Jerry Brown and Pope Francis to Discuss Climate Change

by | July 20, 2015

By Josh Richman

California Gov. Jerry Brown and Pope Francis each might see a bit of himself in the other when they cross paths this week at a Vatican symposium on climate change and human trafficking.

Born less than two years apart, the governor and the pontiff share a Jesuit Catholic background that calls for "discernment" -- spiritual introspection on one's destined mission in life. And for now, both have discerned that battling climate change is part of that mission.

"I'm very impressed with Pope Francis and where he's taking the church -- I see the hand of Jesuit training and inspiration in what he's doing," Brown, who studied to be a Catholic priest before deciding his true calling was politics, said in an interview with this newspaper before he left for Italy.

"The pope is engaging in moral authority and calling people to reflect on the basis of those considerations," he said. "This is desperately needed to counteract the iron logic of the marketplace, which is only dealing with profit."

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee also will travel to the Vatican for the symposium, two of five U.S. mayors who were invited to speak. They're making the trip one month after Pope Francis issued an encyclical on the environment, including his call for a partnership between science and religion to combat human-driven climate change. The symposium also comes a few months before world leaders convene in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

"To achieve anything in Paris, we'll need grass-roots efforts by religious leaders and states and provinces," said Brown, who during his latest terms as governor has become an international proselytizer for action against climate change. "We need to work together to intensify the pressure on these national leaders to get more done than is currently on their respective agendas."

Pope Francis' leadership is key in a "very reactive business" like politics, he added. "The Catholic Church has a unique ability to emphasize the importance of the environment. Very little attention is paid to the natural environment in the way Francis pays attention."

The two-day event, hosted by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, aims to drive local awareness, dialogue and action on climate change and modern slavery, two pressing issues highlighted in the pope's recent encyclical. Brown will attend sessions on "Modern Slavery and Climate Change: The Commitment of the Cities" on Tuesday, as well as Wednesday's sessions on "Prosperity, People and Planet: Achieving Sustainable Development in Our Cities."

Brown's and Pope Francis' similar age -- the governor is 77, the pontiff 78 -- and Jesuit backgrounds gives them "an interesting sense of generation," said the Rev. Michael Russo, a professor at St. Mary's College of California in Moraga and an expert on the Catholic influence on U.S. politics. "They're of a similar mindset with regard to incremental change, not only for a state and nation but in Pope Francis' job, global change.

"In that sense, I think they're very complementary," Russo said, adding that the pope hasn't hesitated to call out political leaders whom he believes don't properly represent those they're elected to serve. "He's deliberative as a leader and -- a little bit like Jerry Brown -- drives everybody crazy equally."

One hot California issue the pope and Brown probably won't be talking about it is the pontiff's upcoming canonization of Father Junipero Serra, who critics say enslaved, brutalized and forcibly converted Native Americans while establishing the California missions.

Brown has supported the controversial canonization. But Valentin Lopez, chairman of the 550-member Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Costanoan/Ohlone Indians, on Friday wrote Brown a lengthy, sharply worded letter saying "it is time to remove the symbol of Junipero Serra and the missions from places of honor and respect in California history."

Brown in January called Serra "a very courageous man and one of the innovators and pioneers of California," but acknowledged the priest's legacy involved "horrible devastation of the native peoples."

State taxpayers won't be picking up the tab for Brown's trip, spokesman Gareth Lacy said Friday, though one exception might be security provided by the California Highway Patrol.

Mayors from around the world, meanwhile, will get a 30-minute audience with the pope Tuesday.

Lee issued a statement saying he's eager to "share how San Francisco has reached and exceeded aggressive climate change goals even while growing the economy and seeing increases in our population."

Liccardo will take part in a panel on urban inequality, human development and social inclusion, along with the mayors of Accra, Ghana; Stockholm, Sweden; Medellin, Colombia; and Libreville, Gabon, as well as the former mayor of Barcelona, Spain.

A lifelong practicing Catholic, Liccardo said it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Pope Francis, whom Liccardo said he admires greatly. "It may mean I'm in a room with 500 people, or it may mean I get to meet him," Liccardo said. "I'd like to be able to say I'm going to have wine with Pope Francis, but I don't think that's the case.

"I'm greatly appreciative for Pope Francis' emphasis on social inclusion and social justice, and his message has resonated certainly with me but as well with millions of Catholics and non-Catholics," the mayor said. He said that taxpayers won't be funding the trip, but he hopes the city will benefit nonetheless.

"Every time I engage with colleagues from big cities throughout the country or the world," Liccardo said, "I always learn one or two things that I'm able to bring back."

And, he added with a chuckle, "hopefully it gives me a couple more points to get into heaven."

(c)2015 The Oakland Tribune