The acting chief of the Environmental Protection Agency was on stage Wednesday morning, but he wasn’t the one defending his own agency’s latest findings about the huge economic toll that unchecked climate change will take on the United States.
It was his nemesis, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, who made that case.
The Trump administration continues to disavow the congressionally mandated report by 13 federal agencies that projected dire economic consequences from climate change.
The president has given no scientific basis for rejecting the report, but has instead offered his perception that the environment is on the right track. In an interview this week with the Washington Post, Trump described himself as among the people who “have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers.”
“You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean,” he added.
The climate change report has further intensified the clash between California and the White House over environmental policy, as the state struggles with the kind of devastating wildfires that have already grown substantially bigger and more intense because of global warming, according to the report.
The tension was on full display at an event hosted by the Washington Post on Wednesday morning, when Becerra took the stage as acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler exited it.
“The majority of that report was written in 2016, and it was at the direction of the previous administration,” Wheeler said. “It had no political review by this administration. We did not review it. I did not see the report until it was released.”
Becerra called the climate report “a scathing indictment of what this administration is trying to do.”
“I think I have read more of it than they have, and I haven’t read very much. It is kind of disturbing when they are in charge of trying to protect the nation’s environment for them not to read a report issued by their own folks,” he added. “You would hope that driving their policy is the work done by the experts.”
The report’s assessment paints a dire picture of the worsening effects of global warming as nearly every corner of the country grows more at risk from extreme heat, more devastating storms, droughts and wildfires, waning snowpack and other threats to critical infrastructure, air quality, water supplies and vulnerable communities.
By century’s end, thousands of additional deaths will occur each year from worsening heat waves and air pollution, crop yields will decline, and coral reefs and sea-ice ecosystems will dwindle, the report forecasts.
The economic blow in some sectors would reach hundreds of billions of dollars, substantially reducing the nation’s gross domestic product, the report said.
Wheeler said he accepts that human activity is exacerbating warming, but that he is skeptical of the report’s findings. He pointed to the progress the United States has made in reducing emissions.
“Those scenarios downplay innovation we have already seen in the marketplace,” Wheeler said of the report. “We have to give credit for that reduction” in emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide, which lead to warming.
The comments by Wheeler, whom Trump has nominated to be the permanent EPA chief, conflict with the findings of mainstream climate scientists, who warn the nation must substantially step up its climate action if it is to avoid the costs laid out in the federal report.
Almost all of the moves the Trump administration has made on the environment go in the opposite direction. Trump has aggressively worked to dismantle Obama-era policies aimed at curbing emissions.
Becerra scoffed that Wheeler was, in part, claiming credit for actions that courts have ordered the administration to take.
“It is interesting to hear the acting administrator take credit for some of the reductions in CO2 and so forth when they’ve been trying to backslide on those requirements,” Becerra said, pointing to court action by California and other states that have blunted some of the administration’s rollbacks of climate action.
“It is pretty bold to take credit for losses in court that have required them to move forward and do what they have tried to stop doing.”
The attorney general bristled, however, at the suggestion that California was acting as the leader of the “resistance” to Trump in the more than three dozen lawsuits the state has filed to stop administration rollbacks of environmental policies.
Several of the policies that the state has challenged would inhibit California’s pursuit of cleaner burning cars, more wind and solar power, and tougher anti-pollution measures and would flout federal law, he said. The state is merely preserving its rights to pursue its own vision, he said.
“It is not a matter of resisting,” Becerra said. “It is a matter of doing what we are doing. and as long as we are doing it according to the law, don’t get in our way.”