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Coup de foudre for Governor Brown at « Normale Sup' »

Jerry Brown, gouverneur de Californie, lors d’un discours le 15 mai 2015, à Sacramento. PHOTO JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

In the Frame of COP 21

When Jerry Brown, governor of California, announced that he would attend the COP 21 Climate Conference in Paris, his friend Jean-Pierre Dupuy, professor of philosophy at Stanford, -the two had met 40 years ago, through Ivan Illich- suggested that he adds an event at the Ecole normale supérieure to his calendar. On December 9, took place an unusual encounter between Governor Brown and the students and professors of Ecole normale supérieure –or ENS, the prestigious academic institution where, among others, Pasteur, Jaurès, Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida studied and thrived. Created during the French Revolution to train the nation’s teachers according to the critical and secular spirit of the new Republic, it prides itself for « two centuries of excellence », and for receiving more Nobel Prizes in Physics and more Field medals in Mathematics per capita than any university in the world.


Brown started his speech slowly, almost humbly. In front of the overcrowded conference hall, he admitted that « climate change is dividing the USA: when Obama suggested to reduce carbone emissions, the states were split by half. » Switching gears, he asserted humorously: « In my state, we are a little enlightened . » Then, reaching full speed, he threw in efficient formulas: « California has the boldest, the most integrated strategy. But we don’t want to be the exception, we want to be the norm. » Brown went on presenting the situation in a new light: « Climate change is not an event, it does not appear in the daily news -it builds up by moving slowly. In order to solve it, you need a very broad coalition and collective commitments. Thus, it will become a potential pathway for activism. » At that moment, the room resonated from the voluntarist accents delivered by the governor -a man two generations older then the students-, and it brought back the echoes of other provocative statements expressed in the same amphitheater over the past decades.

Although commentators had already been prompt to dismiss the Paris conference as inefficient, Brown strongly supported it: « COP 21 has attracted reporters from all over the world to Paris and offered a way to link up with other states, in a global agreement. This is a unique occasion to put climate change at the top of the agenda. » Shrewdly understriking the « paradoxical situation » in which, « despite all tensions, there has been great collaboration between the US and Russia », the governor launched a final appeal : « Some time ago, terrorist attacks were unimaginable. Now, we are working together and our Memorandum of Understanding[1] has already been signed by 123 subnationals. This challenge is totally unprecedented and, against the inertia of system, there’s a great value to this commitment which is changing our way of thinking. »

[1] the Under 2 MoU to keep warming under 2 degrees and CO2 emissions under 2 tons per year & per person

For the occasion, ENS had selected some of its finest minds to challenge the californian governor: physicists, philosophers, economists, biologists, mathematicians of all ages and all nationalities rivaled in supplying daunting arguments to confront Brown, sometimes even harshly: « Why didn’t you mention the mechanisms at play in the oceans and their capacity of carbon-dioxyde absorption? How much are you involving younger generations ? Can we try to go beyond the states macro-agreement ? What about replacing fossil-fueled powerplants ? Will you be developing public transportation in California ? Could you start thinking within the theme of catastrophy ? » Jerry Brown calmly answered most of the points, did not hesitate to stress the absolute necessity of densifying the cities’ centers, leaving some uncertainties about his position on nuclear energy, or the influence of politicians in the game between supply and demand.

from left to right: Frédéric Worms, Daniel Cohen, Valérie Masson-Delmotte, governor Jerry Brown, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Sébastien Balibar

In a country disillusioned with mediocre politicians, and depressed after the constant rise of unemployment, the two waves of terrorist attacks, the immigration crisis, and even the first round of regional elections which just gave a majority to the right wing National Front (up to 30% among the 18-25 years old), the relaxed style, the down-to-earth expertise, the unabashed commitment of the passionate and wise US governor produced a kind of shock within the population of ENS, unaccustomed to such casual behavior –so different from the french stiffness of . Students and teachers adopted Jerry Brown -committed intellectual, pragmatic thinker, envisioned pioneer- as one of theirs.

from left to right: Frédéric Worms, Daniel Cohen, Valérie Masson-Delmotte, governor Jerry Brown, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Sébastien Balibar

« You know the numbers, I have the answers» had been Brown’s opening sentence in his initial address. And indeed, the California governor left his audience with the feeling that he might be one of the only leader able to give global change the top place on his agenda. Although this confrontation brought together two cultures, four generations, many disciplines and very different educational models, something rather unusual emerged throughout the evening: Was it a mutual commitment to education? The common ground found casually, in a rare cohesive moment, at a time of shared terror? Was it Brown’s own charism which could overcome the overall despair? His surprising stand for regulation, as an engine of innovation? Later into the night, after a warm private dinner, apparently delighted to recall his classics education, Jerry Brown answered a few more questions and lingered on, in the critical and secular atmosphere of Ecole normale supérieure, throwing in some latin quotes, before he reluctantly left the cloister of excellence on the Left Bank of Paris to fly back home the next morning.

par Annie Cohen-Solal