Why the World Started Fighting About Climate Change Every Year
As chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush, William Reilly helped set in motion both global climate diplomacy and a critical law — the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 — that prevents an estimated 370,000 pollution-related premature deaths a year. On the eve of November’s United Nations negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, Reilly looked back at the birth of global climate debates and what their future may bring. The transcript has been edited for length.
Climate negotiations really started in the 1980s, before the UN Framework Convention. What were those early days like?
I had a long meeting with the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl. It turned out to be weeks before the Berlin Wall fell [on Nov. 9, 1989].
I was really blown away. At the end of the meeting, Kohl stood up. He looked me straight in the eye, and he said, “On the shoulders of your country and my country rests whatever hope this planet has to avoid a planetary catastrophe. And on your shoulders, Mr. Reilly, is the responsibility to bring your president to understand the significance of this issue.” I still get chills when I remember that he said that.
I brought it back, but it wasn’t enough. I had an hour-and-a-half lunch with the president alone. I went through the economics, the politics, what other countries were doing, where people were politically on it. Basically, all of our allies were encouraging us to have a more forward-leaning position.
What was your role in the creation of the UN climate treaty?
Rio came unfortunately in the middle of a U.S. presidential campaign.
I went twice to Brazil to prepare folks on planning the conference. On one trip, Prince Charles invited me to sail up the Amazon on the Britannia, the royal yacht, with the president of Brazil and three ministers. I arranged to have a private meeting with them.
I said, “You have to understand that it's an extraordinarily delicate decision for President Bush to come to Rio. Everything I see would lead me to recommend he not come because you are not organized or prepared.”
And I’ll never forget, he turned to me, and very convincingly he said, “Mr. Reilly, it is vital to U.S.-Brazilian relations that the president of the United States come. There are at least 40 heads of state waiting to find out if he's going to come before they decide whether to come. I will give you my word of honor. I understand President Bush will be in the middle of the campaign. I will do everything in my power to ensure that he is not embarrassed.” So I went back to Washington with that.
Bush did attend and signed the treaty. But what happened next turns out, I suppose, not to have been enough.
If you go back and read the convention, it says something about how the parties to this will be committed to reducing their emissions to the 1990 level. Basically, it's made aspirational. It's stated as one of the nice-to-have goals. That was in lieu of anything that required serious reductions in the near term. There are no limitations on, for example, when you have to achieve this.
We desperately needed a win, and we got one in Paris. Paris was a very easy agreement to accommodate. It basically it said, “Do whatever it looks like it's possible for you to do.” And for some countries it wasn't much. And a number of other countries committed more than they actually did. It had consequences in those countries even in places that were not predisposed to do anything about climate change.
If we time-traveled to 1992 and I asked what you thought the future of climate policy would be, what would you have said?
I wouldn't have thought it would take so much time, especially because the IPCC and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences both got more definitive in their comments. The language just kept getting tighter and tighter — as those of us who were really following the science thought it would.
I took too much comfort in the fact that we had come together as a community of nations. I would have expected and hoped that the climate treaty would develop teeth as time went on, with more substantial commitments for different countries, and that we would be a lot further along.
I would have thought that the country would listen to the scientists. However, the political support for action on climate was never that deep. And it wasn't deep in the eyes of President Bush, who really picked it up as a campaign position, but not out of any strong conviction or knowledge of the issues.
What are you most hopeful about looking ahead to 2050?
There are very promising things that could happen between now and 2050. One is a transformation of the electrical grid into renewables. That is a doable problem. I think we can fully convert the auto fleet, if not the truck fleet, to renewables.
What’s your general outlook about the state of the climate and our willingness to address it?
My basic outlook is very clouded and limited by the fact that the U.S. culture is really not there. The fact that 74 million people voted for a climate denier — and probably many of the others who voted didn't vote on the climate — suggests that we don't recognize this in a way that we're going to have to. What the culture needs is a spiritual revival and transformation that recognizes that the planet is endangered. And that it is sacred. And I don't see that technological solutions to this are going to be embraced to the degree that's necessary in time that's necessary.
We've got to get more leadership, more brave leadership, and people just willing to take some unpopular decisions.
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