"The main thing we have to deal with in climate change is the skepticism, the denial and the cult-like behavior of the political lemmings that would take us over the cliff," Brown said at a high-profile conference on climate change at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
The Democratic governor said climate change has lengthened the state's fire season and quickened its snowmelt, affecting agriculture and taxing public infrastructure.
He acknowledged that Californians have been "squeezed" by the flagging economy, but he said investment is necessary to stem the effect of climate change. He is expected next year to propose a peripheral canal or another way to move water through or around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
"It will cost money," he said. "But if we don't do that and the levees collapse in one of these extreme events, we could run out of fresh water."
Brown championed environmental causes when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, and he has sought in his return to Sacramento to continue with the work of his Republican predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brown signed legislation in April requiring California utilities to obtain one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and he has said he will promote the creation of 20,000 new megawatts of renewable energy by that year.
Schwarzenegger, who signed Assembly 32, California's landmark greenhouse gas-reduction law, is scheduled to speak at Brown's conference this afternoon.
Brown's criticism was well-applauded at the invitation-only event.
"Ninety-seven percent of the scientists who research climate change are people who, from their own understanding of the science, are completely convinced that greenhouse gases are associated with climate change and global warming," he said. "But when you go into the political class, then it's a very different thing."
In a panel discussion with Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Brown was asked if people should be dissuaded from living in areas prone to environmental damage.
Brown said his house in the Oakland hills is near a fault line, in an area susceptible to mudslides and fires.
"But I figured at my age," he added, "I could take the risk."
PHOTO CREDIT: California Gov. Jerry Brown gives opening remarks at the Governor's Conference on Extreme Climate Risks and California's Future at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. The event includes Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)