As U.S. Drags On Climate Action, Mayors Take The Lead

12:10 minutes

Farmer walking on dry soil
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a stylized version of the earth with cloudsThis story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

At a United Nations climate meeting in Poland last year, President Trump’s advisor on energy and climate change didn’t advance a forward-thinking plan to tackle climate change, but instead extolled the virtues of natural gas and even coalone of the dirtiest fossil fuels. So, in the absence of meaningful federal policy on climate change, a grassroots effort by 435 U.S. mayors seeks to solve the climate problem, starting at the local level instead.

Emily Atkin, who writes the HEATED newsletter about the climate crisis, talks about that and other climate policy stories in the news, such as the lack of climate questions at the Democratic debate and the candidates’ views on punishing fossil fuel companies; Google donations that fuel climate science denial; and the Department of Agriculture’s lack of assistance for farmers dealing with increasingly extreme weather

Further Reading

  • Check out Emily Atkin’s newsletter HEATED

Segment Guests

Emily Atkin

Emily Atkin is author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter about the climate crisis. She’s based in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.


The climate is changing, and because we need to deal with it now, we open the next chapter of our series, Degrees of Change. Our series explores the challenges of a changing climate and how we, as a planet and a people, are adapting to the crisis. We’ll be talking about retreat, communities that are encouraging people to escape floods and rising seas. More info on how you can get involved in our coverage and sign up for our climate newsletter at ScienceFriday.com/degreesofchange.

But first, we check in on the gatekeepers, the decision makers, the controllers of the purse strings. This week, we, again, saw the Democratic contenders for the presidency onstage to debate. And did you notice what was missing from three hours of debate? Did you notice not one question about climate change? With climate change rapidly morphing into climate crisis, not one of the CNN moderators saw it fit to find out how a dozen candidates would handle it. Emily Atkin writes Heated, a newsletter about the climate crisis, and she’s here to talk about that and other climate policy stories in the news this week. Welcome, Emily.

EMILY ATKIN: Hello, thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Climate change is polling right up there with health care among Democrats. And while we got a lot of talk about Medicare for All, not a peep about climate change in the debate, really.

EMILY ATKIN: No, it’s like flashback to 2012 and 2016 and just being ignored all over again.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I mean, let’s be fair to CNN. They did hold a seven-hour climate town hall a while back, right?

EMILY ATKIN: Sure, they did. That’s a little different than a debate, sort of targeted to a more niche audience, and the candidates can’t interact with each other during this forum. So we haven’t seen, really, the candidates have a robust argument about the climate crisis yet.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, they ruled out having a climate debate, the DNC. So that’s not going to happen very soon.

EMILY ATKIN: No, I don’t think that’s going to happen ever. Well, at least not this cycle.

IRA FLATOW: Not this cycle. And all the candidates on stage this week have also gone on the record to talk about how they’d hold fossil fuel companies accountable on climate change. What sort of solutions are they talking about?

EMILY ATKIN: I think the number one solution that people are talking about is holding companies liable through litigation. There are a number of consumer protection laws and state laws that seek to hold companies accountable for making false claims to consumers. So say you buy a candy bar and the candy bar causes you to get migraines or something like that, and the companies know that, but they don’t tell you. And you get migraines, so you can sue them.

That’s the same with fossil fuels. Candidates and lawsuits are seeking to hold them accountable for making false claims, misleading the public about the fact that their product caused climate change.

IRA FLATOW: This is something like the tobacco industry. Is that what they’re arguing?

EMILY ATKIN: It is exactly like that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but they’re not talking about a carbon tax or something like that.

EMILY ATKIN: I mean, sure. That’s part of many different policies that candidates have to talk about. But the fact is that cities and states and the federal government, which means taxpayers, are– we’re going have to pay a lot of money to prepare ourselves for the damage that is coming with the climate crisis. And the strategy is to take some of the load off of taxpayers’ shoulders by saying that fossil fuel companies have a duty through the law to pay for some of this, because they lied about it.

IRA FLATOW: Your next story is about the Department of Agriculture and how little money it’s devoting to prepping farmers for the effects of climate change, like extreme weather.

EMILY ATKIN: Right, so this year, the extreme weather was really bad for farmers. About 20 million acres of land, a record breaking amount of land were left unable to be planted by wet weather just in the Midwest. That’s without mentioning fires in the west and hurricanes in the southeast. And the Agriculture Department is only devoting 0.3% of its budget to help farmers prepare for and adapt to events like this, which, again, is a taxpayer concern because this year, taxpayers have paid $2.5 billion in crop insurance. So that will also only stand to get worse and worse.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because we are seeing all these record rainfalls and flooding on these farms.

EMILY ATKIN: Right, and we’re sort of in this place now, too, where the farmers see that this is happening, but there’s also widespread– farmers don’t tend to not think that this is climate change, because they’re so connected to the climate. They see the climate changing. And they think, yeah, the climate is changing, and this is bad, but there’s still a reluctance to accept that this is human caused and thus preventable.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another topic. Google has a whole sustainability website talking about how they’re purchasing clean energy installations, how they’re fighting climate change with data, and so on. But that website isn’t really telling the whole story about Google’s complicated relationship with climate change, is it?

EMILY ATKIN: No, so The Guardian has this story published earlier this week revealing Google’s support for policy groups that back climate science denial and back repealing of environmental regulations to solve climate change. So the main two groups that The Guardian revealed Google was sponsoring is the state policy network, which is this umbrella organization for conservative groups.

And those groups include the Heartland Institute, which is like this very radical anti science group, climate denial group. And then also just financial support for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which was one of the leading groups to help convince the Trump administration to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement and withdraw some Obama era climate regulations.

IRA FLATOW: Have they been called out on any of this stuff?

EMILY ATKIN: Oh, oh, yeah. I mean, if you read the article, there’s a quote from I believe Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who’s– he’s a senator from Rhode Island. He’s one of the most outspoken senators on climate change. And he basically just says, you don’t get to have it two ways. You don’t get to say that you’re a leader on climate change and then support primarily climate denying front groups.

Essentially, I’ve been covering this issue for a long time. And it’s pretty clear that one of the biggest problems towards acting on climate change is misinformation about climate change. Science denial– it’s one of the biggest, most insidious problems. And so if Google is supporting climate science denial group while saying that they’re leaders in climate action, they’re definitely being called out for hypocrisy.

IRA FLATOW: And social communities is the right place where people are residing and keeping track of this stuff.

EMILY ATKIN: Yeah, and I mean, we have problems there, too. Social networks, I mean, willingly or not, that is where a lot of the misinformation takes place and spreads.

IRA FLATOW: Finally, mayors from around the country are stepping up to negotiate directly at the UN climate talks. They aren’t leaving it to federal diplomats, are they?

EMILY ATKIN: No. The United States has a federal presence at the UN climate talks has sort of devolved into maybe, like, a sideshow at this point. There’s not a real actual negotiating on climate change happening anymore now that the Trump administration is leading federal talks, US talks at the UN Climate Summit. So mayors are just taking it into their own hands.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we are seeing a lot more of this in all the climate issues, aren’t we? We’re seeing that the mayors and the states, they’re saying, we have a political and we have an economic impact. We’ve got to take this on ourselves.

EMILY ATKIN: Well, I mean, that makes sense because they’re the ones directly dealing with the impacts to their communities. They’re the ones whose budgets pay for maintaining infrastructures. And they’re the ones who have to respond first to extreme weather. They don’t really have much of a choice. They’re on the front lines every day.

And it should be noted that the US Conference of Mayors, they have submitted a resolution in support of those accountability measures we were talking about earlier, those lawsuits. Because fossil fuel companies have been saying, OK, we’ll support climate policy in exchange for immunity from lawsuits that seek to make us pay for it. And just recently, the US Conference of Mayors submitted a resolution to the UN saying, we can’t have that. We need that money from those fossil fuel companies to help pay for these measures because it’s expensive.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because they saw what happened to the tobacco industry when people were allowed to sue them. They had giant settlements.

EMILY ATKIN: Exactly, and I think mayors are hoping that similar settlements will ease some of the financial burden on their citizens.

IRA FLATOW: I was reminded of the recent story about California trying to push back against the White House, which wants to take away their car emission standards that are higher than federal standards. It seems like states are being emboldened now, aren’t they, looking at each other and what they’re trying to do.

EMILY ATKIN: Right, and I think their main argument is that if you’re a Republican government and you’re for states’ rights, let us do what we want to do. OK, your federal regulations aren’t going to be that strong on fossil fuel companies or climate change. Well, let us do it if you’re not going to. And that’s something the Trump administration is trying to prevent, is to prevent states from being able to go further than the Trump administration is going.

IRA FLATOW: I mentioned at the top about health care, climate change right up there or even sometimes topping health care as an issue among Democrats. I’m really surprised since, as you mentioned, 2012 and 2016, I’ve talked about this before. Are you as surprised how quickly this has risen as an issue?

EMILY ATKIN: I’m surprised as a person particularly who has been covering climate change for that long, because– I’ve said this before– it’s almost been like for the last six years, I’ve been just throwing quotes into the void. And all of a sudden, I’m throwing quotes into not a void, and people are listening to them. And it is very surprising. But also at the same time, it’s not that surprising because from a journalistic standpoint, I’ve always looked at climate change and just been like, wow, this is a very big, very important issue. I wonder when people are going to start paying attention. And it turns out it’s now, and I think that’s partially just because it’s starting to become a little more obvious than it once was.

IRA FLATOW: You really can’t deny what you can see, can you?


IRA FLATOW: You can’t deny these giant storms, the hurricanes, the floods, the fires. I could go on. You could go on.

EMILY ATKIN: Well, I mean, you can deny it. You certainly can. It’s possible. We still see it all the time. But something you can’t deny is that it is polling at the same level of interest among Democratic voters as health care. But we are seeing so much more discussion of health care than climate change in our journalistic realms, like these debates. And so I think that’s where a lot of the controversy comes from. It’s like, listen. People care. We need to start talking about it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll see if it shows up in the next debate. Thank you, Emily, for taking time to be with us today.

EMILY ATKIN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Emily Atkin writes Heated, a newsletter about the climate crisis.

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