the country”. That may well be true. But that does not give the governor of California (or anyone else) the moral license to talk about putting people in the ground. Joking or not.

Brown’s aggressive body language

It’s worth taking a look at Jerry Brown’s body language. The photograph above is a screenshot from the Sacramento Bee’s video of Brown when he says “Let’s put you in the ground”.

Brown continues the aggressive body language when Goodman questions him. He leans over Goodman. He points his finger. He clenches his fist. Here are some screenshots from Democracy Now’s interview:

Brown is clearly angry. He knows he’s made a serious mistake, but refuses to apologise for it.

This is not “just kind of a little left-wing routine”

In her questions, Goodman focuses on fracking, asking Brown if California will ban fracking. Brown evades the question by talking about the dangers of importing oil by train to California.

“We’re considering a ban on oil over the next 25 years,” Brown says.

Of course, 25 years is the sort of time-frame that politicians love. Brown’s current fourth term as governor of California will be his last. As Bill McKibben points out, this should insulate him from the political power of the fossil-fuel industry.

McKibben explains the climate problem in terms of supply and demand:

There are two halves to the climate dilemma: demand and supply. We use too much coal and gas and oil, and we’ve begun to address that through the rapid adoption of renewable energy, the spread of conservation measures, and ideas such as a price on carbon. Brown’s California has been a leader in much of this work. But we also produce too much fossil fuel, and that endless production makes it harder to drive down demand. In fact, it will make it impossible to meet even the modest goals of the Paris accords.

Brown tries to dismiss Goodman’s questions, and the keep it in the ground movement, as “just kind of a little left-wing routine here”. But, unless we stop digging up fossil fuels, we will fail to address the climate crisis. That’s science, not political bias.

As George Monbiot wrote, a decade ago,

Most of the governments of the rich world now exhort their citizens to use less carbon. They encourage us to change our lightbulbs, insulate our lofts, turn our TVs off at the wall. In other words, they have a demand-side policy for tackling climate change. But as far as I can determine not one of them has a supply-side policy. None seeks to reduce the supply of fossil fuel. So the demand-side policy will fail. Every barrel of oil and tonne of coal that comes to the surface will be burnt.


Full disclosure: This post is part of a series of posts and interviews about California’s cap-and-trade scheme, with funding from Friends of the Earth US. Click here for all of REDD-Monitor’s funding sources.

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