Earth Week Exclusive Interview with Carol Browner, Conservation Champion
Carol Browner has had a long career in public service on environmental conservation. She was the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 1993-2001 and served as President Obama’s Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, and also served as a member of the Gulf Oil Spill Commission.
ODP: The myth that environmental regulations kill jobs has become even more prevalent in the last 10 years, culminating in President Trump’s massive rollback of regulations. Why are well-crafted regulations good for business and the economy?
CB: American innovation can solve the challenge of reducing the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change and threatens our health and economy. We do not have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment; we can have both. On nearly every regulatory action by the EPA, from removing lead from gasoline to reducing mercury pollution from power plants, the industry said the rules were too expensive and too ambitious. In nearly every case, it turned out that the rules weren’t as expensive as originally thought and innovation met every challenge. Well-crafted regulations, when developed with all stakeholders involved, can lead to better technology, lower costs and economic opportunity for businesses meeting the standards.
Over the past four decades plus, we have cut air pollution 70 percent and cleaned up half of our nation’s polluted waterways. During that time, the U.S. GDP tripled, which proves that investments in protections for our health and environment are commensurate with strong economic growth.
ODP: The United States has taken itself out of the global effort to act on climate change. What are the long term implications of our retreat? Also, if Trump is not re-elected in 2020, can the U.S. come back and still be seen as a leader globally?
CB: While the administration has basically retreated from our role in leading the global clean energy economy, states, cities, and businesses in the US are making a concerted effort to reduce carbon pollution and leverage the economic opportunity of acting on climate change. It could take us decades to recover from the damage inflicted by this administration. President Obama had taken concrete steps to address climate change – from the Clean Power Plan to cleaner cars standards – that would have reduced emissions from the two largest polluting sectors. This administration is rolling back all of it. The president doesn’t believe the science – or his own federal scientists who wrote a National Climate Assessment that called for bold action on climate change. Yes, we can return to our position of leadership and governors and mayors and business leaders are key to not falling too far behind.
ODP: You were a key part of the Obama administration’s response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, what was the most shocking part for you of witnessing the aftermath? Has it shaped how you view our national transition to a clean energy economy?
CB: The Deepwater Horizon spill made one thing clear – the risks associated with extracting fossil fuels from the earth are significant and we need to find better ways to power our economy, our businesses, our schools, and our homes. If anything, the spill was a call to action for innovation and new technology to accelerate the inevitable transition to a clean energy economy.
ODP: In the 1990s and early 2000s there were points of bipartisan agreement on climate change (one party didn’t entirely deny the issue) yet now climate action has become such a bitter, partisan topic. How can we overcome the partisan connotation associated with climate change, given its urgency?
CB: It is really unfortunate that climate change has become so partisan. Much of that can be attributed to the purveyance of money in politics. The oil and gas industry has deep influence in Congress and has stymied congressional action for years. However, I think we are reaching a tipping point on climate change. The House of Representatives, under the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is taking its first meaningful climate change action in almost a dozen years. Public polling continues to show that Americans want strong action on climate change – and now even a majority of Republican voters support taking action on climate change. The denial of the past decade isn’t sustainable. The electorate is changing, with younger people deeply invested in our environmental future. I hold out hope that cooler heads and collaboration will prevail before it is too late. We can do that by finding solutions that achieve the reductions we need while driving the growth we want and protecting all communities from pollution. We can do it, we just have to stop talking past each other and start talking with each other.
ODP: What makes you optimistic for the future of the planet and the conservation movement?
CB: We are seeing a groundswell of support across the country for bold action to address climate change. Driven by young people, more and more voters are identifying climate change as an important challenge we must address. We are seeing states and cities take action to reduce carbon pollution and invest in clean energy. We are seeing a shift in our approach that accounts for impacted communities and finding just solutions to these challenges. With leadership, innovation, and commitment there is hope for the future.
Thanks so much, Carol, for your decades of leadership and for sharing your thoughts with our readers!