Few people have followed the climate issue longer or more closely than James Gustave Speth. From his time in Jimmy Carter’s White House — where he issued reports on the imminent dangers of global warming — through his five-decade career as an environmental leader, Speth has consistently sounded the alarm and sought to spur action on climate change.
In a Yale Environment 360 interview with climate advocate Bill McKibben, Speth discusses his new book, They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis, which details how seven successive U.S. administrations failed to take effective action on halting greenhouse gas emissions and encouraged the extraction and use of fossil fuels. The book is based on a legal brief that Speth, a former dean of the Yale School of the Environment, wrote in support of Juliana v. United States, the climate lawsuit brought by 21 youth plaintiffs.
In the interview, Speth talks about how the government knew about climate change and its impacts as early as the 1970s, when President Carter called for a transition to renewable energy. But the Reagan administration reversed course, keeping the United States on a fossil fuel-dependent path that continued even as the scientific community’s warnings became ever more urgent. The government’s repeated failures to act, Speth says, were “tragedies in the old Greek sense.”
“At no time,” he tells McKibben, “did we have an administration that determined that we were going to get out of the fossil fuel business and began to put in place measures to do it.”
Bill McKibben: Let’s start with [President Jimmy] Carter, because you worked closely with him. I was amazed to be reminded that he had called for 20 percent of the country’s energy to be coming from solar power by 2000. Was he serious about that? And given another term, would he have really tried to do that, do you think?
James Gustave Speth: I think he was dead serious. He was famous for having put the solar collectives on the White House roof. And he made a big deal about renewable energy. He was really the creator of the Solar Energy Research Institute out in Colorado. He had legislation on solar energy. He had funding for solar energy. And he said repeatedly that the energy supply of the future for the United States has got to be renewables. I think he would have continued on that course in a second term. I think the first thing he might have done, knowing him and the way the government works, was to ask each agency or a whole series of agencies to describe what they could do to promote renewables and to put us on a long-term track to getting out of fossil fuels.
McKibben: You’ve watched over the last 10 years as the price of renewable energy plummeted. Was part of you thinking, “Man, we really could have done this 25 or 30 years earlier if we had just applied the effort earlier on?”
Speth: Well, I think the growing demand would have driven the prices down earlier. But you know, even back in those days, if you factored in the costs of climate change and the risk of climate change, it was still a bargain.
And yes, it’s been enormously frustrating to realize that if we had started with Carter — this is now more than 40 years ago — and continued after his administration, we could have been on a path, a smooth trajectory of sensible reductions in fossil fuel use, to the point that today we could be approximating getting out of the fossil fuel business. But of course, that’s not what happened. In fact, our carbon emissions went up in that 40-year period.
“This problem, if taken seriously, means that we’re going to have to have a very strong government intervention.”
McKibben: The story turns very tragic very fast with [President Ronald] Reagan. And you have all the documentation in your book about the particular steps that [the Reagan administration] took. What’s your sense of kind of the ideological underpinning of all of that? Why did they disdain renewable energy so much? Was it simply the influence of the oil industry? Or was there something ideological going on too?
Speth: I think there was an ideological component, but of course they were under a lot of pressure from various parts of the fossil fuel industry. We even see that today, right now, with the industry pressures on Senator [Joe] Manchin [of West Virginia], for example.
But there was an ideological component, and I think there always has been. And in my view, it goes roughly as follows: This problem, if taken seriously, means that we’re going to have to have a very strong government intervention, particularly at the federal level, to drive down emissions sharply over time. The more time we have, the less sharp it has to be. But it still involves major government intervention in the economy. And you may recall that Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” And so this was the anti-government, anti-regulation ideology that drove his administration and that has really been prominent in our politics now for decades.
I think the media in general has been pretty terrible throughout this whole period. And it’s only in the last couple of years or so when reports on disasters are now fairly commonly associated with climate change. But a few years ago, even that wasn’t true. And I would pull my hair out waiting on the evening news to link climate change to the burning up of the West and unprecedented fires and sea level rise and other things, but they just wouldn’t do it. So the media has let us down big time.
McKibben: In some ways, for me, the most tragic parts of your book are the George H.W. Bush and, especially, the Clinton years, when any early momentum on taking action on climate just disappears.
Speth: Yes, the early momentum was reflected in the [U.N.] Climate Treaty [of 1992] and the whole process leading up to that. I can list 20 major international treaties on the environment that the United States has never ratified. But Lord, behold, we ratified the Climate Treaty. And it’s one of the only ones that ever made it into treaty law in the U.S. That was ‘92, and Clinton and Gore came in right about then, right after George Herbert Walker Bush, and got nowhere with getting it successfully implemented in the U.S. And that was a great tragedy.
As I look at this whole period, this whole spectrum of all the administrations, what I see is a pattern that is going to sound partisan, and I don’t like to be partisan if I don’t have to be, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles here. We had a series of administrations that began to take the issue of climate change seriously. And, in my view, they were Carter and Clinton and Obama. And each one of them was followed by a flamethrower that was determined to destroy the steps that had been taken. And that was Reagan, and that was George W. Bush, and that was Trump.
But at no time did we really have an administration that determined that we were going to get out of the fossil business and began to put in place measures to do it. And that, to me, is the sort of acid test of whether we’re serious and whether we’re taking the climate issue where it logically leads.
“Cheney started out in his early days as vice president basically saying that energy conservation and energy efficiency was for sissies.”
McKibben: George W. Bush had actually run for president on the promise that he would treat CO2 as a pollutant, a stance he reversed within weeks of taking office.
Speth: Yes, that was terrible … [Dick] Cheney started out in his early days as vice president basically saying that energy conservation and energy efficiency was for sissies, and you know, real men were determined to keep the country in the fossil arena big-time.
McKibben: Talk about the Obama years a bit. On the one hand, he was talking eloquently sometimes about climate change, and on the other hand, overseeing the dramatic expansion of natural gas production as a kind of economic panacea to the financial crisis he inherited. That seems tragic to those eight years, in a sense.
Speth: Well, my book is full of tragedies in the old Greek sense, but this is one of them. I think in the first part of the Obama years, Obama’s first term, [Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel was calling a lot of shots in the White House. And there was a bipartisan effort in the Congress at that time to promote climate legislation. But Rahm Emanuel just didn’t have any interest in getting anything done on this. I’m not sure why. And basically, the White House did not support vigorously what might have been possible out of the Hill. And I think it was late in the second Obama years when things began to get more serious about climate action. John Podesta came into the White House [as chief of staff], and he was determined to do something, I think. And they got the Clean Power Plan out, and it was definitely a step forward.
But at the end, Obama summarized what he thought was important in his accomplishments, and high on his list was promoting fossil fuels in general, and U.S. exports of fossil fuels, and fracking. And this, I think, reflected the grip that this energy economy has on our political life. It’s partly the power, political power, and political money of the fossil fuel companies. And it’s partly this fear of taking on the ideological right and all the misleading information it provides about scaring people that they’re going to lose their jobs and prices are going to go up, and on and on. And partly just the need to keep things growing, and the fear that any move would not only slow growth but perhaps affect the market.
All these things war against effective climate action, which, in the end, leads me to two conclusions: One is that we need a massive citizen mobilization to drive change, and I hope that this book will contribute to that. Because we have a story here of gross irresponsibility on the part of our so-called political leaders. And the book reveals this and discloses this great dereliction of responsibility. And in doing so, I think it informs the younger generation today as well as other people, including those who might have missed some of this along the way, and I hope enrages them and spurs them to take action by providing a solid historical background to a massive civil mobilization.
Secondly, the other hope is the courts. Our Congress has failed us. Our administrations have failed us. And we now need — as we’re seeing in some European countries and in Australia — we need a judicial kick in the pants to provide some real guidance and insistence that governments act to protect current and future generations.
“I think what’s effective every day is just relentless citizen presence, mobilization, activism, demands… and not letting up.”
McKibben: Let’s talk about both those things. First, mass mobilization. Speaking to someone who’s been on the inside of government, how important is it to have a big citizen movement to give those in government the space to do what they might want to do?
Speth: I think it’s extremely important because, as you say, it does give the political folks space. But I think it’s not only the scale of the mobilization, but also its persistence. You ask, what is effective? I think what’s effective every day is just relentless citizen presence, mobilization, activism, demands, funny things, serious things, and not letting up. We had an enormously successful, gigantic march in New York City [in 2014]. And it was, I think, a great event. But was it linked, over time, to a cascading, accumulating sense of public pressure? I guess not.
And so, I think that persistence and constant presence is what can drive attention, and that’s what we need now. That’s the next step. And I’m delighted to see young people taking up this issue. And it would be great if the older generations, we can do the same. In the middle, there are a whole bunch of people who are just working very hard to keep their noses above water. And you know, it’s hard to get the attention of people who are worried about getting their kids to school and whether they’re going to be masked or not, and avoiding this virus, and other things. But there’s an army of retired and semi-retired out there, and there are armies of young people who are worried half to death about what’s going to happen to them. And those are the armies we need.
McKibben: Do you hold out hope that the U.S. Supreme Court in your lifetime is going to play a positive role in these fights?
Speth: One of the characteristics of those of us who have fought this issue for a long time now is that we are forever hopeful. We keep expecting good things. And my forever-hopeful position on your question is that I would hope that even this current Supreme Court would see that there’s a stake here in the future of humanity and our country and anything that they really care about — their children, nature, whatever motivates them — all of that is on the chopping block if we don’t get serious about climate. And so maybe they’ll find a way to at least sort of step aside and let the legislative branch and the administrations do their job.
McKibben: Let’s end with the one administration you didn’t get to, because it’s unfolding in front of us. What’s your sense for the likeliest outcome of this huge fight unfolding this autumn over [President] Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill?
Speth: Well, I do think that it will be a huge fight. I don’t have a crystal ball. But the $3.5 trillion [in spending] has a lot in it that would put us on a good path to dealing with the climate issue. We start with Biden’s goals. Fifty percent below 2005 levels in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, right around the corner, an ambitious goal. Net-zero emissions by mid-century. And 100 percent clean power by 2035. I mean these are ambitious goals. They signal a sharp turndown in fossil fuel reliance. And I think we need this mass movement that we’ve talked about and other things to push these goals forward and not lose sight of them.
How it’s going to turn out? I really don’t know. But I can’t imagine a more important moment for planetary history and the history of our country. Because if this flops, it’s going to a tremendous tragedy. Because there’s nothing in the system that’s going to automatically reduce our emissions. And people who hope that something magic is going to change, they’re just fooling themselves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.