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As Congress Slashes EPA, Climate Funding, Author Mark Hertsgaard on “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth”

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The budget deal approved by Congress cuts $1.6 billion from the budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—a 16 percent decrease; reduces funding for a planned climate desk within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and eliminates the position of assistant to the president for energy and climate change. Ever since taking control of the House, Republican lawmakers have taken a number of steps to curtail the Obama administration’s efforts to deal with climate change. We speak with investigative reporter Mark Hertsgaard, author of the new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to the latest on climate change and the budget. Last night Congress approved cutting $1.6 billion from the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency — a 16 percent reduction. The budget deal also cuts funding for a planned climate desk within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and eliminates the position of assistant to the president for energy and climate change.

Ever since winning control of the House, Republican lawmakers have taken a number of steps to curtail the Obama administration’s efforts to deal with climate change. The attack on climate change science began in January, when House Republicans shuttered the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming. The House also passed a bill to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, but the bill died in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s climate policy is coming under criticism on an international level. Last week Obama’s lead envoy on climate change, Todd Stern, dismissed the need for a binding treaty to curb global warming. In an interview with Bloomberg, Stern said, quote, “I don’t think it’s necessary [that] there be internationally binding emission caps as long as you’ve got national laws and regulations. What I am saying is it’s not doable,” he said.

Well, to talk more about these issues, we’re joined here in New York by Mark Hertsgaard, author of the new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. Mark is an investigative reporter who’s worked for more than 20 years on climate change, the environmental correspondent now for The Nation magazine.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Congratulations —


AMY GOODMAN: — on your book, Mark, and your daughter’s sixth birthday, though I think she accomplished that, not you.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Oh, yeah, she did.

AMY GOODMAN: But you did write it for her.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Yeah, she was the inspiration for this, because she had just been born when I was in London and doing a story for Vanity Fair about climate change, right after Hurricane Katrina, actually. And there has been a paradigm shift in this problem that came through to me that day.

I was interviewing David King, the chief science adviser of the British government. And all the time I had been covering this issue during the '90s and in the new century, you know, climate change was always seen as this very distant problem — very dangerous, but very distant — and, critically, one we could prevent if we got our act together. And by 2005, David King and the scientists were saying, “No, sorry, we got that wrong. Climate change came a hundred years sooner than we expected.” And, of course, the big — the most fiendish aspect of that is that once you have triggered climate change, you cannot turn it off quickly. And that's just because of the laws of physics and chemistry, that, you know, the CO2 stays in the atmosphere forever. And so, he said that even if we stopped all emissions tonight, which, clearly, as you show from the Todd Stern quote, we are hardly doing, but even if we did that, the temperatures will not stop going up for another 30 years.

So, when I walked out of his office that day, I realized that this was going to hit my daughter’s generation very hard. And that was where this book began, just more of a father’s quest to try and figure out how can my daughter live through this? What is it going to mean that the temperatures are going to go up for 50 years? What kind of extreme weather is that going to
put into play? And above all, what do we do about it?

And there are solutions. There are things we can do. But I do think that it is a terrible crime that has been committed against my daughter and the rest of Generation Hot, the two billion kids who have been born around the world since we were put on notice about this problem in June of 1988 by Jim Hansen, the NASA scientist, who went to the Senate and said, “Look, this is happening. If we don’t do something about it, we’re threatening the habitability of this planet.” We did not do something about it, for all the reasons that you guys have reported, the disinformation from the oil companies and so forth. And now my daughter and her generation are going to have to live with this. And I think that’s a terrible crime.

JUAN GONZALEZ: All the extreme weather in the past years, there’s a lot of debate as to whether we could reasonably link that to climate change, whether it’s the heat wave in New York City, record heat in 2010, the floods in Pakistan, the weather problems in Europe in 2003. Your sense of that, the individual events versus the general trend?

MARK HERTSGAARD: There’s only debate about that in the United States of America. And we — you know, I get this all the time now, where people say, “Well, you know, there’s all this disagreement.” There is not any disagreement, unless you are watching Fox News and listening to the House Republican Party. Look at the countries in Europe, for example. Conservative parties are running Britain, Germany, France. None of those conservative political parties have questioned the science behind climate change for 15 years. And they all, in terms of their policies, they want to do far more than Barack Obama does. So, we need to understand that the scientific community is clear on this, and has been clear on this for a long time.

But all the things you mentioned, Juan, those extreme weather events, of course you can never 100 percent tie those to global warming, and no scientist would say that you could. But they certainly part of this pattern. And speaking of that terrible heat wave that you all suffered here in New York last summer, 2010, it was a record, right? Pretty uncomfortable, right? Well, when my daughter is my age, that is going to be a normal summer here. You’re going to have that every other year. And the point is that we have got to figure out ways to prepare for that, as well as turn down the heat. But the challenge now on climate change has been transformed, because of this paradigm shift in the problem, because it’s no longer off in the distance. We’ve got to stop climate change, but we’ve also got to live through it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Mark Hertsgaard. His book is called Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. So, the tsunami and the earthquake happens in Japan, and the nuclear power plants are, to say the least, highly damaged, in partial meltdown, if not more than that. So, the whole question of nukes come up.


AMY GOODMAN: Nuclear power plants. You wrote an article called “Obama Loves Nukes.” There are many, like George Monbiot, a well-known British columnist, who is saying nukes are the answer, still, despite what’s happening in Japan, despite what’s threatened.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Absolutely, and most scientists say the same thing. David King in Britain says that. Jim Hansen, the NASA scientist who I just I mentioned — I was on a panel with him last night — he supports nukes, as well.

I’ll just tell you a little story. The very first book I wrote was called Nuclear Inc. And the very first time I heard the phrase “global warming” was in 1981 from a nuclear power industry executive, who told me, at a time when all the environmental activists were saying, “Oh, nuclear is dead because of Three Mile Island and no orders.” And I was investigating the industry. And he said, “Oh, no, we’re not dead. You just wait. Wait ’til the turn of the century, and people are going to realize how bad coal is for them and how bad it is for something called global warming.” I said, “What is global warming?” This was 1981. And the nuclear industry was saying then that global warming was going to save their bacon. It is very ironic to me to see George Monbiot and other environmentalists now bringing that prophecy to bear — to fruit.

The reality is, going nuclear will make climate change worse, not better. And that is not because of safety or proliferation. You know, if nuclear worked the way that it’s supposed to in theory, that’s why Jim Hansen is in favor of it. But look at the economics. It costs so much money to build a plant, it takes so long to build that plant, that by the time you’ve got it online, if you invested that same amount of money in energy efficiency, you would get seven times more greenhouse gas emission reductions. So, let’s spend the money where it’s going to give us the biggest bang for the buck, and that is not nuclear. I’m not saying this for any ideological reasons. I’m not opposed to it, in general. But how it works in reality, this is not the answer.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, not to mention that, but then the potential for one catastrophic accident destroying all of the supposed good that those nuclear plants would have created in less use of fossil fuels, because, clearly, the industry is not that old, but we’ve already been hit by several major calamities in the nuclear power industry. As you proliferate more and more reactors, you’re going to have more and more accidents.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Well, that is true, but I do think — and this is where the Monbiots and Jim Hansens and David King have a point. Let’s bear in mind that coal-fired electricity, which is the major source of electricity around the world, is killing tens of thousands of people every year. Now. Not theoretical, not sort of if something goes wrong at Fukushima. Now. So, it is true that we need to get off of — nuclear is not an answer, but the real challenge is to get off of coal. But still, energy efficiency and green technologies can do that, if we started to put the money into that rather than the other.

AMY GOODMAN: Fracking. Last night I was at an event at the Cooper Union in New York. Large groups of people, not only in New York State, trying to protect the New York watershed, but all over the country, deeply concerned about this new form of —- what the industry says is dealing with global warming, is getting gas another way -—

MARK HERTSGAARD: Yes, of course they do.

AMY GOODMAN: — even though more methane is released, it’s even more destructive than coal. But when we talk about, well, coal, gas, nuclear, what about — when we talk about the alternatives, it’s never actually hashed out. The media hardly talks about what is energy efficiency, what are renewables, what are the possibilities in this country for solar, for wind and more.

MARK HERTSGAARD: And there’s great success stories to be told. The fact is, is now most of — and this is true especially globally, but also here in the United States —- that the new electricity that’s coming is coming from wind, in particular, somewhat from solar. And this is why nuclear is basically a sunset industry. All the new money is going into wind. And energy efficiency is an enormously profitable -—

AMY GOODMAN: What do mean, wind?

MARK HERTSGAARD: Wind power. Wind power.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, though?

MARK HERTSGAARD: Putting wind turbines up in — and it’s been a very great boon for farmers, for example. You can put a wind turbine in the middle of your field. You can still, you know, grow your corn or wheat, or what have you, around it. And this has been great for a lot of farmers, including in the state of Texas, of all places. Who would have thunk it? Texas is actually the wind leader in the United States of America. So, it is true that, in particular, I think energy efficiency gets overlooked because it sounds so boring, but it is where all the money is. And we know that, because the corporations are making it. The public sector is still leaving that money on the table.

But look at what BP did, back when they were first trying to so-called “green” themselves. They spent $20 million in 1999 to increase the efficiency within their own corporation — you know, better lighting and proper windows and insulation and so forth. Three years later, the bean counters checked, how did that turn out? They saved $650 million in fuel costs. That’s $630 million of profits on a $20 million investment. I mean, the Mafia does not get that kind of return on investment. And the corporations know that. And if you read the business press, Amy, they know that.

But so far, the public sector, and we as individuals, are still leaving that money on the table — not in California, where I live now, because we’ve changed the regulatory laws there to reward efficiency rather than pollution. But we need to do that internationally. We need to do that nationally here. And Obama has tried that, but of course the Congress doesn’t like that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Mark Hertsgaard decided to take his questions directly to Congress. He was accompanied by several members of Generation Hot, about two billion young people, all of whom have grown up under global warming and will spend the rest of their lives confronting its mounting impacts. Mark ventured up to Capitol Hill to confront key climate denialists.

MARK HERTSGAARD: I just want to ask you some questions —


MARK HERTSGAARD: — about climate science, and I know you have a lot of opinions about it.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: Sure, sure.

MARK HERTSGAARD: Why does your party continue to deny what the National Academy of Sciences and virtually every major scientific organization in the world —

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: You know, you ask the same question over and over and over again. The science is mixed. We all know the science is mixed. The economy is not mixed.

MARK HERTSGAARD: When all of the scientific organizations in the world and every political party in the world, but your own, admits that climate change is happening, it’s real, and it’s dangerous, why does your party keep insisting that it’s not?

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: That’s not — you’re wrong on that. The science is mixed on that. And you know it.

MARK HERTSGAARD: I do not know that, sir.

GENERATION HOT MEMBER: I don’t understand why my generation has to suffer because it sounds like you’re not liking what you’re hearing.

MARK HERTSGAARD: You know what one of the most famous Republicans in this country said? That when 98 doctors tell me that my son needs a life-saving operation, and two doctors say that he doesn’t, I go with the 98. So what do you say about that?

SEN. JAMES INHOFE: You know, when you ask that question about, you know, “what if you’re wrong?” stop and think about it. What if you’re wrong?

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Mark talking to Republican Senator Inhofe. Mark decided to take his — your response to what he said there?

MARK HERTSGAARD: You know, he knows his lines pretty well. And he’s going to stick with them. And that’s really the problem. They are climate cranks. They like to be called “climate skeptics.” And the media, I’m very sorry to say — the mainstream media, at least — calls them climate skeptics. They are not skeptics. Genuine skeptics are invaluable to science. That’s how science progresses, is with skepticism. But a true skeptic can be persuaded by evidence. They cannot. They have made up their minds for economic reasons or ideological reasons that they’re not going to believe in this. And because our country has allowed them to dominate the debate for 20 years, we’re now stuck with 50 more years of rising temperatures. We’re not locked in. My daughter, the rest of Generation Hot, are locked in to living under the hottest, most volatile climate our civilization has ever known. And that is a crime.

AMY GOODMAN: The last three chapters of your book, as we wrap up, “How Will We Feed Ourselves?” “While the Rich Avert Their Eyes,” and “'This Was a Crime.'” Put it together for us.

MARK HERTSGAARD: “How will we feed ourselves?” is going to be one of the big questions, because as temperature go up, it’s going to be harder to grow food. And, of course, Monsanto wants to tell us that the way to deal with that is with genetically modified seeds. That’s the worst way to deal with it. The fact is, is that organic agriculture is probably going to be our best bet. It’s the most resilient in the case of extreme weather.

“While the Rich Avert Their Eyes” — you did it at the top of the segment: Todd Stern, the United States, has been saying the same thing for 20 years: “You know, we’re not going to do this. It’s unworkable.” Well, we’re the ones who caused this problem. We didn’t know we were doing it, when my dad’s generation and before. But, you know, in a legal court of law, as Mr. Stern, a lawyer himself, must know, it does not matter if you didn’t know you were burning down your neighbor’s house — you still have to pay for it.

And I repeat. “This was a crime” is actually a phrase that came from the chief climate adviser to the, again, Conservative government in Germany, a man named John Schellnhuber, who looked at how the United States has refused to act in the last 20 years, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. And he, too, like me, is the father of a young child. And we were talking about what we expected for our children in the next 20 to 30 years, and he said, “This was a crime.” And I think that, you know, we need to hold the criminals responsible. My daughter and the rest of her generation have been given a life sentence for a crime they did not commit, and it is time to go get the people who did commit it.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Hertsgaard, his new book is called Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. He is an environmental correspondent for The Nation magazine.

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