The Planet After Trump

A Q&A with award-winning journalist Charles Alexander, who edited Time's 1989 "Planet of the Year" report

The Planet After Trump

As 2020 began, those of us not receiving (and ignoring) intelligence briefings about the coming pandemic might have assumed that climate change would be a major issue in the U.S. Presidential campaign from January all the way through November.

Trump’s first term had seen devastating natural disasters such as 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and 2018’s Hurricane Florence which our President told us was “one of the wettest we’ve ever seen from the standpoint of water.” In addition, the 2018 wildfire season was the “deadliest and most destructive wildfire season on record in California.” Meanwhile, average global temperatures continued to rise, with the five hottest years on record all occurring within the past five years. Warming oceans, of course, make hurricanes stronger and wetter from a standpoint of water—and continually more devastating.

Trump started his Presidency by naming Exxon Mobil’s CEO his first Secretary of State and things went rapidly downhill from there, especially for species requiring breathable air and drinkable water for their survival. Trump probably still thinks he would have gotten away with his regulatory rollbacks, giveaways to corporate polluters and withdrawal from the Paris Agreement if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids and their global movement, led by Greta Thunberg. The Swedish activist definitely got his attention when she was named Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year. (He was so upset, his team even made him a fake cover with his old man head on Thunberg’s teenage girl body to cheer him up. Which wasn’t creepy at all.)

But just because we have other fires to put out this year doesn’t mean we can ignore climate change which is still warming oceans, melting ice sheets, and causing the Florida Keys to disappear.

With the two-year anniversary of Greta Thunberg’s ongoing “School Strike for Climate” approaching on August 20, it seemed like a good time to check in with Charles Alexander, the man who edited this January 1989 Time Magazine cover story:

Alexander is a multi-award-winning journalist who spent 23 years at TIME, including 13 years directing the magazine’s environmental reporting. He left TIME in 2001, continuing to freelance for the magazine and authoring Time Inc.’s first two Sustainability Reports. He has also written for such publications as The Nation, Conservation and E Magazine and been a guest lecturer at Columbia, NYU, Michigan State, Hawaii-Manoa and the New School.

Q&A with Charles Alexander

It’s 31 years since you edited TIME’s “Planet of the Year” report, which warned that a changing climate, warmed by human economic activity, posed a grave threat to our future. Why have we made so little progress in dealing with that threat?

The fossil-fuel industries mounted a disinformation campaign to sow doubt about climate science, and their financial contributions to politicians, most notably the Republican Party in the U.S., blocked any bold action to reduce the danger. After some early signs of progress, George W. Bush and the U.S. Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol, an international pact to fight climate change that was negotiated when Bill Clinton was in the White House. Now, in the Trump era, we are still facing those same forces that are preventing the U.S. from taking a leadership role in combating what is rapidly becoming a global catastrophe. It’s a matter of political corruption, pure and simple, driven by greed and profit-seeking.

On the positive side, clean-energy technology has advanced quickly. Wind and solar power are now economically competitive with fossil fuels, and those industries are growing swiftly. But until the current pandemic hit, the world population and economy were growing so fast that the use of fossil fuel kept increasing in tandem with alternative power sources. The level of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere kept rising. So climate change is no longer a distant peril. It’s here. We see it in stronger storms, more deadly heat waves, worse droughts, raging wildfires, melting polar ice sheets and rising sea levels. It’s hard to believe that, even though we have long known what to do about it, the threat is even more ominous now than when TIME ran that cover story three decades ago. We can’t prevent climate change, but we can still slow it down and decrease its impact on future generations, giving them more time to adapt.

Didn’t Barack Obama move us forward and give us hope for a while?

Yes, his administration helped negotiate the Paris Agreement, the current international pact to reduce carbon emissions that was groundbreaking because it brought China into the process for the first time. Obama’s team wrote regulations to spur clean-energy technology, raise fuel-efficiency standards for cars and force power plants to cut emissions. He could have done more if the Democrats had not lost the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.

On the whole, however, Obama’s climate record was a mixed bag. While promoting clean energy, he also took pride in the economic benefits of the country’s increased oil production during his tenure. He had an all-of-the-above energy policy. His biggest climate mistake was giving free rein to the increased production of natural gas through the new technology known as fracking. The intention was good. A unit of energy produced by the burning of natural gas (the main ingredient of which is methane) puts much less carbon dioxide into the air than the same unit of energy from the combustion of oil or coal. Even most environmentalists (me included) long thought that natural gas was a good transition fuel until we could fully deploy wind and solar energy. But the drilling for gas and its transport have been done so sloppily that vast amounts of unburned methane have leaked into the atmosphere. And when it is not burned, methane traps much more heat, molecule for molecule, than does carbon dioxide. So, contrary to expectations, fracking has been bad for the climate, and has also contaminated water supplies near the gas wells. Toward the end of its second term, the Obama administration began writing rules to curb methane leaks.

And now Donald Trump is trying to undo all the good things Obama did on the environmental front. Can the damage Trump’s doing be undone?

Trump is doing everything he can to erase Obama from history. Our current President is taking us out of the Paris Agreement, squashing environmental regulations right and left and reducing auto fuel-efficiency standards so much that even car manufacturers have objected. Of course he is doing away with those pesky Obama methane rules. Amazingly, he is turning the clock back a half century and weakening enforcement of the landmark Clean Air, Clean Water and National Environmental Policy Acts that were enacted during the Republican Administration of Richard Nixon. Many of Trump’s actions have been challenged in court, but a majority of the weakened rules have been finalized, and it will take time to strengthen them again. When it comes to the climate, he has cost us precious years in a crucial battle, and we don’t have any years to spare. It’s not hyperbole to say that the quality of human life in the future, and maybe even human survival in the next century or two, depends on our escorting Trump, with armed guards if necessary, out of the White House in January 2021.

If Biden is elected, what could he do to save the planet—and how hopeful are you that he will get it done?

Do you mean before or after he gets the pandemic under control? Let’s just put that horror aside for a moment. With regard to climate change, Biden can certainly reverse our course and get us headed in the right direction—if the Democrats win both Houses of Congress and the Senate eliminates filibusters. But he alone cannot save the planet. It’s not a four- or eight-year project. It will take many enlightened Presidents and Prime Ministers all around the world working over a period of decades. If U.S. leadership is strong enough, as it was after World War II, maybe the rest of the globe will fall in line. The other giant economies, China and India, certainly understand the necessity of achieving economic growth with much less pollution.

If we continue starting and stopping our climate initiatives, as opposing parties take turns in power, then our civilization is doomed. Beginning in 2020, we can never again allow a corrupt, anti-science party to steal an election, with or without Russian assistance. So while Biden must declare a global climate emergency, he must also immediately pursue laws, Constitutional amendments—whatever it takes—to get money out of politics, stop voter suppression and make Congress work for the public instead of for special interests. Then there are the usual issues of more immediate concern to most people, like health care, jobs, affordable housing, police reform, racism, immigration and income inequality, not to mention foreign wars and trade. And COVID-19 too? What a challenge for a mere mortal. Biden will have to walk, chew gum, and perform a whole bunch of card tricks, all at the same time. At least he’s sure to surround himself with better experts than Trump has.

On the climate front, Biden will need to be much stronger than his old sidekick Obama. He can’t just promote clean energy. He has to discourage dirty energy. He’s already indicated that he won’t try to ban fracking (with an eye to Pennsylvania, where fracking is a big part of the economy), and he’s right that a sudden ban is not practical. But he will need to plug those methane leaks, and start the process of ramping down the gas industry, along with the oil business and what’s left of coal mining. He should get Congress to pass a carbon tax, which can be offset by reducing other taxes. Yet he can’t just leave this transformation to the market. We’ve lost so much time that nothing less than a World War II-style government-financed mobilization is essential. We once mass-produced battleships and warplanes to save the world. Now it has to be windmills and solar farms. It can’t be done instantly. You can’t just give Kodak a billion dollars and say, “Build windmills.” But we need to retrain our workforce and build up the clean-energy industries as fast as is practically possible, while guarding against waste and fraud. We will ultimately need to export workers and technology to help poorer nations transform their economies as well. What a huge jobs program this could be, particularly if we reverse some of the tax cuts that Republicans have given corporations and multimillionaires over the years. And the jobs generated will be much better and more satisfying than moving stuff around in an Amazon warehouse. This will be the best way to get us out of our COVID-19 economic depression.

That sounds like the “Green New Deal.” Republicans said it would cost too much. But when the coronavirus came, they were willing to spend trillions to save the economy. What would you say to people who said we couldn’t afford the Green New Deal last year—and even less now with the debt skyrocketing under Trump?

The Green New Deal became such a punching bag for conservative pundits that Biden seems to be avoiding the term in favor of the slogan Build Back Better. But whether he uses the words or not, a Green New Deal is exactly what we need. The concept is sound even if the details still require a lot of work. Can’t Republicans understand the idea of an “investment”? If Trump weren’t such a bad businessman (at least four bankruptcies and counting), he could understand. Here’s a primer, Donald. Astute business executives and government leaders adopt innovative technologies that will save money and make money in the future, even if they require a large upfront investment. Not all investments turn out as badly as the Trump Taj Mahal hotel and casino in Atlantic City. People who put solar panels on their roofs are discovering that they get a rapid return on their investment. Washington should be paying companies to hire and train an army of installers to bring solar power to every home and office. Impossible? As part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Government played a huge role in bringing electricity to all of Rural America. That worked out pretty well and didn’t bankrupt the country. The Republicans’ argument that switching to clean energy costs too much is insincere nonsense. They just want to protect the short-term profits of their donors in the oil, gas and coal industries. They are human fossils who think fossil fuels are to die for. We can’t afford to save the planet? We can’t afford not to.

Note: Part Two of this Q&A will appear tomorrow.
Update: Read it here:

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