The Trump Presidency's Potential Impact On Climate Change

Feb 15, 2017
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of Donald Trump's many famous tweets dates back to 2012, when he wrote, the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive. That tweet came up in the confirmation hearings for President Trump's nominees for secretary of state, secretary of the interior and secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency. Climate scientists and environmentalists are concerned about the Trump administration's impact on climate-related research and action.

My guest, Andrew Revkin, is senior reporter for climate and related issues at ProPublica. He wrote for The New York Times for 21 years, mostly about climate and environmental issues, and created the Times blog "Dot Earth." He's also written about the stroke he had in 2011 and how being a science reporter affected how he processed it. We'll talk about that a little later. Let's start with Scott Pruitt, President Trump's nominee to head the EPA. Pruitt is the attorney general of Oklahoma and, in that capacity, has led or taken part in 14 lawsuits against the EPA.

Andrew Revkin, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how would you describe Pruitt's position on climate change?

ANDREW REVKIN: In the hearing, he was very technical and precise, even in his imposition. You know, he said climate's warming. He diverted from some of the statements that President Trump had made when he was campaigning, you know, that make it seem silly or the conspiracy and all that. He didn't go along with any of that. It was a very concrete and legalistic affirmation of what the Supreme Court has said that the EPA, the agency he would be running, needs to do, which is to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the statutes as they exist.

And in his previous, you know, discussions of this out in the field or in Oklahoma, he has had this approach to it that's much more like a lot of conservatives, which is that it's kind of a cult out there, those who are pushing for action. Or it's almost like a religious belief. Or...

GROSS: He used the word religious belief.

REVKIN: Yeah. There is - has been a tendency to say that this proclamation of - that it's a crisis and that we need to respond to with dramatic changes in how we live, which is what would happen if we move away from fossil fuels, you know, rapidly. They really do underpin everything. It is driven by belief more than by the science.

GROSS: President Trump has said he wanted to get rid of the EPA in almost every form with only little tidbits left. What has President Trump done so far that affects the climate and environment?

REVKIN: Well, the first piece I did on this at ProPublica stepped back and kind of said Trump can do a lot more to undo President Obama's climate policies than he can actually affect things that will change climate outcomes. The trends that are underway in the economy and in how we use energy are there. And they're actually mostly not malleable to any president's moves. President Obama benefited from the emergence of shale-produced gas, natural gas, which supplanted a lot of coal and is the dominant reason that emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, dropped during his term. It wasn't because he waved a magic wand.

And in the same way, Trump can't wave a magic wand and order miners back into mines that are increasingly automated or where the coal is coming from giant automated excavations in the West or where, for many reasons, we're moving away from coal as a fuel.

GROSS: I've been reading about how the Trump administration has deleted nearly all references to climate change programs from the White House and State Department websites, how there have been gag orders on people who work at the EPA. What can you tell us about that?

REVKIN: I've been doing some reporting on both the web-scrubbing and the prospect of data going away. It seems to me that the bigger issue will be budgets and programs. It's programs that generate data. And things like satellite programs and technologies - if the budgets are cut for those things - there's one center for NASA in New York City that does most of the NASA climate modeling. And, you know, I imagine there's more than one conservative congress person who thinks now is the moment, with Trump in office, to - hey, can we sort of trim that off, that lab? To me, it's programs to watch more than websites.

GROSS: My understanding is that the backups were on government sites. And they were afraid the information on government sites would be taken down, so they were backing it up on private sites so that individual scientists would have safe copies outside of government control. Am I misunderstanding that?

REVKIN: Oh, no. No, you're not misunderstanding it. I've talked to a lot of scientists at agencies. And I'm not discounting that there's value in trying to do that if that is a worry for some particular person or some particular data trove. What I've heard from people I talk to is that there are other issues that you don't want to miss in the meantime.

GROSS: So what else are you hearing from sources at the EPA about their concerns - and NASA about their concerns?

REVKIN: You know, it does circle back to budgets so often. There are these huge tussles over the NASA budget, which is a big budget, you know. It's way over - I think it's like $18 billion a year. And there was someone who was part of the Trump campaign who was pushing for, you know, moving all this climate science out of NASA - that doesn't need to happen there - and making sure NASA's focused on its missions to other planets and back to the moon or that kind of

thing. And of course, he is a lobbyist for companies that build rockets and stuff then. So it's the budget that would shift. That would really - that's what kills programs and kills initiatives and can be a problem. There is a concern that if someone says NASA shouldn't be doing climate science - but if they say - well, we're just going to shift that over to, let's say, NOAA, the oceanic and atmospheric administration, that doesn't really work well because NOAA doesn't necessarily have the skill sets to do some of the work that would be easier done at NASA.

GROSS: So what is NASA's role on climate science? And why is NASA especially well-equipped to do climate science research?

REVKIN: Well, because it's the one chunk of the government that really, from the get-go, was looking at phenomena on the scale of planets. And the thing that distinguishes climate change, global warming, from most conventional pollution problems or environmental problems, it is truly global.

A molecule of carbon dioxide emitted from a chimney in a smokestack in Beijing or from a Boston taxicab doesn't know where it came from and that it gets - it's a well-mixed gas, as they say. It permeates the whole atmosphere. So it's building slowly around the planet from all these sources. And if you're not studying the whole planet, you're not going to get that picture. And that's what NASA was - its science side was designed to do. And that's kind of why it's completely normal for it to be the place that's looking, at that scale, at these changes.

GROSS: So you just met with someone who might be very important in the Trump administration. This is Will Happer, a Princeton physicist who's one of the two scientists who've met with Donald Trump and are presumed to be candidates for the position of his science adviser. So what is Will Happer's position on climate change?

REVKIN: Well, he thinks it's fantasy, fiction, a tendency toward apocalyptic thinking on the part of environmentalists. And he thinks some scientists have bought into that. Now, when I interviewed him, it's so clear that his own beliefs about climate science are just such an outlier. Just to cast him in context, he's convinced that the warming from a build-up - doubled CO2 amount in the atmosphere, he doesn't see any chance it'll be higher than 1 degree, which is - you know, that would be completely manageable for humanity, say, by 2100. The range that the IPCC, this Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has come up with, that's been pretty robust for decades, is from, like, 1 to 4 or so degrees, is the possible warming from a doubled amount of this gas, CO2, in the air. And that doubling could come - well, is almost sure to come late in this century without dramatic changes in our energy patterns. So when he says 1 degree is the worst it could be, that's a complete outlier. And he's also talked about...

GROSS: 'Cause other people are saying that's the best it's going to be.

REVKIN: Yeah. And that...

GROSS: That's the best-case scenario not the worst-case scenario.

REVKIN: Yeah. And there are other people who you would term skeptics - or what - the term of art these days is lukewarmers, people who...

GROSS: (Laughter) Really?

REVKIN: ...Have attachments to fossil fuel industry or just, you know, are libertarians and work for organizations that have a limited-government approach. They say no, global warming is happening. Humans are involved, but it's not as bad as we think. And, you know, we should do some things. Bjorn Lomborg is sort of the poster child for this kind of moderate approach. But he and the others in that realm are so much further toward the core of the thinking from what Dr. Happer outlined that it's really kind of remarkable to see it.

He also, of course, talks about the greening effect of CO2.

GROSS: What is that?

REVKIN: Well, carbon dioxide is plant food, you know, with other things - water and nutrients. And the world is greening. Satellite studies have shown that there is a fertilization effect of carbon dioxide on the world's forests and other places. The tundra up north is getting greener. So that's all right, you know, yes. But the science also shows that there are limits on the benefits that can come for agriculture, for example, from warming. If you have a really hot, record-hot summer - peaks, spikes - that can kill off a corn crop if it's at the wrong time. So it gets tougher and tougher later in the century to see those benefits even remotely outweighing the harms.

And keep in mind, there are other things going on. When we were talking, Happer said, you know, earth has had these times back in its long history before man when CO2 levels were way higher and it was lush and abundant. And I said yeah, but there's another thing going on, sea-level rise. And there weren't coastal cities back in the Carboniferous Period, you know, these eras of - when dinosaurs were prowling around. And we now have huge investments in places that will be relentlessly more vulnerable to rising seas.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Revkin. He's a senior reporter for climate and related issues at ProPublica. He joined in 2016 after 21 years of writing for The New York Times, where he had his blog "Dot Earth."

We're going to take a short break and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "HOW SOME JELLYFISH ARE BORN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Revkin. He's a senior reporter for climate and related issues at ProPublica. He joined in 2016 after 21 years of writing for The New York Times, largely about climate and environmental issues.

So President Trump has said that he wants to pull out of the Paris Agreement, which regulates greenhouse gases. So say the U.S. does pull out of that agreement, what would the effects of that be?

REVKIN: Well, the agreement is an interesting thing. And it's been a really long learning curve for the governments of the world. They started back in Rio in 1992 thinking - it was very aspirational back then 'cause it was the first, you know, and George H.W. Bush signed an agreement. But it pledged to avoid dangerous climate change without actually saying what is - how much is too much. And then there was this push to make it more rigorous. We need targets and timetables. And that kind of crested and then fell apart in Copenhagen in 2009.

And finally, the road from Copenhagen to Paris, from 2009 to 2015, was largely President Obama and his counterparts in China kind of laid the groundwork for a new way to get at this, which is - countries all come to the table. There's no binding targets and timetables. It's a reporting mechanism. And you come, you say this is what we're doing in our national interests to cut our emissions, and here's how much money we plan on pledging to poorer countries to help them withstand climate impacts and change their energy systems.

And it's the first time in all the time I've been covering this process that the process actually reflects the huge scope of this issue, which is, you know, it took a hundred years for the world to get carbonized - to get, you know, really built and industrialized and dependent on carbon fuels, coal and oil and gas. And it's going to take time to get off of that and especially as the world is still growing. You know, we're heading toward 9 billion people. A couple billion people are still living in utter poverty.

So here comes Trump. And one thing I've learned about him from people who are around on the environmental side - they say, don't look for the tea leaves here in this noisy transition. You know - who's coming in? What are they doing? Which websites? Look for what he said - he pledged to do in the campaign and you will see what he will be dead set on doing going forward.

And one of the things he pledged - it was an energy speech out in the Dakotas early last year - he said we're going to get out of Paris, and we're not going to pay money to the U.N. That could end up being a more significant impact than anything he'll do at the EPA because the trends that are underway in the American energy sector are kind of, like, there already.

But pulling out of Paris, even though it's non-binding and all that, sends a signal to poorer countries, especially, you know, when it's coupled with Trump's kind of fossil fuel-friendly rhetoric, that, you know - why should they work harder to get off their fossil fuels when they really need energy so badly, so much more than we do because we're so suffused with it already? And that impact could be there. But I've talked to a bunch of people who track this closely, and they say - here's the way they put it. Four years of Trump - no impact really in terms of overall the climate journey. Eight years - then it starts to - there could be some lasting reverberations.

And the process is very delicate because one of the things people forget about Paris is not just about greenhouse gases. It is about money. A hundred billion a year, theoretically, flowing, starting in 2020, from rich countries to poor countries. And, you know, if Trump pulls the plug on the U.S. contribution there, that is the thing that might really erode confidence quickest of all. And already, the poorest developing countries have been expressing a lot of - basically, they're saying we need as much verifiability on the money as you guys say you want on our emissions of these gases. And that could really be the thing that breaks it down.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Revkin. He's a senior reporter for climate and related issues at ProPublica.

So I want to talk about something that happened to you. You had a stroke in 2011. You were jogging at the time. You knew something had gone wrong. And I'm going to ask you about this because you're a person who experienced it, and you're a science writer so you were kind of looking at this (laughter), I think, from a distance as well as from within your body. So what were your first symptoms? You were jogging. You knew something had gone wrong.

REVKIN: Yeah. Well, it was pretty straightforward. My older son, who had come back from military service - it was total, you know, macho guy - running in the woods on a hot day and up a hill and really rugged. And I'm totally overheated and overloaded. And my left eye started saying the world paisley. It was like - you know, literally, it looked like I was looking through a paisley curtain. My right eye said the world is just normal. And I - it didn't shake off. You know, I thought - well, maybe it's just the light in the woods. And then we realized - I said Daniel, we got to go back to the house.

And I wasn't quite thinking stroke yet, but I took a shower and I called my doctor. And they said, well, you should go to emergency room. And before I left the house, I took - I'm one of those - well, now I'm 60. But I was one of those mid-50s people who take a - doctor said take a baby aspirin a day, so I had some baby aspirin around. And by then, my brain was kind of telling me, yeah, this could be a stroke. And so I took some baby aspirin, like four or five - I can't remember how many. It turned out that was a really lucky thing because it probably saved me from a much worse outcome.

GROSS: So you went to the hospital. And they were going to send you home.

REVKIN: Yeah, that was frustrating (laughter).

GROSS: Why were they going to send you home? And why did you insist, you can't do that, I have to stay?

REVKIN: (Laughter) Well, I was kind of like, because I didn't have the stroke yet, basically. You know, they saw the visual symptoms, but they weren't thinking is this the prelude to something else? And it was - in my head, it was, you know, I've written about medical stuff too. And in my head, I had this line from my doctor from months ago, who had said, totally unrelated to stroke risk, he said, you know, this is around the time of life where you should get your ultrasound of your carotid arteries.

GROSS: And that's the big artery in your neck, right?

REVKIN: Yeah, you know, 'cause some people get constrictions there from plaque buildup and stuff.

GROSS: Is that in your neck? Do I have that right?

REVKIN: Yeah, oh yeah. So I said, hey, why don't you do a carotid ultrasound, just because it was in my head to say that. And then they called my eye doctor just to see if they thought that was a good idea. Like, so they still were kind of resisting. And then they did it. And then the technician had this wand, and she's kind of looking at my neck. And she had to call someone else over and she said, you know, I can't find your carotid artery. And the reason she couldn't find it was there was no blood flow in it.

It was blocked by this - it's called a carotid dissection. Dissection we think of as, like, you know, something being cut. But it was the lining of the artery, kind of like the lining of a hose, got sort of - if it came free, it could block the flow of water in a hose. And that's what was happening in my neck. And they said, OK, we're going to send you down to another hospital. And it was overnight that night that I woke up the next morning having had a minor stroke.

And again, luckily, the aspirin might have prevented a worse kind of clotting and outcome.

GROSS: So tell me, when you got in touch with your mortality 'cause of the stroke and you realized, I am going to die one day and I can be, you know, cognitively diminished or physically diminished by physical happenings in my body - so, you know, as a journalist, you're looking at the long-term future. You're looking at, like, climate change, global warming, what does that mean in the next hundred years and in the next thousand years?

So do you find yourself being any more worried now than you were, say, four years ago about the future of our climate and our planet?

REVKIN: I think, in a way, I'm not worried. It's a long conversation to have on that. But I think if we sustain the basic capacity to observe and understand change - and even Will Happer, despite his rejection of climate science, says he's convinced that's a priority. If we can keep that and keep the capacity to share and shape ideas globally, then I think we have a good chance of navigating this century and onward, you know, with a reasonable outcome.

It's possible. I wouldn't say probably but possible.

GROSS: Andrew Revkin, thank you so much for talking with us.

REVKIN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Andrew Revkin is a senior reporter for ProPublica covering climate issues. After we take a short break, we'll listen back to an interview with Lieutenant General Harold Moore, who died last week. He led the first and bloodiest land battle between American and North Vietnamese troops. John Powers will review a new documentary about street cats in Istanbul. And Ken Tucker will review a new album by singer Tift Merritt. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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