Climate change science and government action: Interview on KPFK-FM Los Angeles

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CSW director Rick Piltz was interviewed on July 21 on the new federal scientific assessment of the effects of climate change on human health and welfare in the US, the Bush administration’s record, Al Gore’s speech on transforming the energy system, and the role of government.

The interview (slightly edited), on the morning “Uprising” program on KPFK-FM Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles, California, on July 21 (posted on Uprising Web site here):

From intro by interviewer Sonali Kolhatkar: Last week a government agency released a report concluding that climate change will pose â??substantial threatsâ? to human health in the coming decades. According to Climate Science Watch at the Government Accountability Project, the results of the report ought to be critical to EPAâ??s own endangerment finding for greenhouse gases.

Q: As I mentioned, itâ??s hardly news that climate change is going to have adverse health effects on the Earthâ??s population. But what is the real significance of this EPA report being released after months of stalling?

RP:  The federal Climate Change Science Program, which coordinates the work of a number of different agencies, released this new report â?? EPA was the lead agency â?? that analyzes the effects of climate change on human health and welfare. This an official government report, cleared at the highest levels, that summarizes the scientific evidence, with a focus specifically on the United States.

Itâ??s an important report. It comes to conclusions about the likely impacts of more severe heat waves on human health and mortality, the impacts of higher temperatures on degrading air quality from the stagnant air masses, contributing to more heart and lung illness, hurricane severity, sea level rise, coastal storm surge, flooding, drought, wildfires â?? thereâ??s a very wide range of likely impacts of global climate disruption on the United States.

This report shows that even for an advanced, wealthy society, climate change can have some very significant implications. And even the administrationâ??s own reports now are validating what has been known for years in the scientific community and that had come out in earlier studies and in national and international assessments.

I suppose we should consider it a step forward that theyâ??re no longer flat-out suppressing or censoring this material, as they tended to do earlier, but the problem remains that they donâ??t act on it.

Q: Was this sort of censorship the Bush administration had engaged in earlier the main reason you had resigned from the Climate Change Science Program?

RP: I just found the situation there unworkable. I was a senior associate in the office that coordinates the federal agencies that support research on climate and global environmental change. We were dealing with a very different situation when the Bush-Cheney regime change occurred in 2001. There had been major National Assessment of Climate Change impacts that had been done under the program and had come out â?? and that even back then came to some of the same sorts of findings that theyâ??re reporting now. They suppressed all official use of and reference to that report.

I found that there was an oil industry lobbyist in the White House environmental policy office who had a final clearance on any reports that came out of the program â?? reports to the public and to the Congress â?? and he would alter the text in such a way as to play down global warming.

If youâ??re interested in communication and in the credibility of the way the climate change research is communicated to wider audiences and to policymakers â?? they created a situation that was undermining the integrity of that. I stayed for quite a while, but very early in Bushâ??s second term, when it became evident that things were only likely to get worse, I resigned in protest and went public with some materials to show what was going on.

Q:  Letâ??s talk about what is expected from the EPA. The Supreme Court ruled that EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act in Massachusetts v. EPA last year, but it seems as if the EPA is essentially snubbing that.

RP: Yes, and has been essentially since the beginning of the Bush administration. In 1999, a number of environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity out there in California, filed a petition with EPA saying you need to look into regulating carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Q: So on the one hand the report that was just released shows the terrible effects that we can expect from climate change, and on the other hand the EPA is refusing to regulate greenhouse gases that can lead to those health effects.

RP: Thatâ??s right. For years they tied it up by saying the Clean Air Act doesnâ??t give us the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, the law is about air pollution. The Supreme Court ruled that under the clear language of the law, greenhouse gases are a form of air pollution. So EPA had to engage in a formal procedure to determine whether this pollution endangers public health or public welfare. They put teams of people together to do those studies, and theyâ??ve come out with two of them now, one of them directly a result of the Supreme Court ruling and the one that came out last week from the science side of the program.

They come to the obvious conclusions that, by any reasonable reading of the evidence, you have to say that unchecked global warming and climate disruption is going to endanger human health and human welfare in the United States. That is the finding that, according to the Supreme Court, is supposed to trigger EPA regulating emissions of greenhouse gases.

Thatâ??s the law. But the EPA Administrator has said we just donâ??t think that law is the proper way to go about it so we donâ??t intend to do that. If Congress wants us to do something, let them pass a different law.

Q: So it sounds as if they are trying to use a kind of technicality to get around doing what is going to be extremely unpopular among corporate America, which is to regulate greenhouse gases.

RP: Thatâ??s right. Donâ??t get me wrong, regulating greenhouse gases by this law, or any law, is going to be a very complicated enterprise. What this society is going to have to do to deal with limiting some of the unavoidable effects of global climate disruption and adapt to the impacts is going to be a very big deal. Thereâ??s no easy way to do it.

But they keep trying to push off into the future the steps to deal with it. And what weâ??re seeing, in terms of the corporate power behind it â?? I think thatâ??s fundamental, what youâ??ve touched on â?? clearly the administration since day one has been very attuned to and responsive to the corporate energy interests that do not want regulation in this area, because it has economic impacts on them. People like ExxonMobil have been the most visible, and some of the coal companies.

Theyâ??ve gone from supporting front organizations that are like a global warming denial machine, to now finally having to acknowledge that there is global warming â?? but still being in collusion with the effort to play down the impacts, to steer peopleâ??s attention away from the impacts. If you donâ??t tune in to the impacts of climate change, youâ??re not going to have the will to do whatâ??s necessary to deal with it.

Q: You mention that itâ??s going to be complex to regulate greenhouse gases. What do you make of what some are calling a historic speech by former Vice President Al Gore last week calling for the US to produce 100 per cent of our electricity from renewable energy and carbon-free sources in 10 years. The speech was called a generational challenge to re-power America and he says climate change problems can be viewed as an opportunity rather than a big problem that we should throw our hands up in the air over. What do you think of that?

RP: I think itâ??s a visionary speech. Itâ??s a visionary perspective. I have not seen detailed analytics to be able to tell you exactly how feasible it would be to go 100 per cent decarbonized energy in as little as 10 years. We got to the moon in 10 years when President Kennedy set that as a goal, but this is a much bigger deal than going to the moon. That didnâ??t affect the way of life of everybody in the country, and this is going to.

But Vice President Gore is clearly in the right direction, that we need to move toward renewable-based energy and that this is do-able, especially when the cost of fossil fuels is going sky high and is going to stay high. But you have to have a commitment to doing it. It doesnâ??t just happen in the marketplace. You need public policy and a strategy for making this happen and thatâ??s what Vice President Gore was calling for.

Q: Stepping back and looking at this more broadly, should the marketplace be the regulating factor when weâ??re looking at the fate of our planet? Should saving the planet be based on how much profit a corporation can make? Iâ??m referring for eample to the analysis of people like Joel Kovel who have critiqued Al Goreâ??s approach of keeping the capitalist system intact to deal with global warming, but it is the very nature of that system of capitalism that has led us to where we are today.

RP: Well, clearly the unregulated market is not getting us there, it is getting us in the wrong direction. You need a strong government regulatory policy on this, and Gore has pointed in the direction of it. A policy to have a moratorium on new coal-fired generating capacity, moving the transportation system over to electric vehicles that run on renewable energy. I think there is a role for the market, and if weâ??re going to do something in the next 10 years the market is not going to disappear. It can do certain things efficiently, if itâ??s under the rules that you need to accomplish your environmental goal, your societal goal.

So you have to have a philosophy of government that has a very strong activist government role in this. You canâ??t say, weâ??re going to shrink the government, weâ??re going to cut everybodyâ??s taxes, weâ??re not going to have the government do anything, weâ??re going to leave it to the private sector. That wonâ??t get you there. You need to have a much stronger proactive government role, and I donâ??t mean just in reducing greenhouse gases, but also in adapting.

There are going to be major disruptive impacts of climate change. Youâ??re going to experience them in the West with disruption of your water resources from the loss of mountain snowpack, youâ??re going to experience it in wildfires, low-lying coastal settlements in various parts of the country are going to be hammered by storms and sea level rise and storm surge, people who are vulnerable to health effects and who donâ??t have health insurance, the poor, elderly people, young children.

Q: Time for just one more question. Do you foresee a more responsive EPA under either an Obama or a McCain presidency?

RP: Well, I donâ??t think it can get any worse, with the agency being under siege and under the wrong kind of political control for the last eight years. But I think itâ??s really important to look at the candidates. My organization doesnâ??t electioneer. But what is their conception of the role of government vis-Ã -vis getting this done? Are they willing to support putting major federal resources into preparedness, to limit the effects of climate change and to move us to a new energy system?  Itâ??s going to require strong policy, strong leadership, a lot of resources, a lot of regulatory activity. Is their philosophy of government such that itâ??s going to make that possible? I think you have to evaluate the situation using those kinds of criteria.     

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