Last month, millions took to the streets, walking out of classrooms and offices to participate in a global “climate strike.” As the protestors remind us, the climate crisis is increasingly urgent: the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have just 11 years to bend the curve of greenhouse gas emissions to prevent catastrophe.

Meanwhile, climate impacts take a growing toll in lives and treasure. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dropped as much as 60 inches of rainfall in six days, killing 68 people and causing $125 billion in damages. The Paradise, California fire in November 2018 killed 85 and left tens of thousands homeless. And those disasters pale beside the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and, more recently, Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.

These disasters have long been predicted. Nearly everything we understand about climate change was known in 1979, almost 40 years ago, at the first World Climate Conference in Geneva. So what has the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) done to head off climate disaster? After all, EPA’s statutory mission is “to protect human health and the environment.” The stark answer, as outlined below, is: not nearly enough.

While the EPA made some headway during the Clinton and Obama administrations, those achievements were undone under George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Throughout the Bush and Trump administrations, the EPA has supported the right of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies to pump greenhouse gases (GHGs) into our atmosphere with no legal or financial constraints and no consideration of the consequences.

Undermining Kyoto

Our story begins even before the world’s nations gathered in Kyoto in 1997 to negotiate a climate agreement. Before that meeting, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate passed legislation that essentially prevented the U.S. from signing the Kyoto Protocol. Then, in March 2001, the newly-elected Bush administration announced that it would not implement the agreement. U.S. State Department papers showed the Bush administration thanking Exxon executives for the company’s “active involvement” in helping to determine climate change policy, including the U.S. stance on Kyoto.

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) became Vice President Cheney’s vehicle for controlling the EPA, with industry calling the shots. To head up the CEQ, Cheney installed a former lobbyist for industrial polluters. Two weeks after Bush took office, Exxon’s top lobbyist demanded a housecleaning of the scientists in charge of studying global warming and the scientists on Exxon’s “hit list” were removed.

States and cities fought back. In Mass. v. U.S. (2007) 12 states and several cities brought suit to force EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other GHGs as pollutants under the Clean Air Act (CAA). The Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration, which had argued that GHGs are not pollutants under the CAA. That meant that if EPA found that emissions of a pollutant endanger public health or welfare (the endangerment finding), EPA could issue regulations under the CAA to control power plants, automobiles and other sources of GHGs.

As then-EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson explained in a letter to GW Bush, “the latest climate change science does not permit a negative finding, nor does it permit a credible finding that we need to wait for more research.” Johnson also indicated that a positive endangerment finding was “agreed to at the Cabinet-level meeting.”

Based on the science and the Supreme Court ruling, Johnson outlined steps the EPA should take to regulate GHGs. Unfortunately, Johnson was not allowed to implement this plan. Politico reports that Johnson was ready to advance on GHG pollution limits but Bush overruled him after hearing counter-arguments from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Office of Management and Budget, the Transportation Department and, of course, Exxon.

Meanwhile, California tried to fill the regulatory gap by requesting in March 2005 that the federal government issue a “waiver” under the CAA. The waiver would enable the state to issue regulations on GHGs from motor vehicles that were stricter than federal standards. Before leaving office in 2008, the Bush administration rejected California’s request for a waiver.

Suppressing science

The Bush White House also pressured government scientists to suppress discussion of global warming and tailor their writings to fit the Bush administration’s skepticism. A 2007 survey of federal climate scientists conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that “Nearly half of all respondents perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or other similar terms from a variety of communications.” One U.S. scientist resigned his job rather than give in to White House pressure to underreport global warming by the Chief of Staff of the CEQ, who had no scientific training. After the edited documents were released, the Chief of Staff resigned and was hired by Exxon several days later.

Because President Bush did not act to regulate GHGs, the Obama administration resurrected former EPA Administrator Johnson’s game plan. The administration issued an endangerment finding in December 2009, stating that six GHGs threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations. This action was a prerequisite to implementing GHG standards for motor vehicles. The Obama administration also reversed the Bush administration’s waiver denial, allowing California’s regulations on auto emissions to go into effect. Thirteen states and Washington, DC adopted California’s stringent regulations.

The Obama administration’s signature climate policy was the Clean Power Plan, stringent new regulations for power plants that won the support of corporate interests, including power companies, high tech companies and leading consumer brands.

Trump takes denial to new levels

With the election of President Trump, the fossil fuel industry finally has a true partner – one who has denied climate change more vehemently even than Exxon. Trump’s first pick to head EPA was Scott Pruitt, the former Attorney General for Oklahoma, who described himself as “the leading advocate against EPA’s activist agenda.”

Pruitt replaced Obama’s Clean Power Plan with a much weaker rule. The new rule, as former Obama EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy observes, “is the first rule in EPA’s history that acknowledges the existential threat of climate change but by the agency’s own admission does absolutely nothing to stop it.”

Pruitt also opposed the Paris Climate Agreement. The Washington Post summarized his tenure as steering the EPA in the direction sought by those being regulated, dismantling Obama’s environmental legacy and halting the agency’s efforts to combat climate change. He resigned under a cloud of ethics scandals in July 2018.

Deputy Administrator Scott Wheeler replaced Pruitt as EPA Administrator and has overseen efforts to further dismantle Obama’s environmental regulations. Wheeler was previously a coal lobbyist whose best-paying client was Murray Energy, the largest privately held coal-producing company in the United States. Wheeler had lobbied against the Obama administration’s climate regulations for power plants.

Bill Wehrum was Pruitt’s controversial choice to lead EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. At the EPA, Wehrum was in charge of regulating his old clients. Employed for years by the chemical and utility industries, Wehrum sued the EPA on behalf of industry 31 times. Wehrum’s nomination under the Bush administration in a Republican-controlled Senate had been withdrawn, but in the Trump era he became the top official for rolling back Obama-era regulations for controlling GHGs and other pollutants from power plants.

Wehrum resigned in June 2019 amid an ongoing House Energy and Commerce Committee ethics inquiry. His replacement, Anne Idsal, is a climate skeptic with strong political connections and a thin resume.

The Trump administration’s assault on environmental regulation has even drawn objections from industry. When the White House proposed easing Obama-era fuel-economy standards last year and squared off with California over its tougher regulations, Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW showed leadership by working out an acceptable compromise to resolve the California/federal differences. Instead of embracing the compromise, the Trump administration turned around and filed an antitrust action against the four auto manufacturers.

And last month, the Trump administration announced it would seek to reverse the waiver California received from the Obama administration on vehicle emission standards. The move appears to decimate California’s zero-emission vehicle and light duty vehicle programs. The action also leaves automakers waiting for years to decide what cars to build as California and EPA engage in protracted litigation.

Time is running out

Here we have reviewed 20 years of EPA’s efforts to address the climate emergency. For at least two decades, Exxon and EPA have kept us running around in circles with political squabbling over whether there is a problem and whether we should try to fix it.

The winners of this political game are the fossil fuel companies who continue to amass fortunes without paying a dime for the external costs of their products. The rest of us are the losers. The costs of inaction will be paid by those who lose their homes – or lives — to floods and sea-level rise; by those who suffer from heat stroke or asthma; and by future generations struggling to survive and thrive in a warmer, more polluted world. They will look back, with the clarity of hindsight, and ask why we failed to act.

The cries we are hearing from the streets are ignored by Trump and his EPA. The Trump administration dismisses the climate emergency and refuses to participate in global negotiations on the matter. The Bush Administration took similar policy positions, but it was less brazen in tone.

With about ten years remaining, according to the UN, the end game is in sight. We can change the political direction of our country by electing representatives — including a President — who will implement a plan to save the planet. Because there is no planet B.

Dan Reich can be reached at [email protected]

 This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.