‘They Knew: The U.S. Government’s 50-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis’

Interview with James Gustave “Gus” Speth, author of They Knew: The U.S. Government’s 50-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

James Gustave “Gus” Speth has had a more than 50-year career at the top echelons of the environmental movement, working in the worlds of government, non-profits and academia. He’s a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, was chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter administration, and a leader of the United Nations Development Program. Speth also served as dean of Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

 Attorneys representing 21 youth plaintiffs in the Juliana v United States lawsuit, who are suing the U.S. government for denying their right to a livable planet, recently asked Speth to write a history of how presidential administrations, starting with Jimmy Carter, have dealt with the issue of climate change.

Speth does just that in his new book titled, “They Knew: The U.S. Government’s 50-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis.” Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Speth about the book and the patterns that his research revealed.

GUS SPETH: I focus in the book on the Carter administration more fully first, because I was there and had more information about it, and second, it was the point at which the issue really became sort of a high-level policy issue in an administration. Up until the Carter years it had been a scientific issue, an issue of some curiosity and interest, but not really a policy concern. But in the Carter years, it became a policy concern – not an overriding or powerfully driving one,  that would come later — but at least it was acknowledged by President Carter that it was an issue. And he put the country on a good course with his extraordinary efforts at promoting solar energy – notable in part because of the solar collectors he put on the White House – and his great concern about efficiency and conservation of energy. So, Carter got us onto a good start, let’s say 1980. Then we look 40 years later and what we find is that that good start was not followed up, and we’re putting out more greenhouse gases today than we were in the Carter years.

MELINDA TUHUS: I agree that Carter made a good start. He seemed to understand the issue and was promoting renewables, but as you pointed out in the book, every single administration you covered recognized the problem, they knew there were alternatives, and yet they continued to promote fossil fuels.

GUS SPETH: I think there are patterns that the book reveals over this 50-year period it looks at, from LBJ through Trump. One of those patterns is that every administration knew, and was informed about the status of climate science and the reality of the climate threat. Every one of them, from Carter going forward, has had an abundance of information about the climate threat. Secondly, every administration was also informed about alternatives to wholehearted, full-throttled reliance on fossil fuels. Every one was presented with alternative plans in one way or another. And then thirdly, as you say, everyone continued the full support of the fossil fuel economy and did everything they could to promote fossil fuels. Now, some of them combined that promotion of fossil fuels with an effort to promote renewables and energy efficiency and conservation, and basically they were the three Democratic administrations in this story: Carter and Clinton and Obama. But every one of those administrations that acknowledged the problem was followed by what I think of as a flame thrower administration that tried really hard to undo what they had accomplished. The result is that 40 years after the Carter administration what we find is that we are putting out more greenhouse gases today than then. The percentage of fossil fuels has gone down from 90 percent to 80 percent, roughly, but the total use of fossil fuels has gone up.

MELINDA TUHUS: Gus Speth, knowing what you know about this more than 50 years of government support for fossil fuels, and the impacts we’re seeing because of it, how do you get up in the morning?

GUS SPETH: You know, we have a tragedy; it can only get worse, and that should motivate us. Some good signs, too, that we shouldn’t neglect. The climate has seen the birth of the youth movement in the climate arena. And so much of the activism today is driven by young people, and that’s all to the good and very important. Also, it’s very interesting that indigenous populations in the U.S. and Canada are very awake now to this issue and the way it’s driving a lot of changes, particularly the fossil fuel developments on their lands, so that’s another encouraging sign. And I think the second thing is that the climate disruptions are motivating a lot of people. The news for a long, long time – decades – didn’t cover serious fires and other weather events as things that were related to climate change.

For more information, visit James Gustave Speth’s web page at wri.org/profile/james-gustave-speth.

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