Why Have a Council on Environmental Quality?

Why Have a Council on Environmental Quality?
AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File

The current attempt to install Kathleen Hartnett White as head of the Council on Environmental Quality – the organization in the White House that coordinates environmental policy – gives the Republican Party a clear choice about how it wants to define itself for future decades.

With his nomination for CEQ chair, President Trump has provided further evidence that he wants to untether himself from the historic Republican Party, which once included moderates willing to work across the aisle on protecting the environment, and from established environmental science on the earth’s atmosphere. The ball is now in the court of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate.

As is well known, the Council on Environment Quality – like many pillars of modern environmental policy – was created with bipartisan congressional support and the approval of Republican President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Three weeks after signing the bill creating the CEQ, Nixon declared in his State-of-the-Union address: “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.” He added: “It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans, because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later.” Nixon appointed highly respected scientists to key positions in his administration.

Times have clearly changed. White has worked for or with several organizations over the years supported by the Koch brothers and dedicated to fighting government mandates, especially environmental regulations. Thus, it is hardly surprising that she aligns herself with the skeptics on climate change science. But she goes further than many such skeptics, as demonstrated in her 2016 book Fueling Freedom, coauthored with Heritage Foundation economist and former Trump advisor Stephen Moore.

The book celebrates the expansion of U.S. oil and gas production that has helped make the United States more energy independent and the historic reductions in pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels but fails to credit the contributions of the federal government to these positive outcomes. The authors’ distaste of government is so great they refer to EPA as an “inflexible soviet-style diktat.” In a section titled “Are Greens the New Reds?” White quotes with approval the view: “The idea that human beings have changed and are changing the basic climate system of the Earth through their industrial activities and burning fossil fuels, the essence of the Greens’ theory of global warming – has about as much basis in science as Marxism and Freudism.”

Tellingly, in her book, White appears oblivious to the massive cost reductions in the production of electricity from solar power and wind, much of it in her home state of Texas. Arguing there are no cost-effective alternatives to electric generation from fossil fuels, she equates attempts to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide to a war on electricity itself – a claim possible only if contracts large companies have signed recently for renewable generation at low prices are treated as “fake news.”

But it was in their discussion of the science of pollution that White and Moore skated on the thinnest ice. They boldly asserted:“Carbon Dioxide is Not a Pollutant.” It is rather, in their view, a “benign” gas because the carbon cycle – inhalation of oxygen and the exhalation of carbon dioxide – is necessary for animal and plant life on earth. How did people come to believe that carbon dioxide was a pollutant? For White and Moore, the answer is clear. They declare: “Labeling carbon dioxide a pollutant is one of the climate change lobby’s more absurd gestures.” Their interpretation of science and history does not withstand serious scrutiny.

White implies that the thousands of experts who have worked on climate science in recent decades have been unaware of the carbon cycle, though photosynthesis is a basic part of any high school course on biology. Indeed, climate scientists have clearly explained why the carbon that enables human life possible can also have adverse effects on it. Ironically, some of the clearest thinking on the subject came in the early days of the Council on Environmental Quality, the organization White aspires to lead.

CEQ’s first annual report issued in August of 1970 remains one of the seminal documents in the creation of modern environmental policy. At a time when the relative warming effects of carbon dioxide and cooling impacts of sulfates were not well understood by many scientists (an issue not well clarified until later in the decade), the report acknowledged the disagreements among scientists about the future of the atmosphere. But the report, like other scientific writing during the period, clearly identified carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

In the first chapter, the report pointed out that pollution was not restricted to toxins: Pollution“occurs when materials accumulate where they are not wanted.” It cited the ocean and the atmosphere as examples of where “man may be exceeding nature’s capacity to assimilate his waste.” It recognized that many substances that benefited the quality of human life had adverse effects when they ended up in the wrong places or in quantities that were growing too rapidly for nature to adapt.

Later in the report, Chapter 4 warns: “On a global scale, air pollution could trigger large-scale climatic changes.” The following chapter is devoted to the contributions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to “man’s inadvertent modification of weather and climate.” The report’s approach to pollution has remained the default position for scientists since that time. In her book, White seemed quite certain that human activities were not changing the climate, but under questioning from senators on her confirmation committee, she found all matters relating to climate science to be uncertain, even on subjects for which evidence was overwhelming. Dependence on the uncertainty answer did not give her much chance to display her knowledge of climate science or her qualifications for the job.

She is far from the first witness to fall back on the uncertainty argument, but for a person whose job would be recommending public policies, it is a stretch too far to suggest that policies of almost any type – whether economic, health or environmental –can or should be based on “certainties” rather than “probabilities.” The body of evidence including her writings and testimony suggest that White is not qualified to lead an organization that develops environmental policy. It would hard to imagine what constructive role the organization could play if she is confirmed.

In the day, Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham served as major sponsors of serious legislation to deal with climate change. Senators from Alaska, because of their state’s location on the globe, have been the first to observe closely the clear evidence that the climate is, in fact, changing. That state’s Senator for 40 years, the late Ted Stevens, was a lead sponsor of the bill that created the Council on Environmental Quality. The decisions of just a few Republican senators on the leadership of the CEQ will indicate how far the party is willing to go in jettisoning its environmental heritage.

Jay Hakes is an energy historian who has worked for three U.S. presidents.

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