The United States government has known about the catastrophic dangers of climate change for at least 50 years, but has done little about it, while continuing to subsidize fossil fuel production and becoming a major fossil fuel exporter.
At least seven presidents, beginning with President Jimmy Carter, have known that continuing to emit greenhouse gasses poses an existential threat to life as we know it, yet acted weakly or not at all to address the issue.
James Gustave Speth, a lawyer who led the White House Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter administration, chronicles this failure in his new book, “They Knew: The US Federal Government’s 50-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis.”
“[P]eople don't appreciate how much was known over 40 years ago about the climate issue and how much was understood about the need for action,” Speth says. “In the very beginning of the Carter administration, the president's science adviser, Frank Press, wrote a substantial memo to President Carter — copied to Jim Schlesinger, who was going to become the new Secretary of Energy — outlining the seriousness of the climate threat and explaining it, the science of it, and basically said that we're going to have to do something about this issue, that it’s not a pressing urgency right now, but, basically, it will be.”
The memo predicted almost precisely what the world is now seeing: sea-level rise, floods, drought, heat waves, fires, loss of species and adverse human health impacts.
“I hope the book puts to rest...the idea that there's been so much uncertainty about the climate issue. ... We knew that it was real a long, long time ago, and the science has been consistent in this period.”
“I hope the book puts to rest, for at least those who have access to it, the idea that there's been so much uncertainty about the climate issue — ‘We didn't know; now we've finally discovered that it's real.’ That’s really nonsense,”Speth says. “We knew that it was real a long, long time ago, and the science has been consistent in this period.”
The Carter administration did take some action that set the country on the right path, Speth says. But when President Reagan gets elected in 1980, Speth adds, he “takes a blowtorch” to many of the things Carter sought to do, like gutting Carter’s solar program and abandoning the goal Carter had set for the country to have 20% renewable energy by the year 2000.
While Democratic administrations have not done enough, it would be a mistake, Speth says, to say that the parties have failed equally.
“The truth is that we've had three administrations that have wanted to do something about the issue and, indeed, have taken steps to deal with the issue,” he explains. “Those administrations are Carter and Clinton and Obama. And in each case, they were followed by a flame-thrower administration that happened to be a Republican administration. And the flame throwers sought to burn out any of the stuff that the prior administration had been undertaking."
But even President Obama, who came into office with great promise and strong rhetoric on the climate issue, undermined his own progress with his call for an “all-of-the-above energy strategy,” Speth says. Obama promoted renewables and efficiency standards, but at the same time, his administration was proud of their accomplishments in promoting fracking and increasing fossil fuel exports.
President Biden has acted on eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies and his "Build Back Better" plan contains many provisions addressing climate change, but Congress needs to act, as well — a possibility that, to a large extent, is being held back by one person: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Senator Manchin has a key role in the legislative process as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee in the Senate, but it turns out he is heavily invested, politically and personally, in the coal industry in West Virginia, Speth points out.
"There has never been a more hopeful moment, but a moment that's more fraught with the possibility of failure."
“We don't know what the Senate as a whole is going to do, but I will just say this: There has never been a more hopeful moment, but a moment that's more fraught with the possibility of failure,” he warns. “And the implications of failure are profoundly negative for dealing with this issue. So here we are.”
Speth says there are two big things that have not yet happened on the climate issue that he believes could make a huge difference. One is massive civic mobilization — “an unprecedented outpouring of people, of demonstrations.”
The second is judicial interventions along the lines of Juliana v. United States, which claims that “a substantial evidentiary record documents that the federal government has long promoted fossil fuel use despite knowing that it can cause catastrophic climate change, and that failure to change existing policy may hasten an environmental apocalypse,” according to Justia Law.
“[T]he comfortable advocacy that we've been engaging in, myself included, is not going to carry the day. I think we need a real outburst, a real rising up of the public. We need everybody out raising hell on this issue."
“Science alone is not going to carry the day,” Speth insists. “[T]he comfortable advocacy that we've been engaging in, myself included, is not going to carry the day. I think we need a real outburst, a real rising up of the public. We need everybody out raising hell on this issue. … If we had that, plus a powerful judicial intervention into this process, we would have some hope.”