Author David Biello on the Future of Environmental Innovation and Policy

17:15 minutes

Last year, the international community—including the United States—came together to discuss and sign the Paris Climate Agreement. President-elect Donald Trump has previously vowed to pull out of that agreement. In his new book, The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age, author David Biello talked to scientists, CEOs, and individuals working to develop innovative climate change solutions. Biello discusses how Trump might influence environmental policy and where solutions to climate change issues may come from in the future. Read an excerpt from the book here.

Segment Guests

David Biello

David Biello is environment and energy editor at Scientific American in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last year, the international community, including the United States, came together to discuss and sign the Paris climate agreement. It was a global acknowledgement to tackle climate change. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to pull out of that agreement. What will a Trump administration mean for the environment and climate change policies? Can we look to the private sector to innovate solutions?

My next guest is a long-time energy and environment reporter. He attended those talks in Paris and he’s here to give us some perspective. David Biello is author of the new book The Unnatural World, the Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age. And if you want to read an excerpt from it, it’s up there on our website at sciencefriday.com/unnatural. Welcome back.

DAVID BIELLO: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: I know that we really don’t know what Donald Trump is going to do because he changes his position a whole lot every day almost. The Paris climate agreement, a big change story. Do you think that he might pull us out of that agreement?

DAVID BIELLO: Well, the only thing Donald Trump has been consistent on is his inconsistency. So like you said, we really don’t know. However, his statements so far would lead one to believe that yes, he will attempt to pull us out of the Paris climate accord. He can’t do it directly. The agreement was kind of structured in such a way to prevent that kind of outcome. That said, most of the commitments under the Paris agreement are voluntary, so he can just fail to fulfill them. And based on his appointments to the EPA so far, the man who is heading his transition team is a long-time climate denier.

IRA FLATOW: Who’s that?

DAVID BIELLO: Myron Ebell, somebody who I’ve interviewed many times in the past. He comes from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He’s about as climate skeptic as they come. Pretty suave about it. So not your run-of-the-mill climate skeptic. But that’s the person who’s leading the transition at the EPA. And that would lead one to believe that Donald Trump meant what he said and is going to act or not act on climate change.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255. Talking with David Biello, author of The Unnatural World. President Obama passed the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. Mr. Trump said that he wants to bring coal back. Do we believe him on that? Is it possible? There are companies that just gone bankrupt, coal companies.

DAVID BIELLO: Yeah. Well, he is certainly capable of overturning the Clean Power Plan, particularly if Myron and his other minions kind of gut the EPA, then the Clean Power Plan will die with them. That said, there are economic trends that even Donald Trump can’t control, one of which is we have a lot of cheap natural gas.

And that’s really what killed coal, not Obama administration regulations or anything else. And that trend is going to continue because Donald Trump has also said that he wants to drill for all of America’s abundant fossil fuel resources. That would presumably include natural gas. Natural gas will stay cheap and coal will stay dead.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, we’re just speculating because we don’t know what he really–

DAVID BIELLO: That is true.

IRA FLATOW: –what he really would do. One of the agencies that have acknowledged climate change is the Department of Defense. In fact, I remember the DOD said this is a national security issue. Could you not use that if you want to do something? Could you not say, hey, I’m going to pass it off because it’s a DOD imperative that we do something about it.

DAVID BIELLO: Absolutely. And certainly I would suggest that the Department of Defense is going to proceed on that front regardless. They have their own intrinsic reasons for wanting to act on climate change. They aren’t necessarily tied to acting on climate change. They have to do with energy security at military bases, getting themselves off foreign oil. If the Air Force wants to scramble jets, they don’t want to have to rely on Saudi Arabia to fuel them. So those trends are going to continue regardless of who’s in power. And that means that at least some action on climate change will continue.

IRA FLATOW: Because we’ve had the secretary of the Navy on the show talking about how green they have become. You would think that you can’t turn these things around, I would think.

DAVID BIELLO: You cannot turn them around entirely. And like I said, there are kind of intrinsic reasons why the military would want to take these actions. That said, you can certainly slow them down via your funding choices.

IRA FLATOW: Getting back to the EPA, do you think you can just do away with the whole EPA– clean air, clean water– or do you think it’s just parts that go away? Do you think the whole thing could go away?

DAVID BIELLO: Well, it’s enshrined in law. They would have to make a very concerted effort to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency entirely. That would probably be the kind of consistent regulatory effort that perhaps Donald Trump doesn’t have the consistency for. But in the shorter term, they can certainly gut it and ensure that the EPA does not act as a strong regulator but is a little bit more of a rubber stamp for greater pollution.

IRA FLATOW: What about the Senate? Does it have any control over any of these things that might happen?

DAVID BIELLO: Well, absolutely. Congress has the power of the purse. But Congress is also in Republican hands. So they’re going to decide what their funding priorities are and wherever the dollars flow, that’s where the action is going to take place.

IRA FLATOW: Are China and other countries looking toward us about their climate policy? They had the Paris agreement. They all signed on to it. If they see us pull out, does that give them cover to pull out also?

DAVID BIELLO: Absolutely. Now that said, I do think that just as the US military is acting on climate for its own intrinsic reasons, countries like China and India are acting on climate for their own intrinsic reasons. China is suffering through horrific air pollution, and acting on climate is one way for them to address that. They are extremely concerned about drought as one of the possible impacts from climate change. And so they’re going to act on climate regardless. That said, all of the international pressure on them to act will have essentially evaporated. Only the European Union will remain as kind of a international goad for climate action.

IRA FLATOW: But as you say for all of us– I’ve been to China. I’ve seen the [? power ?] of pollution they have. It’s in their own interest, right?


IRA FLATOW: They don’t have to do it because we do it. They want to take care of their own population.

DAVID BIELLO: Exactly. And frankly, the Communist party views it as a threat to stability. So they’re going to act on it. There’s no question about that. That said, they’re not going to act on it as fast or to the same scale without the pressure, the additional pressure, provided by the United States and, frankly, our cooperation in technology transfer and all the rest of it. And that is where maybe there is hope from a Trump administration. They’re interested in American prosperity. There are a lot of jobs in installing solar panels. There are a lot of jobs in wind turbines. Perhaps they will pursue those.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you go to Iowa and you see how they, per capita, they are leading the country in wind power.


IRA FLATOW: How do you go back to Iowa and say, I don’t want to keep this thing up?

DAVID BIELLO: You can’t do it. So I don’t think that that will happen. The states are going to be leading the charge on this. And frankly, a lot of the people who voted to elect Donald Trump are the most passionate advocates for things like solar power because kind of like the military, they enjoy that idea of energy independence, that I’m free of my utility because I have solar panels on my roof. Solar is kind of a bipartisan, attractive power source, and that’s not going away either.

IRA FLATOW: You would think that if you wanted to have it all ways, you could invest in these green energies because it is good for business and people like it. And it might be a way of uniting all different kinds of people. Do you think that might happen?

DAVID BIELLO: One can hope.

IRA FLATOW: You’re not very optimistic about this.

DAVID BIELLO: Well, with Myron Ebell and some of the other appointments that seem to be being made, it’s not the change in Washington DC that I think people voted for. The old, stale ideas that we saw in the 1990s are now resurging.

IRA FLATOW: Do you see, then, us losing money for research in the sciences, and especially sciences that have to do with the environment?

DAVID BIELLO: Quite possibly.

IRA FLATOW: Green energy and things like that.

DAVID BIELLO: If you read Trump’s contract with voters, it explicitly wants to transfer money from environmental programs to infrastructure improvements. Now, depending on what those infrastructure improvements might be, that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Our number, 844-724-8255. Debra in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. You’re up first today. Welcome to Science Friday.

DEBRA: Hello, Ira and guest. I really feel Donald Trump is not educated. And it doesn’t take a lot of reading or thinking to figure out that humans living on a planet and using up the natural resources are having an effect on it. I think it’s a no-brainer. I think now that he’s President, he’ll be more accountable and step up to the plate. At least I hope so.

IRA FLATOW: So you think he might change his mind. Or, as Werner Herzog told us, the office might shape him.

DEBRA: When he said that, when Werner said that, I had just been thinking that. That’s my best hope. I have a saying– Bad things are good things in disguise. And this just might be one of them.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Debra. Thanks and have a good holiday weekend. Thanks for calling. Yeah. As you say, we really don’t know what the future is, environmentally speaking. Where would you look for a first sign that something might be different than the way he’s been talking during the campaign?

DAVID BIELLO: The first sign is obviously these appointments. But the second sign would be who actually ends up in charge. It doesn’t seem that the Trump team had a lot of plans for post-election, and so they’re kind of scrambling a little bit to get some transition in place. The people who end up in place will determine whether there is hope or not. And some of the statements that I think President-elect Trump will make in coming days will tell us what does he really believe, if anything.

IRA FLATOW: When we signed you up to come on the program to talk about your book The Unnatural World, we had no idea we’d be talking.


IRA FLATOW: But let’s talk about the book. And its subtitled, The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age. What does that mean?

DAVID BIELLO: Well, we’re talking about this effort, this global effort, to bring human impacts more into line with the standing of the environment. And obviously electing Donald Trump seems to have set that back. And perhaps we put the man into anthropocene. Again, old white men are in charge again. But there’s still hope. We’re in a race. It’s a long haul. It’s not over.

IRA FLATOW: Long way to go.

DAVID BIELLO: Never, never, never, never time to stop, right?

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Melissa. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday, Melissa.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

MELISSA: Thanks for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

MELISSA: Well, I just wanted to make a comment on the observation that your speaker made earlier about how solar PV tends to be a crossover sector. And we, my husband and I, own a small solar company. Our clients tend to be less motivated by politics and more by their sense of independence that your guest spoke of and that sense of being able to grow your own energy, so to speak. And so I think that there’s a lot of hope. That’s all I wanted to say.

IRA FLATOW: OK. There you go. Some nice hopeful words for this holiday weekend on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m Ira Flatow here with David Biello, author of The Unnatural World, the Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age. We have an excerpt of that book on our website, sciencefriday.com/unnatural. If you want to find a way, you can find some sort of compromise if you want to.

DAVID BIELLO: Yes. And I think some of these trends are unstoppable no matter who’s in office. Honestly, as the Obama administration showed, the presidency only has so much power. There’s only so much that Trump can do. Yes, he can do some harm but he could also end up doing some good. And perhaps this is kind of the last gasp of an old way of thinking and will spur greater change and innovation in the future.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of innovation– I’m glad you brought that back up– what specific innovations do you see in your book that could be on the horizon?

DAVID BIELLO: Well, clearly we’re going to need better technologies to cope with carbon dioxide if the Trump agenda bears out. If we do end up burning more coal, more natural gas, more oil, we’re going to have to figure out a way to take that CO2 back out of the sky. That could be plants. They already do it, but they can only do so much. So we can turn to kind of farming the ocean as one way of pulling CO2 out of the sky. Or we can build machines that can do the job for us. These technologies exist. We could employ them. We could put money into their research and development because we’re going to need them.

IRA FLATOW: Does carbon sequestration– is that part of it? Does it work? Has it been proven yet?

DAVID BIELLO: We have the technology, as the saying goes. It’s just too expensive. So if we make a concerted effort on R&D and put money into it, if Trump really believes in clean coal as he said on the campaign trail, we can make that a reality. And frankly, that would be a great thing because China needs it. India needs it. They burn more coal than we do and the whole world needs that clean coal technology.

IRA FLATOW: If you wanted to put people back to work, there are very easy green jobs and green technologies and green research that you could sink the money into.

DAVID BIELLO: Exactly. Exactly.

IRA FLATOW: What if he lined that big wall he’s going to make with solar panels?

DAVID BIELLO: It’s in the desert. It’s in the desert. It’s pretty sunny.

IRA FLATOW: Call Elon Musk and say, put those shingles on the whole wall.


IRA FLATOW: But that kind of idea, though, people are saying it could be $25 billion to build the wall, if it ever gets built.


IRA FLATOW: You could be spending that money into creating jobs, clean energy jobs.

DAVID BIELLO: Exactly. And quite frankly, the wall in addition to being a humanitarian disaster would be an ecological disaster. So it’s not the best idea. But, that said, if we can unite around some ideas that are maybe a little bit better, like solar PV which seems to cut across party lines and voter affiliations, then there is still hope.

IRA FLATOW: So we’ll take some glass half full, maybe. But as we said three, four times already, we have no idea how this is going to shake out, who’s going to be in charge, who’s going to run the EPA. And about the National Science Foundation– how much money will that get? That’s important.

DAVID BIELLO: And how interested Trump is in any of this. It may be that he is not going to make any decisions in this area and kind of outsource that to other people. Or it’s possible that he cares about this deeply on some level that we’re not aware of and will implement whatever his own agenda is.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll take solace that he does come from New York where we’re sitting in. We have lots of big ideas here. Thank you, David, and good luck with the book.

DAVID BIELLO: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: David Biello, author of the new book The Unnatural World, the Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age.

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