In California, tens of thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate as deadly wildfires continue to rage across the state. The worst wildfire, the Carr Fire, has engulfed more than 100,000 acres and destroyed more than a thousand homes in and around Redding, California, making it the sixth most destructive fire in the state’s history. Authorities said Wednesday that 16 of the largest wildfires burning in California have scorched 320,000 acres—an area larger than Los Angeles. Eight people have died. Governor Jerry Brown called the growing intensity and frequency of California wildfires the state’s “new normal” this week. More fires continue to consume parts of Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Arizona, along with recent blazes across the globe in Greece, Canada and the Arctic Circle. We speak with Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist and director of climate science for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin in California, where tens of thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate as deadly wildfires continue to rage across the state. The worst wildfire, the Carr Fire, has engulfed more than 100,000 acres and destroyed more than a thousand homes in and around Redding, California, making it the sixth most destructive fire in the state’s history. Authorities said Wednesday that 16 of the largest wildfires burning in California have scorched 320,000 acres—an area larger than the entire city of Los Angeles. Eight people have died in the fires so far. This is Cal Fire operations chief Steve Crawford describing the aggressive nature of this year’s wildfires.
STEVE CRAWFORD: Every single person that I’ve talked to so far has made the mention that “I don’t know why it’s doing what it’s doing. It’s burning differently. It’s burning more aggressive than it has in years past.” And I know we say that every year, but it’s unprecedented. … It’s burning in every direction all at the same time. And we’ve got—even though we have multiple resources, the way that it’s burning, the intensity that it’s burning, uphill, downhill, even if it doesn’t have a strong wind on it, it’s burning as if it’s got a Santa Ana wind or a strong 60-mile-an-hour, 70-mile-an-hour wind.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Wildfires are also surging across other parts of the West. In Colorado, the third-largest fire in the state’s recorded history continues to grow near Garland in the southern part of the state. The Spring Fire has so far consumed more than a hundred homes and led to the evacuation of more than 2,000 people. In Washington, a wildfire dubbed the [Milepost] 90 Fire, had grown to some 11,000 acres by Wednesday. Fires also rage in Arizona, Idaho and Oregon.
AMY GOODMAN: The fires in the U.S. come amidst a month of deadly climate-fueled weather across the world. Seven fires remained active in the forests of northeastern Ontario, Canada, as of Wednesday, after days of efforts by the local firefighters to put out the raging fire. More than 50 fires burn across Sweden, including in Swedish Lapland inside the Arctic Circle. And in Greece, at least 90 people have died as uncontrollable wildfires swept through neighborhoods outside the capital Athens. The blazes were the worst fires in more than a decade. Christos Zerefos, a climate scientist at the Academy of Athens, explained [that] a combination of environmental factors created a perfect storm for the blaze to spread quickly in what was a lush, densely populated area.
CHRISTOS ZEREFOS: Well, it was definitely a high-risk zone. It was called a paradise, but, as we all have seen, a paradise to be lost. … There will be more common, more frequent extreme weather phenomena, because the climate globally is being destabilized. … That we have added a caution or an additional source of heat that is produced by humans, the burning of fossil fuels.
AMY GOODMAN: Climate scientists have linked increasingly scorching temperatures and deadly wildfires to climate change.
For more, we’re joined by Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist, director of climate science for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dr. Ekwurzel.
BRENDA EKWURZEL: Good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what’s happening in California right now, what people are calling fire tornadoes, and this link to climate change.
BRENDA EKWURZEL: Well, what we know with climate change, one of the clearest signals is heat. And what we see is more occurrences of extreme heat. And when that happens during periods that are normally a drier time of season in a location or in places that are semi-arid, such as California has had multi-years of drought, this is the kind of toxic combination that can create very dangerous conditions, so that the wildfires are hotter, more severe and more dangerous for people living nearby dealing with the smoke, also if you are in the areas such as Greece or in areas that are fueled by Santa Ana winds that are much fiercer, stronger, blowing these fires at speeds that are very hard for people to escape.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to California Governor Jerry Brown speaking at a news conference Wednesday about the fires raging across California.
GOV. JERRY BROWN: Yes, this is serious. Fires are now more a part of our ordinary experience. The predictions that things would get drier and hotter are occurring. And that will continue. We’re in quite a cycle, but the predictions that I see, that the more serious predictions of warming and fires to occur later in the century, 2040 or 2050, they’re now occurring in real time. And you can expect, unfortunately, that to keep intensifying in California and throughout the Southwest.
AMY GOODMAN: This has even become an issue in the governor’s race, of course, since it is so major as it sweeps through California, with the Republican candidate, John Cox, a climate change denier, saying it’s a waste of time to discuss these issues, we’ve just got to discuss readiness, versus Gavin Newsom, who has been championing the issue of dealing with climate change. Brenda Ekwurzel, what does climate change mean when you see it through this lens, when it comes to dealing with these massive crises, this term “fire tornadoes” that’s now being used?
BRENDA EKWURZEL: What we know is that, without a doubt, if you have hotter temperatures—it’s just basic physics—you evaporate more water from your lakes and rivers, and you’re drying out the soils. And the vegetation needs more water in these conditions, and it’s losing more water to the atmosphere. So you can create a tinderbox condition, if you happen have a natural lightning strike or a careless spark by human activity, causing a fire. So what we see in the Western U.S., that large wildfires are lasting longer, they’re more severe, and they are burning more acres.
The other consequence is that, as you said, the threat to—the dangerous situation for people living on the front lines of a wildfire situation, it’s putting more wildfire hotshots, as they’re called, who are bravely fighting these fires, their lives on the line, as well as people and property who are in the way of the fire. And that’s why we need very advanced science to warn people about the conditions over the long term and what we can do, and also, in the near term, in the fast warning systems to get people out of the way and heed these warnings. These fires are much faster and stronger than we’ve ever seen before. And that’s in part because of burning coal, oil and gas.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Brenda, we just heard the California governor saying—saying himself that these fires are likely to keep intensifying and increasing in the coming decades. So what steps do you think can be taken now? Are there any preventative steps that the state can take to prevent this from happening, or at least to mitigate it from happening?
BRENDA EKWURZEL: Luckily, Governor Brown has been a real leader in taking the state to reducing its own emissions of heat-trapping gases. So that has been the—first and foremost, the best situation. You have to lower the baseline conditions. Scientists call it a hot drought. And when it’s a hot drought, more dangerous conditions can result, such as wildfires. Water resources for drinking water and the agricultural sector are at risk.
So, that’s number one, honor the Paris climate agreement locally, within states, cities and countries around the world, who are trying to keep the globe to below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial. Number two, create a bigger fire perimeter of safe area around structures or cherished resources that we need to protect. Make sure that there’s a big distance between human activities and what’s called the wildland-urban interface. That is where we see a lot of fire activity starting. So we have to stop these fires from starting in the first place, unless under natural conditions. And thirdly, we have to protect people’s public health.
AMY GOODMAN: Talking about policy, the Trump administration has argued that increased fuel efficiency standards endanger the lives of drivers. Documents seen by the Associated Press show administration officials are preparing to argue more-fuel-efficient cars will cause drivers to spend more time behind the wheel, leading to more deaths on roads and highways, attacking the fuel efficiency standards of California. The significance of this?
BRENDA EKWURZEL: That’s counterintuitive, because every study shows that when we have fuel-efficient cars, we’re putting less carbon into the atmosphere, if they’re powered by fossil fuel and not a renewable fuel source. And that means cleaner air for Californians, for any city, for any area where you have ground-level ozone, because there are three ingredients for smog: fossil fuel volatile organic carbon or from vegetation such as forests—they can create that, as well—sunlight and hot temperatures. And as we warm the globe, we have this climate penalty with ground-level smog, because we create more of the smog because we have hotter temperatures during the day than we did a century ago.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Brenda, can you say a little about the populations, the more vulnerable populations, that are impacted the most by these wildfires in California, and also elsewhere, the effects of climate change-induced environmental disasters on vulnerable populations?
BRENDA EKWURZEL: Sure. What we saw, for example, if you look at other parts of the world in the—when there was a combination of wildfire plus extreme heat in Russia, studies show that that was made possible more severe because of climate change, but the high mortality was the combination of smoke from these peat fires in the high northern latitudes and the high temperatures, combining to create a very dire health risk. And there were many tens of thousands of people that died.
Also, a study in 2003 heat wave, what we found—Stott and colleagues, scientists studying this heat wave, found that the double—the risk of this horrendously tragic heat wave, that lost the lives of tens of thousands of people, was doubled because of climate change. What we know is that a subsequent study, by Mitchell and Colleagues, that in central Paris, the heat mortality from that event was—70 percent of that excess heat mortality was due to human-induced climate change, and 20 percent of the heat mortality in London was due to human-induced climate change, in that 2003 tragic event.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and we’re going to ask you to stay with us, Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, speaking to us—speaking to us from Boston. This is Democracy Now! When we come back—speaking to us from Washington, D.C. When we come back, we’ll continue this hour-long discussion. We’ll also be joined by Nat Rich, who has written the piece in The New York Times Magazine that is the entire magazine, only the second time in New York Times history that one article covers the entire magazine. The issue? Climate change. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: With unprecedented fires, floods and heat waves sweeping the globe, 2018 is on track to be the fourth-hottest year on record. The regions most affected by the disastrous effects of global warming are overwhelmingly not the countries that have contributed the most to climate change. According to the 2018 Global Climate Risk Index released by the public policy group Germanwatch, the nine countries most affected by climate change in the past 20 years are developing nations, including Honduras, Haiti, Burma, Pakistan and Bangladesh. USA Today reports that, quote, “Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases blamed for causing global warming, yet its 200 million people are among the world’s most vulnerable victims of the growing consequences of climate change.” The Indian government says more than 500 people have died as a result of flooding and heavy rains in recent weeks. In Iran, there is a chronic shortage of water, and it’s estimated there is some form of drought in 97 percent of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in the U.S., a report by Media Matters found major broadcast networks mentioned climate change just once during the 2-week global heat wave in July, despite reporting on the heat wave at least 127 times. The analysis tracked news reports by ABC, CBS and NBC.
Well, for more, we’re going to Albany, New York, to speak with Rob Nixon, professor in the humanities and environment at Princeton University, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, for which he won a number of awards, including the American Book Award.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Nixon.
ROB NIXON: Thank you, Nermeen.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, I mean, this title, Slow Violence? What do mean by it? And relate it to what is happening to the environment in the developing world.
ROB NIXON: Yes. So, by “slow violence,” I mean violence of postponed effects, so violence that typically isn’t recognizable as violence because it’s not spectacular. It may be seen in media terms as drama-deficient. So, just to take one example, something like Agent Orange, where you have a 12-year war in Vietnam, and the casualties are framed by that public perception, but the impacts, the ongoing casualties and public health effects, last for decades and generations. So I think there’s something analogous going on with climate change, is that we have the postponement of the consequences. And so, what we’re looking at, in effect, is a kind of intergenerational theft of the conditions of life itself.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you mean, in the second part of the title of your book? What is “the environmentalism of the poor,” and how does it relate to slow violence?
ROB NIXON: So, you know, I think there’s still a widespread public perception that even if environmentalism is an urgent cause, it’s a relatively elite one, and it is espoused disproportionately by the well-off. And so, what I was trying to do in the course of the book is to bring to the surface some of the genealogies of environmental activism by the poor, who are the people who are most impacted by the fallout of the failures to—global failures to mitigate and forestall climate change effects. And there are these—there’s very long and deep traditions of activism among those who have contributed least, as we’ve been saying, but are most precariously positioned in the front lines of the climate change crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to one of the most high-profile protests against government inaction on climate change. For the U.N. climate summit in Paris in 2015, Yeb Saño, the former lead climate negotiator for the Philippines, walked more than 900 miles, from Rome to Paris, as part of a People’s Pilgrimage for Climate Action—Saño, again, the top Philippines climate negotiator in 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest cyclones in recorded history, devastated the Philippines, killing thousands of people, the devastation coinciding with the 2013 U.N. COP summit in Warsaw, Poland, where Yeb Saño made headlines with an emotional plea for action on climate change.
NADEREV ”YEB” SAÑO: Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to delay climate action. Warsaw must deliver on enhancing ambition and should muster the political will to address climate change and build that important bridge towards Peru and Paris. It might be said that it must be poetic justice that the Typhoon Haiyan was so big that its diameter spanned the distance between Warsaw and Paris.
Mr. President, in Doha we asked, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?” But here in Warsaw, we may very well ask these same forthright questions. What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. Mr. President, we can stop this madness right here in Warsaw.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was Yeb Saño, when he was the lead climate negotiator for the Philippines in 2013, speaking in Warsaw. Of course, Democracy Now! was there, covering every COP. The next year, when we were in Lima, Peru, suddenly Yeb Saño was no longer a climate negotiator for the Philippines, and the word was that his outspokenness led to his ouster. But it hasn’t stopped him from being a climate environmentalist, as he continues to march around the environment and for climate action, Rob Nixon.
ROB NIXON: Yes, you know, I think that what we’re seeing—and there was a noticeable shift around 2011 at the Durban climate summit. What we’re seeing is alliances of figures from the Global South. And some of them, as you say, subsequently get ousted. But the creation of alliances of people, say, from small island nations, from mid-level economies, from countries in the Sahel in Africa, some of these countries that are exceedingly vulnerable, getting together and trying to create some kind of choral effect, in an effort to be heard, where the most decisive players, like the U.S. and China, are dragging their feet. So I think that there has been a shift in who is being heard, who is speaking out. And to a very large degree, the U.S. is an outlier, both in the history of institutionalized denial of climate change, the anti-science, the funding of anti-science, and also, clearly, in terms of the consequential character of what U.S. leadership would mean or would have meant.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rob Nixon, I just want to turn to a couple of the statistics, which are so remarkable, that you’ve cited in terms of the massive disparities of countries that are responsible for—principally responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions and effects. You say California residents burn more gasoline than the 900 million inhabitants of all of Africa. That’s 54 countries combined. Meanwhile, a one-way flight from Los Angeles to New York produces more carbon emissions than the average Nigerian does in a whole year. So, could you elaborate on that and to what extent you think that’s being taken into account at all in discussions of climate change?
ROB NIXON: Right. I think there is an increasing acknowledgment that we need a concerted global effort, but within that concerted global effort we need to accommodate unequal histories of who has contributed to the greenhouse gases historically and who contribute in the present. And so, that is an absolutely critical component of what is an existential crisis for the species.
But what I would emphasize here is that the sort of institutionalized funding—if you like, institutionalized gaslighting—of America around climate science, through the funding by the right of climate skepticism, climate denial and, effectively, the bankrolling of inaction, this has coincided with a period of neoliberal globalization, so going back to, say, the late ’70s. And what we see there is the way in which the exacerbation of the climate crisis is inseparable from rising levels of inequality in society after society. So, I mean, just to take the U.S., we know that around 1980 the disparity between the average wage of a CEO and a worker was something like 1 to 80. That is now in the vicinity of 1 to 280. And this has been replicated in society after society. And so, I do think that we need to think through, simultaneously, the crisis in inequality and the climate crisis, because the people who are in the front lines are the most vulnerable, and typically they have contributed the least, historically, to the problem.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to bring in Nathaniel Rich, as well, to this conversation, writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine, his piece “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change” published August 1st in a special edition of The New York Times Magazine dedicated to climate change. It’s just the second time in the magazine’s history that it dedicated an issue to just one article, the story tracking the 10-year period from 1979 to 1989, the decade Nathaniel Rich claims humankind first came to a comprehensive understanding of climate change but failed to address its extreme dangers while there was still time, the story produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center.
Nathaniel, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
NATHANIEL RICH: Thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this major piece that you wrote and why you chose this time period, ’79 to ’89.
NATHANIEL RICH: So, by 1979, there is a strong scientific consensus about the fundamental science of climate change. And there were major reports by the—at the highest levels of the government about the problem, and there started to emerge an effort by a handful of scientists and activists and some politicians to move the issue. And over the course of the decade, they developed a plan, which was essentially a global treaty, which would become the IPCC process, and they made steady—if, you know, with some up and downs—progress towards the end of the decade.
And other things that’s significant about that period is that the issue was not a partisan issue. There were prominent Republicans in Congress and in the administration, Republican administrations, who were strongly supportive of a major climate policy. And the fossil fuel industry had not locked arms and coordinated the—what we now see as this history of propaganda, disinformation campaigns, bribing politicians and the entire Republican Party. And so that there was this 10-year period where we came very close to a serious consideration of a binding emissions treaty. And we failed. So I wanted to tell the story of how that came to be and why we didn’t succeed.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what happened in 1989? Like, what changed so dramatically?
NATHANIEL RICH: So, there’s—I guess the most narrow political answer is that George Bush took the White House, George Bush one. In 1988, he campaigned saying things like, “Those who are worried about the greenhouse effect—solving the greenhouse effect haven’t heard of the White House effect. And when I’m in the White House, we’re going to solve it.” Dan Quayle, in the vice-presidential campaign, also spoke about this. And the head of his EPA, William Reilly, was a strong proponent of the IPCC—beginning the IPCC process.
As they start to meet at the first—the piece ends, essentially, at the first high-level diplomatic meeting, that’s held in the Netherlands, to discuss the idea of emissions reductions and hard targets for the treaty that would become the Rio—or, at the Rio Earth Summit. And within the White House, Governor John Sununu, who was the chief of staff, was very skeptical of the science, had some conspiracy theories about the whole movement, and, essentially, single-handedly won an infighting with William Reilly and others in the administration, and got—made sure that there was no binding target that the U.S. would agree with. And that is the beginning of the derailing. And shortly thereafter, the industry gets involved.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to turn to some of the criticism that the piece, The New York Times Magazine piece that you wrote, has received from InsideClimate News, which won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing how Exxon knew fossil fuels caused global warming as early as the 1970s but hid that information from the public. In a series of tweets Wednesday, InsideClimate News wrote, quote, “The tale of U.S. climate inaction spans 70 years and it continues to this day.” In a subsequent tweet, they went on to write, quote, “Once the serious threat of political action to control GHG emissions”—that’s greenhouse gas emissions—”emerged, fossil fuel interests worked hard to undermine the scientific basis for urgent action, using tools like misinformation campaigns and campaign donations. 2) It worked,” they say, unquote. They went on to write, quote, “As early as the 1950s oil companies worked on strategies to sow doubt about science that could lead to regulation of their own air emissions. The Smoke and Fumes committee at the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil industry’s main lobbyist, worked to discredit the science surrounding smog that its own researchers ultimately confirmed.” So, could you respond to those points?
NATHANIEL RICH: Yeah, I don’t see that as a criticism. Everything you just mentioned is in the article. You know, I don’t expect people to have read a 35-40,000-word article on the day it’s published. But I think—
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain those points.
NATHANIEL RICH: Oh, yeah, sure, absolutely. So, as I write about, you start to see industry, American Petroleum Institute, Exxon—as was well documented in their series, which is fantastic and was a great source for my piece, and I credited them—they start to understand—it’s clear they understand the science, as early as at least the 1950s. And repeatedly, over the decades, they publish re-evaluations of the science, come to the exact same conclusions, which are the same conclusions that have been reached by government scientists and independent scientists and so on, and they don’t take action. And that continues through the ’80s. There are a couple other, you know, details there.
I would distinguish that from the coordinated disinformation campaign, the bribing of scientists, the bribing of politicians, the enormous PR campaigns modeled after the tobacco industry’s efforts. And it’s certainly true that that didn’t really start happening until you get—with force, until you get in the lead-up to the Rio Earth Summit, when there’s the possibility of real action. At that point, what my reporting shows is the White House had already checked out, and there was no real desire within the White House—
AMY GOODMAN: And this was the White House of?
NATHANIEL RICH: Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: George H.W.
NATHANIEL RICH: George H.W. Bush. And so, I don’t dispute any of that. And my point is simply that by the time you get to the end of the ’80s, that the robust effort hasn’t started and that not only did Exxon know and API, but the government knew. There were articles in Time and Life in the 1950s and on through. So this wasn’t a secret. And I think there’s a confusion, even among people who follow the issue fairly closely, that this started with Jim Hansen’s testimony. And Jim Hansen is one of the two main figures in my piece.
AMY GOODMAN: This was in 1988.
NATHANIEL RICH: Sorry, 1998, a hearing during the hottest summer ever and droughts and wildfires.
AMY GOODMAN: James Hansen, a leading climate scientist, who was head of the Goddard—the NASA center for studies on climate.
NATHANIEL RICH: Right. So the piece follows his story going back to the late ’70s. And he was testifying at hearings throughout the decade. And so, there’s a long history that I find actually more damning, that leads up even to that point. So, there was a failure even before industry could then essentially cement the paralysis.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I think some of the key points that people seem to have taken—climate researchers and activists have taken issue with is that you write, “A common boogeyman today is the fossil-fuel industry, which in recent decades has committed to playing the role of villain with comic-book bravado.” And you also say that the Republican Party cannot be blamed. So, could you explain why—why—
NATHANIEL RICH: I think that’s a bit of a—I wouldn’t say the Republican Party can’t be blamed for the inaction that we’ve seen, of course. I’m not disputing—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Not recently, but in the period that you cover, ’79 to ’89.
NATHANIEL RICH: Oh, in the period. So, I don’t think it can—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, that’s when Reagan was in the White House—
NATHANIEL RICH: Yes, absolutely.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —who’s apparently the most anti-environmentalist administration since Trump.
NATHANIEL RICH: Right. And I think they certainly were anti-environmental. And you saw—and there’s a major part of the piece about when the Reagan administration takes over, and it’s a all-hands-on-deck crisis within the environmental movement and anyone who cares about these issues.
So, no, they were certainly not happy with the idea of environmental regulations. But there was no denying the issue. And there were—you know, they did sign the ozone treaty. Now, there are some corporate pressures that helped along the way. But essentially, by the end of the decade, you have a Republican administration that is making regular public statements in support of signing treaties. You have people within that administration who think it’s going to happen. William Reilly was a—I spoke to at length. And there was—let’s put it this way: There was a much stronger possibility than there has been ever since. And I think that’s an important story that needs to be told.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have, by 1989, these corporations coming together, like Exxon, forming the climate change coalition.
NATHANIEL RICH: Right. And so I have the story of how that happens, which is, after 1988, Hansen testifies. I interviewed the head of the American Petroleum Institute’s environmental section and his boss, the number two in the whole company, who had been the head of the environmental program the whole decade, Bill O’Keefe. And they told me—and they’re very, you know—they don’t equivocate about what happened in the ’90s, and they’re are proud of it.
But they said, after Hansen’s hearing, people started to perk up. There started to be concern. There were 32 bills filed in Congress about climate policy. And they started to hold meetings, informational meetings at API, and similar work was being done at Exxon, to try to formulate a strategy. And that was the beginning of a hard turn. But there were—you know, it progressed. Originally, it was, “Let’s make sure to highlight uncertainty. Let’s make sure to be a participant in any conversation about regulation. And let’s make sure not to endorse any policy that hurts the bottom line.” So you see the formation of it. But then it gets into pure fantasy, denialism and all of that. And that’s a story that’s been very well told, and I felt like there was—by great reporters, and I didn’t feel like I could add anything to that narrative. But I did feel like I could add something to the prehistory of that.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we talk about this mass crisis in the world today, the crisis of climate change. Fire tornadoes in California. The monsoon season so strong right now in India, just in the last week some well over 500 people killed. We are making a link between the issue that meteorologists talk about all over, this extreme weather, but to climate change, which they rarely mention in the U.S. corporate media. Studies have repeatedly, like Media Matters, been done to show no matter how many times they reference the firestorms in California, only once on NBC, ABC and CBS in the last few weeks did CBS mention the link to climate change.
Brenda Ekwurzel, you’re senior climate scientist, director of climate science for Climate and Energy Program at Union of Concerned Scientists. Rob Nixon with us, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. And Nathaniel Rich, who’s got the whole New York Times Magazine under his name this week with his piece “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”
Brenda, if you could respond to The New York Times piece? And also talk about what we were just talking about with Nathaniel. Talk about the issue of the power of the corporations, specifically 90 corporations having been responsible for two-thirds of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, an issue that Nathaniel highlights in his piece.
BRENDA EKWURZEL: Yes, it’s really important, the early history, because the bipartisan nature of people listening to the science, trying to design policy to solve it and try to get the economic and policy considerations all in a line and start rolling up our sleeves and working on this issue is really important. What happened? Why did it change to the world we have today, where people even are denying the science and are sticking their heads in the sand and not rolling up their sleeves at a national level in the United States?
And what you mentioned was the coverage of these extreme events, that the science is clear are—have very strong ties to climate change, such as, when you have too much water or too little water, we’ve changed the hydrologic cycle. So, that feeds into how severe these extreme events are. In fact, we’re seeing, in the new normal world we have today with 1-degree-Celsius warming, that our infrastructure around the world is not able to handle the flooding that happens after a wildfire, for example, such as what happened in California in the town of—the region a Montecito, that had these devastating debris flows after a wildfire had scorched the hillsides, and then the subsequent very high rainfall, which we know is another situation that’s changing with climate change, falls on that parched soil, and it unleashes very dangerous to debris flows, and destroying homes, and, unfortunately, people are losing their lives. And you mentioned other events around the world, such as in Pakistan, where there’s been extreme flooding, extreme heat in India and in Japan. And I could go on.
So what’s different today is that the predictions that the scientists knew in the ’50s ’60s and ’70s, and the scientists working within the fossil fuel industry knew, unfortunately, we’re seeing them play out today. So I think we have a different chance today to set this straight and to roll up our sleeves and make a difference. And states such as California, states such as Texas, states such as the Northeastern states and other states, cities all around the nation, in the U.S., are trying to stick with the Paris climate agreement. And many countries all around the world have some skin in the game. They’re all trying to help solve this problem. And the best part is, nations who are on the front lines are holding the world accountable. And that’s why the Paris climate agreement has even more aggressive targets than what would be if it was just a developing nation agreement.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Rob Nixon, you said earlier that on the question of climate change, both in its perception and the way that the successive U.S. governments have talked about it—well, in particular, the Trump administration now—that the U.S. is an outlier. Could you talk specifically about the way in which, as you say, anti-science has been propagated in the U.S., and the role of the media in bringing climate change to attention when they cover climate-related disasters, as we’ve seen in the last few months?
ROB NIXON: Yes, I think one of the successes of the right’s dissemination of anti-science has been that climate change and global warming are perceived in the U.S., to a far greater extent than they are in most of the world, as politicized terms. And as a result, the corporate media, in particular, often steers clear of them. And that has something to do the ownership of the media. It has something to do with the advertising base and so forth. But, you know, I think one cannot overestimate the degree to which the funding of anti-science in the U.S. has been far, far greater—you know, more than a hundred times greater—than in any other country in the world. And this has permeated public perceptions and created a kind of a skittishness around using that language, which is now perceived as polarizing, in a way, say, that scientific language about gravity is not. And that is the result of a very concerted campaign.
What I do see shifting is a generational perception of what the political priorities are. And if I look at my students, which I’ve taught in Wisconsin, New Jersey, elsewhere, if I look at the, say, millennial generation, the issue of debt—climate debt, student debt—is right at the forefront of their political priorities. We’re also in a better position technologically than we’ve ever been to actually act upon shifting the source of our energy to renewables, removing subsidies to fossil fuel, also increasing the storage power in batteries, which has been a long-standing obstacle. So, technologically, we’re in a very good position. It’s a question of aligning those technological possibilities with international governance.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to just say—
ROB NIXON: And so, as a—yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: We just got this breaking news, reading from The Washington Post, “The Trump administration on Thursday announced plans to freeze fuel-efficiency requirements for the nation’s cars and trucks through 2026—a massive regulatory rollback likely to spur a legal battle with California and other states, as well as create potential upheaval in the nation’s automotive market”—the proposal representing an abrupt reversal of the findings that the government reached under President Obama, when regulators argued requiring more-fuel-efficient vehicles would improve public health, combat climate change and save consumers money without compromising safety. Your response to this, Nathaniel Rich? This is in the midst of the fire tornadoes of California.
NATHANIEL RICH: Yeah, I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that what the Republican Party is doing now and what industry has propagated for the last couple decades will be considered in the future, and probably the very near future, as crimes against humanity.
And I think that, you know, the conversation that we’re having today, one of the things that was most striking to me about reading some of these conversations that were being held in the ’80s, it’s identical. There’s nothing we’re saying today that wasn’t said in 1980, including the North-South issues and developing country issues. And it makes me wonder if we have come about this in the right way. I mean, my sense in having these conversations is that we’ve failed, as a society, to articulate an adequate moral vision of this problem—and which is not to—putting aside the moral vision of industry, which is obviously sociopathic.
But I don’t think we understand exactly what’s coming. And we don’t—we certainly don’t feel it on the level of the society. And I think the only—my feeling is that the only way to begin to get there is to understand how we got here. And that’s part of the reason I wanted to write this article. But—
AMY GOODMAN: What most surprised you in your research?
NATHANIEL RICH: I think just that you—reading transcripts of a meeting in 1980 with, you know, assembled—there’s a meeting in the piece, two dozen of the top experts, including Henry Shaw from Exxon, policy people from Congress and so on, meet together at the directive of Congress to develop climate policy. And they have a 3-day meeting in which they talk about everything we could possibly talk about today. And they all agree. Even, you know, Shaw is not disputing anything. And at the end of the meeting, they can’t even formulate a single statement that they agree on, a single sentence, let alone policy.
AMY GOODMAN: Brenda Ekwurzel, what gives you most hope right now?
BRENDA EKWURZEL: What gives me the most hope is that we are what we call—a friend of mine, and colleague and a scientist, says we’re on the luxury end of the exponential curve. So, those conversations back there aren’t too different from today because we’re just feeling the full brunt of climate change that we’ve already delivered today; however, it has a legacy of centuries that we will be unleashing sea level rise, because heat-trapping gases—15 to 45 percent of carbon dioxide we release in the atmosphere today will be trapping heat, day in, day out, over a thousand years. So, that idea is important.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Rob Nixon, let me ask you, on the issue of hope.
ROB NIXON: Yeah, well, I would come back to the technological changes and the generational changes. I think the priorities, in terms of mitigation, adaptation, resilience, that we see from—
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
ROB NIXON: Yeah—younger people today give us hope. But there has to be a massive surge of concerted action.
AMY GOODMAN: Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union Concerned Scientists; and Nathaniel Rich, we’ll link to your piece in The New York Times, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.”