How States Can Step Up for Science

27:21 minutes

Jerry Brown. Image via the office of Jerry Brown, design by Brandon Echter

In this age of so-called “alternative facts,” California governor Jerry Brown made one thing clear in his State of the State address this week: “Whatever they do in Washington, they can’t change the facts. And these are the facts: The climate is changing. The temperatures are rising—and so are the oceans.”

In this segment, Ira and Brown talk about how states can take the lead on issues like climate change and clean energy—with or without Washington, D.C. And we’ll hear from two government scientists who marched on Washington last week, and why they’re leery of President Trump’s plans for science.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. As we were hearing earlier, the new administration hasn’t shown much love for government science. The Trump White House has told scientists at the EPA they may now have to have their studies reviewed on a quote, “case-by-case” basis before sharing their findings with the public. Several national parks, including Badlands National Park, tweeted out a flurry of facts about climate change, only to have those facts scrubbed from the accounts.

No matter what the president thinks about global warming– and he says lately he’s keeping an open mind to it– at least one governor is not treating it as a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.

JERRY BROWN: We can’t fall back and give in to the climate deniers. The science is clear. The danger is real.

IRA FLATOW: California Governor Jerry Brown speaking in his State of the State Address this week. Governor Brown joins me now to talk about that and other science and technology issues facing his state and the nation. He’s at the studios of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Welcome to Science Friday, Governor Brown.

JERRY BROWN: Well, thank you very much. Pleasure to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: I heard your whole State of the State Address. And you used– it’s very, very forceful, more than any that I’ve heard you do or any other governor recently.

JERRY BROWN: Well, I’m glad you’re following. It’s forceful because the occasion calls for that. The stimulus is of great magnitude. What we’re talking about is not business as usual. It’s not just one thing after another. We’re facing existential threats. Catastrophe, it does loom. And I’m not just talking about climate change, habitat destruction. I’m talking about the threat of nuclear war. The Doomsday Clock, put out by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists– an organization that was founded in part by Albert Einstein after World War II has moved the Doomsday Clock to 2 1/2 minutes before the end, which is midnight. And there are other threats.

And basically, the sense of urgency that I have derives from my perception that the world leaders, in a rather accurate sense, are goofing off. They’re not talking to one another at the highest levels about the most important threats– climate change, nuclear incident, accident, nuclear terrorism, nuclear mistake, nuclear war, regionally, North Korea, many, many risks, as well as other risks. The great British scientist who was chief scientist for Great Britain, Martin Rees, said a few years ago that he thought that the chance of humanity lasting to the end of the century– that’s another 83 years– was only about 50%. So I think it’s time not to panic in any sense, but to demand that our leaders wake up, acknowledge the threats that human power and human technology now portend and now have within our hands and do something about it.

And yes, I did speak urgently at my State of the State Address. And I did mention all these major threats to affordable health care, to climate change, to undocumented people who are living in our state and the country. But I also mentioned the possibility of a financial meltdown, still a possibility, the issue of climate change and then the matter of nuclear incident, which doesn’t get the same treatment. But I do think that these larger threats are the fundamental responsibility of the president of China, of Russia, of the United States, key European leaders. And they’re not dealing with it. They’re really averting their gaze. And that is dangerous, very dangerous.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think– let me give out my number first– 844-724-8255 to talk with Governor Brown. And also, you can tweet us at @SciFri. Do you then think that states like California can effectively take the bit in its own mouth and go at this alone in trying to find the path to the future without Washington’s cooperation?

JERRY BROWN: Well, obviously, we need Washington’s cooperation. But we can do things. First of all, we can raise awareness of the issue, which is very important, although I think there’s a reluctance on the part of the media to ever consider these more catastrophic threats. I guess that’s bad for advertising or just doesn’t fit with our conventional level of comfort that people seem to demand. So I do think that governors, senators, mayors, to a lesser extent, can speak to the important existential issues that are facing humanity.

Secondly, I do think that we can do things. Cities can improve their efficiency. California has not only– at 28% renewable electricity, we have a whole range of greenhouse reduction actions that are in place and are escalating over time. In addition, we started, with the help of some German parliamentarians, to fashion the Under 2 MOU, committing the signatories to reducing greenhouse gases to no more than two tons per person by 2050 and committing to do everything we can to keep the temperature from rising more than two degrees centigrade past the beginning of the industrial age. We have upwards of 165 signatories. I think we’re going to have 200 before long. It includes countries such as Germany. We have Chile, who has endorsed it. We have other countries. We have provinces. We have Quebec. We have British Columbia. We have the State of Washington, Oregon. We have regions, states, and provinces representing over a billion people.

So yes, we are doing something locally. We’re doing something globally. And in our democratic society, power is not contained totally at the top, but always has the possibility of exploding and bursting out from below in the hearts of people. And yes, we can, we should, and we must do everything we can at local and regional levels.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255. We noted earlier in the program that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly canceled the planned summit it had on climate change it had been planning for months, and it’s no longer happening. And former Vice-President Al Gore said he’s going to be hosting his own summit, change conference. Is this the sort of local, we’ll do it if you don’t do it sort of ideas?

JERRY BROWN: Well, yes. And I think that the text that I might cite here is an essay that Vaclav Havel wrote in the late ’70s– it was really actually put into English in the ’80s– called The Power of the Powerless. And he talked about how just a rock band in Czechoslovakia could present a challenge to the system. And a charter that many writers and artists signed in Czechoslovakia began the undermining of that totalitarian system.

And when we face, as we do today, not what I would call totalitarian government, but a government that is playing fast and loose with the truth, which is not demonstrating the respect for honest communication that democracy absolutely depends on, then we need the people themselves to live in the truth, to demand the truth. And that in itself undermines those who do the opposite. And right now, that appears to be what’s going on.

It isn’t just one person called the president. We’ve got an entire congressional majority that refuses to live in the truth regarding climate change. We have many leaders who are not living in the truth of the nuclear danger and how the trillion dollar build-up that was actually proposed by President Obama, and now, apparently being carried on by President Trump, is extremely dangerous, is not security building, but just the opposite. So we have the compelling, I’d say, absolute need for everyone who has a voice to speak in the truth because there’s nothing more powerful than the truth. The truth has a energy and an ability to expose and to take down the falsehoods and the evasions that are coming not just out of Washington, but out of Europe, out of Eastern Europe, out of Russia, out of China, or wherever. And it becomes absolutely more important for programs such as this, for scientists all over the world to speak the truth as they know it and thereby combat the error and the falsity that is spreading like a cancerous plague all over the world.

IRA FLATOW: You know, scientists are beginning to speak up. You know, I’m a child of the ’60s. I remember the environmental movement, the anti-Vietnam movement. It sort of feels a little bit like the ’60s, does it not to you, Governor?

JERRY BROWN: Well, this is an historical comparison you’re making. So that you can judge or interpret in various ways. I don’t know. The time of the Vietnam War, where America was pounding the Vietnamese and we were engaged there– there’s a lot of things. I don’t know what might be helpful.

But I would just say this. Let’s just look at where we are. The science is getting clearer and clearer. Just in the last week, a report came out that instead of a possible six feet rise in sea level, now it’s plausible that it could go to eight feet. Well, that’s completely devastating to millions of people, a good slice of our economic strength in America, as well as around the world. So there’s a lot of truth that we’re accessing. And yet, there’s so much error, falsehood, and evasion that is being communicated by our leaders. And I mean, you have a Republican Party that is sworn to deny climate change. It’s incredible.

And I think the nuclear threat, in some ways, is even more immediate because there’s a danger at any moment that could materialize. So we definitely need those of science, people of prestige, churches, people from whatever walk of life that has the public megaphone, that have the public megaphone to speak out and speak out as forcefully as they can.

IRA FLATOW: Last weekend, among those gathering in Washington for the Women’s March, there were a number of scientists. And our contributor, Emily Driscoll, caught up with a group of them. And it was really interesting what some of them had to say speaking about I’m mad as hell. I’m not going to take this anymore. I’d like to play a clip from that now.

CROWD: Stand for science! Stand for science! Stand for science!


ANNE ELIXHAUSER: My sign says, science matters. Climate change is real. My name’s Anne Elixhauser. I’m a health services researcher. I work for the federal government. And I’m afraid of what’s going to happen in the government. I can’t even hardly talk because I’m so emotional about this. But there are so many reasons to be out here– the denial of science, the distortion of truth, and with basically just shutting down truth on the internet. You know, we’re worried about the information that we’re putting out there just being taken down.

BILL HAYDEN: I’m Bill Hayden. And I work at the NASA Goddard space flight center. And half of the work that we do there is earth science. The other half is planetary and cosmological science. And of course, the earth science, half of what we do, that community is very worried that this administration is going to not only block the information, but could discontinue funding it.

IRA FLATOW: That’s two people who were at the Women’s March, two scientists, Anne Elixhauser and Bill Hayden at the Women’s March in Washington last weekend. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m talking with Governor Jerry Brown.

One of the things that scientists, as you heard, Governor, they are worried about is cutting off NASA’s funding for earth research, earth science. I mean, they do so much of it right now. And it’s such an important work. It just seems hard to believe that could happen.

JERRY BROWN: Well, it is. But I mean, darkness cannot totally extinguish the light. And certainly, the light of science is something that most people understand or at least respect and are open to its basic axioms and points. I think of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and that key line. In fact, I used it in my speech. “His truth is marching on.” Truth is marching on. And no matter how much the politicians, who don’t enjoy that much credibility in the media or in the minds of the public. If you look at trust levels and confidence, they’re relatively low. Scientists have a much higher degree of credibility than most of our elected leaders. So I think there’s great opening. There’s fear. There’s trepidation.

But I think we should have confidence that if we live in integrity, if we say what we know, we admit what we don’t know, and we advance from that perspective, the movement will grow and the prophets of error, and falsehood, and lies will be vanquished. Of that, I have no doubt.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a phone call or two. Let’s go to Lander, Wyoming. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

SPEAKER 1: Hi, Ira and Mr. Governor. Thanks for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

SPEAKER 1: I have a question. As someone who’s relatively involved in politics, I’ve written many letters to my state senators and representatives– to the governor. I appreciate the governor’s concern for the world and with world leaders. But do you have any advice for those who are civilians on the ground? What can we do to bring these issues to light in our own circle of influence?

IRA FLATOW: Governor?

JERRY BROWN: Well, I’d start with your city. Depending upon where you live, there are environmental measures, whether it’s recycling, whether it’s energy efficiency. There are examples of tremendous waste that are all part of the generation of unneeded greenhouse gases– not only unneeded, they are actually detrimental. So I would say work with your local city councilman, your local supervisor, and see what can be done.

Find out what other cities have done. There are cities all over this country– the mayors have their own organization and task force in dealing with renewable energy, energy efficiency. Those things, you can start at the local level. You can hold meetings. You can have committees of correspondence, like we did during the Revolutionary War.

You’ve got to start somewhere. You got to [INAUDIBLE] a letter. It can seem like a small thing, but meetings with the social media, with action at the local level– all that will build. We’re in a moment where you’re not alone. People all over America– in fact, all over the world– are seeing the same threats and the same reality.

And I’m telling you, it’s building. Democracy is the spirit of the people. It is a power of the people. And start locally, and it will spread globally.

IRA FLATOW: Talking as my guest with the California Governor, Jerry Brown. We’re going to take a short break and take more of your calls. Come back talking with the governor. Our number 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. 844-724-8255. You can also leave us a note on our website at sciencefriday.com or on Facebook.

And we’ll check in there, and see what kind of comments you have, and get you into the mix. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about climate change, clean energy, and nuclear holocaust, the political side of science with my guest, California Governor Jerry Brown, who is telling us that this is a movement that’s growing, that people are getting involved. Let’s see if we can get some people get involved. Our number on our phone line, if you’d like and give us a call, 844-724-8255. Governor, I want to play another clip from your State of the State Address that sort of was on a whole different tack, but quite interesting.

JERRY BROWN (VOICEOVER): The president’s stated his firm intention to build, and build big. And in fact, he met with several labor leaders yesterday and committed to a $1 trillion investment in public works across America. And I say, amen to that, man. Amen to that, brother. We’re there with you.


IRA FLATOW: Governor, what are the odds of that actually happening?

JERRY BROWN: I think it’s not as easy as the president’s made it sound. But very important, he talked and others talk about the devastation on wage levels because of imports. The bullwork of good American jobs is domestic investment, and building roads, and tunnels, and dams, and recycling plants, transportation systems, rail, high-speed, local rail. All that is very important.

Money well spent. You spend it in a year or two. It can last 100 years or longer. So yeah, the infrastructure, I think, we can all rally around. Now, some of the Republicans pooh-pooh that and don’t want to spend the money, but they seem to be doing what Trump tells them. And he appears very committed to that.

I spoke with one of the labor leaders that was there. He was very enthusiastic that these high paying union jobs would be forthcoming from this Trump led investment. So I say, on that, let us work together even while we’re having to raise a real sound of alarm about his unwillingness to face climate change, or the dangers of nuclear, or tearing up the safety net in terms of health care and other things.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones to San Antonio, Texas. Let’s go to Linda in San Antonio. Hi, Linda.

LINDA: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. This is a kind of an anecdotal thing. We’ve done this over the years many times in our house. We’ll be using some glue or something like. And it says this product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause birth defects. And then we laugh, and go ha, ha. It’s a good thing we don’t live in California.

But in reality, there’s a sort of nagging feeling that we have that, hey, maybe in California, they care more about their people. They’re doing some more science research to make sure about the safety of things. And so I just want to say that, [INAUDIBLE] in Texas, we’re pro-business and we’re proud of that. But it kind of feels like there’s nobody watching out for the people. And so I just want to say, I appreciate what Governor Brown is doing, and I think it will [INAUDIBLE] across the country notice it.

JERRY BROWN: Well, you’re talking about a voter measure that was passed by the people of California many years ago that requires that if there’s a certain level of carcinogen, cancer causing, or which would cause a birth defect, a label has to be fixed to the product, whether it’s wine, or food, or even a store where you might go in. So that is important.

And given the fact that there’s over 70,000 different chemicals in the stream of commerce– in the air, the water, the soil. We don’t know what actually triggers mutations. And everybody’s different. And some people are sensitive to one chemical. Other people are sensitive to another. Now, at what level?

So the thing to remember is that human beings, in the last 200 years, have accumulated vast power. The technological impact on nature, on the human body is growing. If you think of it as a curve, the power curve is going straight up.

Now, the wisdom curve of how to deal with all this impact and power of our modern technology– that’s a flat curve. That’s not going up. And that creates a gap between the power to destroy and the wisdom to control those destructive forces.

So yes, there is good in science– fabulous wealth, and good, and well-being. But there is the dark side of all that. And we need the insight, and the wisdom, and, yes, the science to uncover all the aspects of what we’re doing so we can act prudentially, and wisely, instead of this rather kind of will-o-the-wisp, if it’s new it’s good, let’s do it. And then we’re going to find out, after the fact, when it’s too late, that we’ve created a horror.

IRA FLATOW: I think the caller’s larger message was that the idea of so goes California, so goes the rest of the country. And she was saying that California acts as a model for other parts of the country. Are you getting support after your State of the State and other calls for sort of an independent way from other like-minded governors who are with you?

JERRY BROWN: Well, there’s no doubt there’s a real response to what I said. In fact, I was in a restaurant a couple of nights ago. And the whole place erupted in applause.

And I think that is not so much me as it is the fear of what people are seeing coming out of Washington and my words that we are going to defend California. And when we do, because we’re such a vital part of America, we’re defending the country itself. So California is a force.

I don’t want to overstate it, but I think this footnote, I think, would be well to note. California was Republican under many administrations. And we had a governor who unmercifully attacked immigrants, undocumented people who’d come here– and we have a few million by the way who are working and contributing to our state.

Well, that assault on what is now a very large percentage of the people, if not undocumented, at least of Latino or Hispanic descendants– now 40%– that completely turned the state around. And I would say the extremism of the Republican majority and other interest groups that have temporarily taken hold of Washington are reducing to an absurd level the conservative cause. And there will be a backlash. And that backlash will be similar to the backlash that came in California, that essentially swept out the extreme Republican position. They may come back in a more intelligent and moderate guise, but I would say that the Republicans in Congress are flirting with real political danger by their uncritically accepting the nonsense, the lies, and the dangerous policies that are now being espoused.

IRA FLATOW: Looking into the future– interesting place, because I wanted to go to sum up here. Your accomplishments– going back to the 70s, you sponsored the first ever tax incentive for rooftop solar. You put in place the country’s first energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances. You proposed a solar powered space satellite to provide solar energy for the planet.

I mean, this was visionary stuff back then, all of which have been copied and proven successful, except for that solar energy satellite, which we’re still waiting for. But you don’t know. I want to ask you now, if you look into the crystal ball 30, 40 years from now, what do you see there?

JERRY BROWN: Looking how far out do you want me to look?

IRA FLATOW: As far as you’d like to look.

JERRY BROWN: Well, look we don’t know the future. That’s one thing. We’re not prophets. I would say– and I say this optimistically– that common sense prevails. We have enough free media that the truth can seep out and disseminate to a critical mass of people that can turn this current regime around, or replace it with a more thoughtful, more sensitive, and more truthful group of leaders. So I’m hopeful.

I do think it could be a close call here because we’re building up such power in the industrial impact on natural systems, on the soil, on habitat, and all the constituent elements that makes our life possible. We’re tearing away at that as well as, in some respects, improving it.

So we’ve got a lot to do. The risks are very serious. But the tools are at hand. And in California, we do have laboratories. We have great universities. We have great science.

We have Google. We have Facebook. We have Intel. We have all these different innovative enterprises. And we have, I think, a high level of consciousness among the people.

So I’m not going to tell you what the future is. But I can tell you, California is closer to what it should be than some of the other parts of the country and the world. And we’re going to do everything we can to stay on track.

IRA FLATOW: Governor Brown, I want to thank you very much for taking time to join us today. And good luck. And happy to have you back anytime you want to talk about other new things. Thank you very much.

JERRY BROWN: Good. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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