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Inside The EPA: How Employees Are Reacting To The U.N. Climate Report


It is hard to imagine a scarier set of headlines than the ones describing the new United Nations report on climate change. They include phrases such as, the world stands on the brink of failure, final call and most extensive warning yet. The U.N. report says climate change is transforming the world at a speed and scale that has no precedent, which prompted us to wonder whether alarm bells are going off today inside the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, given that the U.S. remains the world's second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide and given that President Trump plans to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

Brady Dennis covers the environment for The Washington Post, and he joins me now. Hey there.

BRADY DENNIS: Hey. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. OK. So the EPA has put out an official response to the U.N. report. It's a few sentences. Sum up what they're saying.

DENNIS: Yes. In so many words, you know, they said we appreciate the hard work of these scientists and experts who put this report together, but governments don't formally endorse these reports. And they noted that the U.S. continues to lead in reducing greenhouse gases, that we've reduced our emissions by about 14 percent since 2005. What goes unmentioned there is that, you know, a lot of the Trump administration policies are working to roll back some of the policies that help to reduce those emissions.

KELLY: I mean, what's your read on that statement reacting to this pretty stunning climate report? That was your line, by the way, that I quoted in the intro, saying the world stands on the brink of failure. That was from your article. I mean, this is not exactly a call to action that we're hearing there from the EPA.

DENNIS: No. I mean, the EPA has been ground zero for doing, you know, quite the opposite of what this report is saying the world needs to do. And what the EPA had to say was more than the White House had to say. You didn't hear any mention by President Trump yesterday about this, you know, as you said, a really dire report. And one EPA - a career person got in touch with me today when I asked what, you know, the response to this was among the rank and file inside the agency. And I said, you know, what have you heard from above? And the response was crickets.

KELLY: Huh. Speaking of above, I know you just interviewed the acting EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler. You interviewed him last week. I mean, when you asked him about global warming and what the U.S. responsibility is in the effort to curb it, what does he say?

DENNIS: Sure. My colleague Juliet Eilperin did that interview for a story we were working on. And in that, he sort of - you know, he demurred on that exact question and said, you know, we have to come up with technology, such as capturing carbon out of the - you know, taking it out of the environment, without addressing the issue of how much we're pouring into it. I think the important thing to look at is, aside from what these officials say, what the policies actually do. And just in the past couple of months alone, the Trump administration has put forward proposals that would, you know, extend the life of coal plants and allow more methane in the air and make cars not as fuel efficient. So that's the direction this White House is headed.

KELLY: And how do they justify that direction given that it's the EPA? It's the Environmental Protection Agency.

DENNIS: Yeah. You know, they justify it on the grounds of the cost it would have to industry. And we've seen a shift in the way this administration calculates the costs and the benefits. The Obama administration was much quicker to look at the benefits to human health and other ways of calculating that to where they said, look; it's the right thing and the proper thing to do, to put out these climate regulations. This administration has taken the opposite direction.

KELLY: Yeah. And just very briefly - I mentioned President Trump has announced his intention to pull out from the Paris climate deal. But he hasn't done it. Is there a time frame on that?

DENNIS: You know, under these kind of arcane rules, the U.S. can't pull out of that deal until 2020. But you know, by announcing that last year shortly after he took office, it kind of has taken the U.S. immediately out of a leadership role and made us kind of bystanders...

KELLY: Sends a signal.

DENNIS: ...In this global process.

KELLY: The Washington Post's Brady Dennis. Thanks so much.

DENNIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.