CNN columnist John Sutter talks with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy
McCarthy: 'Climate change is the greatest threat of our time'
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Like Hawaii’s coral reefs?
Don’t want to see your neighbors die in a heat wave?
Then you should care about climate change.
That’s a little flip, I know. But it’s the message we need to take to heart from a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, titled “Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action.” The report, which will be released on Monday, is essentially a cost-benefit analysis: What will be lost if we don’t act swiftly to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, which is the agreed-upon threshold for “dangerous” climate change.
Or, put another way: What we can save by cutting carbon emissions fast.
It’s clear benefits of cutting emissions and saving forests now clearly outweigh the costs of inaction. Just take a peek at some of the numbers: If we continue polluting as we are now, heat waves in 49 major U.S. cities are expected to kill 12,000 people per year by 2100.
Those deaths are preventable if we work to slow climate change.
Likewise, we can stop more than a third of Hawaii’s coral reefs from disappearing; can avoid up to $11 billion in agricultural losses; can avoid losing a third of the U.S. oyster supply, as well as 37% of scallops by 2100; can stop up to 7.9 million acres burning in wildfires in the United States; and can preserve up to 360,000 acres of cold-water fish habitat.
How very American, right?
I hope both efforts will get Americans to finally listen up.
We’re the biggest contributors of carbon dioxide pollution, to date.
And so we must lead the world in taking swift action and proposing solutions.
In advance of the report’s release, I chatted with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy about the economic case for climate action, why climate skepticism maintains a troubling toehold in the United States and what this country is doing to ensure future generations grow up in a world that hasn’t warmed 2 degrees.
“Climate change is the greatest threat of our time,” she told me, “and the time for action is now.”
The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
John Sutter: So, you have this new report that’s looking at the economic benefits of the world stepping up and doing something about climate change. Why frame it that way?
Gina McCarthy: Well, this is the first time that we’re actually doing a report like this that looks at both the physical effects and economic damages of climate change. We get to look at both what happens if we don’t take action, and then what happens if we do take global action.
And you look at our ability to actually mitigate all of the impacts that are going to be so damaging to us, and, frankly, the world. It’s an important message – (that) we need to take action and (that there are) costs of inaction.
Sutter: What damages can we avoid? Like what, specifically, are we looking at here?
McCarthy: By 2100 – (if we take) global action on climate – we can actually avoid an estimated 12,000 deaths annually that are associated with extreme temperatures. That’s a big deal. We’re projecting that, if you take action, you could avoid approximately 13,000 deaths in 2050, and 57,000 from poor air quality that’s associated with climate change.
Sutter: Just to pause really quick on some of those numbers, because those are striking. Essentially what you’re saying is that climate change either already is potentially leading to some deaths in the United States, or will, if action isn’t taken? It’s a life or death matter?
McCarthy: We’re projecting that, if you actually take global action to stay within 2 degrees (Celsius of warming), which is an important goal, as you recognize, then we are going to reduce impacts in the U.S. significantly. It’s not just from extreme weather events or public health, but it’s other damages, like what does it do to our transportation system, our roads and bridges? What does it do for freshwater fishing? What does it do for our water infrastructure and our ability to maintain clean – and available water?
If we take action today, and we work globally, (then there is an) incredible opportunity to avoid direct impacts to public health, our economy, our physical infrastructure.
Sutter: Do you have sense of what the cost of warming the climate 2 degrees would be?
McCarthy: We don’t have a cost associated with that, no. What we’re trying to do is a little bit different. We’re not really modeling a particular policy scenario … What are the dis-benefits of doing nothing? And what are the benefits of taking action? And then we’re hoping that this will spark real effort on the part of the global community that will mirror some of the work we’re doing domestically.
If you just talk to folks who care about freshwater fishing, we’re talking about an estimated 230,000 and 260,000 acres of coldwater fish habitat will be preserved in 2100 (if emissions are cut drastically and worldwide). And that’s an annual figure.
Sutter: I’m wondering if there’s anything else that you would like to highlight that you think would surprise people about what’s at risk if we don’t act to slow climate change.
McCarthy: If you look at coral reefs, (this report) shows that, if we take action, we can avoid the loss of approximately 35% of the current Hawaiian coral by 2100. And that’s worth a recreational value of $1.1 billion. And that’s what we can save. In fact, we would lose most of those (coral reefs) with no action. When you look at wildfires, we can save an estimated 6 to 7.9 million acres of forests – as opposed to have them burning in wildfires by 2100.
Sutter: Some pretty significant stuff.
McCarthy: In agriculture alone, which I think we all care about, we’re talking about an estimated $6.6 to $11 billion in avoided damages to agriculture in the year 2100 alone.
Sutter: So can you tell me what the U.S. is doing right now to try to keep warming below 2 degrees? This country often gets criticized internationally as being a laggard on taking action to address climate change. Meanwhile, we have, to date, been the largest contributor to this problem.
McCarthy: The President, just about almost exactly two years ago, announced a climate action plan. And that is a full-throated response to take action on climate change now using the authority that he has. He posed it as both an issue of morality as well as … one that involved economic consequences and national security challenges. He outlined a number of different measures that we were going to take to show strong domestic action that he hoped would spark a change in the international discussion to one that was more positive – and would bear fruit – in Paris in December.
EPA has been a big part of that effort. We are moving forward with a clean power plan – that we are finalizing this summer – to reduce carbon pollution from our power sector. That is a significant opportunity for very substantial reductions (in carbon emissions). We are looking at heavy-duty vehicles, basically trucks, to see how we could do another round of carbon pollution reductions from trucks, taking a look at what new technologies are available and what innovation can be driven into that market effectively. We’re looking at also looking at methane reductions from the oil and gas development sector. We’re looking at landfill methane recapture. We’re looking at aircraft in an international context.
We issued a joint agreement with China in which we both established aggressive standards. China, for the first time, offered a goal that was going to cap their emissions. That is a significant step forward. That change is also changing dynamics in terms of conversations with other countries.
We sure know that there’s a lot of states and local communities and individuals who are with us in terms of recognizing that climate change is the greatest threat of our time, and the time for action is now.
Sutter: That’s an extensive list. Still, I talk to policy experts who say all of the U.S. pledges on climate – even the new rules for power plants – that they’re not enough to stop us short of 2 degrees. What else should we be doing that we’re not?
McCarthy: You are not wrong. The President has never claimed, nor has EPA claimed, that this is going to get us over the finish line. We know what the finish line is, but you don’t start any race at the finish line. You start at the starting gate. And I don’t think there is anybody in the international context or domestically that doesn’t think that this President and EPA are doing everything within its authority to be aggressive on reducing the kind of pollution that is fueling climate change.
We’ll turn this challenge into an economic opportunity. And the numbers you’re seeing in this report tell us that the time for that is now, but also that it is not by any means too late to actually have a direct impact on reducing the kind of damages that people are anticipating from a changing climate.
Sutter: I’ve talked to some economists who say we just flat-out won’t get there unless we consider things like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system for carbon at the national level. Are those options on the table? Or are there other tools we should be using to cut emissions faster?
McCarthy: Well, John, they’ve always been on the table. They’re just not on my table because that is a job for Congress to consider. And so the choice for the President was whether or not we are going to be able to use the authority to take the action that he knows is our moral responsibility to take for our kids. Or are we going to wait and find the ultimate solution from Congress? We’re going to use the tools available. But (President Obama) also told Congress that the minute they wanna talk about the options available to them and unleash those that he would be sitting at that table. And I will be right behind him.
Sutter: A lot of climate skepticism remains in the U.S. Why is that the case? And how would you go about convincing a skeptic that we’re causing this and should do something about it?
McCarthy: This climate skepticism that you’re talking about has been going on for, well, really, decades. Because I’ve been in this business for a really long time, I will tell you, unequivocally, that the climate skepticism is much less than it has ever been. The science is stronger. One of the reasons why there are fewer skeptics is because we’re already seeing the impacts of climate (change). Twenty years ago, we were projecting them. So people could be skeptical. Fewer people can be skeptical today.
I don’t doubt that there will continue to be skeptics forever … But they’re not in this administration. And they’re not behind the wheel right now, driving this bus.
Sutter: For the people who remain skeptical, what is the best method to convince them? Or is the only way to convince them for them to see their own lives threatened and to see these changes around them? That’s pretty depressing. Would some other argument work?
McCarthy: I think one of the good things today and one of the reasons why the President can move forward so aggressively is not just because they see the damage, but because there are solutions today that there never were before. And those are solutions that can actually be turned into economic opportunities, instead of just costs. And so the dynamic has changed considerably now that you have so much wind power, but even more importantly, today, solar energy. You know, that was the fastest-growing job sector last year; 26,000 jobs plus were grown in the solar industry.
I know you’ve been engaged in (climate change reporting) for a long time. But you’ve got to change the tone of your questions. Move away from, ‘Is this really bad? How do we get to the skeptics?’ to, ‘What does the future look like?’ And, ‘How many people would embrace that future?’ Give people the independence of a renewable energy system, a clean energy system. You’re asking them to embrace a future that they will like, a future they can believe in, where they can have jobs and a growing economy and not give up their lifestyle. We are on the cusp of that right now, John.
Sutter: But I think that there are people who really, in a deep, entrenched way, believe that climate change is bunk.
McCarthy: I do think there are people that actually believe this – who believe that the climate is not changing, or that humans aren’t doing it. I’m convinced of that. I’ll give you a little bit of philosophy. It’s just mine. So I apologize if it sounds a little wonky. But I actually don’t think you challenge those skeptics. I think you win despite (the skeptics) by going to the people who haven’t made up their mind, and who are dying for information. I think we can’t make them afraid and expect them to act. We need to make them hopeful and point to a future where they have a place.
Sutter: I just got back from the Marshall Islands, which is a country that has a long history and relationship with the U.S. and that likely won’t not exist if sea levels rise at the projected rates. I wondered if there was anything you would say to people living there.
McCarthy: I would let them know the President has stood up and has fought this case admirably. He’s talked about this as a moral issue and I think the islands are a case in point. He is doing everything within his authority to do this in a way that will allow us to make a big leap forward, but to do it in a way that will keep the momentum moving. I do not know whether there is any global solution that can offer them the kind of future they want. But the U.S. is doing its part, and it’s doing its part domestically, and it’s doing its part to try to get the international community better aligned to be able to take on this challenge.