As the UN’s climate change conference opens in Paris on Nov. 30, California Gov. Jerry Brown’s holier-than-thou pronouncements on climate change will be the gospel of choice.

At the site of real and immediate tragedy, an old man comes, wielding not a sword to protect civilization from ghastly present threats but to preach the sanctity of California’s green religion. The Paris Climate Change Conference offers a moment of triumph for the 77-year-old Jerry Brown, the apogee of his odd public odyssey.

Jerry Brown has always been essentially two people—one the calculating, Machiavellian politician, the other the dour former Jesuit who publically dismisses worldly pleasures for austere dogma. Like a modern-day Torquemada, he is warning the masses that if they fail to adhere in all ways of the new faith or face, as he suggested recently humanity’s “extinction.”

Brown is important because many other green cheerleaders like Al Gore grate on the public, in part because of rampant greed and a penchant for unsupportable predictions. In contrast, Brown presents, with some justification, the very model of enlightened leadership and smart management, certainly in comparison with the ideologues and public employee pawns who dominate his party, and the blatant wealthy hypocrites who rule the green universe.

Increasingly, Brown has become the patron saint of climate change, while at the same time exposing the effort’s flaws and contradictions most clearly. Railing against the satanic greenhouse gases, Brown, one supposes unwittingly, seems unconcerned he is waging what amounts to a war against the state’s own middle and working classes. His intolerance of dissent—albeit less extreme than some—reflects the current trajectory of environmentalism, which increasingly seeks to silence and even criminalize those who dispute their analyses and prescriptions.

Like the Spanish father of the Inquisition, Brown has it in for anyone who dissents from his “God is not mocked,” as he suggested recently, attacking critics of his policies as “falsifying the scientific record,” something climate change advocates have also been caught doing on more than one occasion. Brown dismisses all climate skeptics, even those who admit some carbon-caused warming,  as “a well funded cult.”

Like a religious adept, Brown shows his need to link everything to one sin—greenhouse gas emissions—to explain virtually everything from wildfires to the current drought on climate change, although with little support from scientists who study such things. As was common in the worst aspects of the medieval Catholic Church, one increasingly cannot dissent in any way from revealed doctrine without being essentially evil.

For many progressives, California represents “a beacon of hope.” Its “comeback” has been dutifully noted and applauded by left-wing economist Paul Krugman, and Michael Kinsley and the Washington Post’s Chris Cilia have even suggested that Brown should run for president—at the ripe age of 77.

These fans miss a big part of the reality. Outsiders think of California as a prosperous place that mints billionaires, but overall the state’s economic recovery has done little for many, if not most, state residents. Even with the boom in Silicon Valley, roughly one in three Californians live check to check, the state has higher rate of poverty than Mississippi, as well as one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients. Among the emerging Latino majority, a prime Brown constituency, the state’s cost-adjusted poverty rate is more than 33 percent, compared to just 22.7 percent in Texas, a state often derided as unenlightened and cruel.

During this “boom,” most California blue-collar workers in farming, fishing, and forestry have experienced actual average wage decreases. Employment in fields such as construction and manufacturing remain well below their 2007 levels. Much of this has to do with environmental regulation, which has raised energy costs almost twice those of nearby competitors and also helped raise housing prices to an unsustainable level.

Once the beacon of opportunity, California is becoming a graveyard of middle-class aspiration, particularly for the young. In a recent survey of states where “the middle class is dying,” based on earning trajectories for middle-income cohorts, Business Insider ranked California first, with shrinking middle-class earnings and the third-highest proportion of wealth concentrated in the top 20 percent.

Most hurt, though, are the poor. California is home to a remarkable 77 of the country’s  297 most “economically challenged,” cities based on levels of poverty and employment, according to a recent USC study; altogether these cities have a population of more than 12 million. Some stressed cities exist cheek-to-jowl with the state’s uber-rich—Oakland, Los Angeles, as well as Coachella, near Palm Springs. Most others are in the poorer, more heavily Latino interior, places like Riverside, Stockton, and Vallejo. Journalists who come to California to praise the governor may think it’s still “California Dreamin’” but for all too many, particularly away from the coast (PDF), it’s more like The Grapes of Wrath.

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Originally published in the Daily Beast