NRDC Founder on Why the US Fails to Take Action on Climate Change

Gus Speth, NRDC founder, book author, law professor, and former academic dean, discusses the root causes of the collective lack of action on climate change and the environment in an interview with Bulletin of Atomic Scientists1. He starts by pointing out that the United States, one of the world's wealthiest countries is losing economic ground. He points out that this applies only to Gross Domestic Product but on on other quality of life indicators -- economic equality, life expectancy, and the environment. If the world continues its current path, he says, climate change will inevitably get worse. Importantly, the impact of continued environmental degradation is entwined with economic decline -- but not in the way that prominent messengers would have you believe.

True, climate change is difficult for individuals to come to terms with, especially if it's not directly impacting them. But misunderstanding of the problem is amplified by what he calls "manufactured reaction". While some people frame it as a science conundrum, it's insead politics and lack of leadership that's paving the path to continued calamity, Speth says:

"Anxiety about acting on climate change was successfully injected into the Tea Party movement; and, as a result, a large percentage of the Republicans who came into office after the 2010 election were people who were on the record as climate deniers, and now the Congress is full of these people..."

Speth points out how the difference between politics now and the 1970's hampers action:

"American politics since, say, 1980, has gone seriously downhill. The level of public discourse on issues has deteriorated; the willingness of politicians to take up tough issues has deteriorated; and it's just a very different scene today in our country....

In the 1970s we passed a host of environmental measures, almost always with serious bipartisan support. There wasn't really a polarization on environmental issues between the two parties, certainly not like what we have today. Politics was far more civil, and it was far more bipartisan. For example, Senator Edmund Muskie, a Democrat, was a champion of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, but that legislation was also made possible by people like John Sherman Cooper, a Republican, and Howard Baker, also a Republican, and others. I think we've lost a lot of ground politically since that time."

He notes that the Tea Party is a force because of their ability to communicate ideas to the public. On the other hand, effective to communication about climate change and the environment has suffered because no one is communicating the most important ideas to the public, not the media; not the president, not environmental groups. On the media, he says:

"...the news media, when they report these events, aren't taking the time to talk to climate scientists about what's going on. The most they do is ask a meteorologist to comment, rather than digging in to get the real story...The coverage of these issues in Europe and Japan is much better, but the US mainstream media won't get into it. I think they're scared of losing viewers, frankly."

On what Obama needs to do:

"I think that he has got to find a way of using the scientific community, and the extraordinary strength of American and international science on climate change, to go to the public and talk about it. He's got to bring out what has happened in terms of this denial syndrome and expose it."

On policy, he says:

"We should establish a declining cap on the carbon entering the economy, sell the allowances for the carbon that does enter, and rebate the proceeds to the American public on a per capita basis."

Speth notes that major environmental groups have become close to Washington, so they now take an incremental approach constrained by what they think politicians can bear. Rather than to setting goals based on what really needs to be done, for instance, on climate change action, action and money today focuses on not losing ground from previous actions. Speth says that environmental law in its current form exists in a silo. Instead, it needs to become incorporated with tax law, corporate law, and laws that impact consumers.

Speth also discusses the "growth imperative" - the fact that politicians and corporations focus on growth, but what they're really talking about is profits. Talk about "the economy" is usually based on the crude GDP measure. However it's a myth that profit creates jobs. In fact our current cycle is one of skyrocketing profits while swaths of workers are laid off. By muddling growth and profits with individual well-being, politicians and corporations can continue to reject investments in clean energy and regulatory attempts to force cleaner manufacturing and production.

There's much more to the interview. Some points are quite obvious to you or me perhaps, but what I like is how the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Speth cut through the morass of excuses, hand-wringing, and finger-pointing that clutter discussions of climate change and the environment. They clearly focus on the underlying problems with law, economics and politics that smother critical change -- change not as a promise but as action.

1 Gus Speth: Communicating Environmental Risks in an Age of Disinformation" doi: 10.1177/0096340211413559 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists July/August 2011 vol. 67 no. 4 1-7 Article highlights here; full article (subscription) here


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