In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with David Hawkins, director of climate policy in the Climate & Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the board of directors at Resources for the Future. Drawing on his decades of policy experience, Hawkins provides a brief history of how federal climate policy has evolved over the last 60 years. While landmark environmental bills passed Congress with bipartisan support in the 1970s, more modern legislative efforts to address climate change have struggled due to strong opposition from fossil fuel interests and growing resistance from Republican policymakers. Looking forward, Hawkins hopes that President Biden does more to reduce emissions than his predecessor and notes that executive branch action may be a more effective strategy for the new administration, if climate legislation cannot pass a divided Congress.
Listen to the Podcast
- Congress considered climate decades ago but didn’t act quickly enough: “In 1963, the Senate committee that was drafting what became the Clean Air Act of 1963 wrote a report about air pollution and labeled CO₂ as an air pollutant that could disrupt the climate. That’s the first congressional recognition that I’m aware of. Next, in 1965, President Johnson sent [a report] to Congress that identified CO₂ as a pollutant that required attention … However, there was no follow-up, either in the executive or legislative branch, from the standpoint of actual policy to cut emissions.” (4:40)
- The environmental legacy of the Trump administration: “There’s probably going to be a hundred billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere that could have been taken out of the atmosphere during this last decade … This is a lot of suffering, and the carbon pollution is going to be in the air for centuries … That’s a real legacy [for the Trump administration]. It’s going to be documented, as the science progresses, in more deaths, in more starvation, and in disrupted ecosystems.” (23:31)
- The Biden administration can pursue climate regulation, if legislation proves politically difficult: “It’s too soon to tell whether the procedures in the Senate will allow a vote on significant, strong climate legislation. I think we will see a lot of activity out of the administration, using the powers that are in the laws that Congress has already acted. There’s this disparagement of executive branch action, as though executive branch action is not built on the foundation of laws enacted by Congress. When the executive branch acts, it’s acting to pursue the will of a previous Congress … I think we will see the next administration do that if this Congress fails to take the needed action.” (25:43)
Top of the Stack
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. Today we talk with David Hawkins, director of climate policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council or NRDC. David has decades of experience working on energy and climate policy issues in NGOs, in government, and in this episode, he'll walk us through the last 60 years of federal climate policy in the US.
David will help us understand the scientific, political, and economic drivers that have shaped policy decisions from the 1960s, all the way up through today, including a reflection on the Trump years and a look ahead to the next four years under a new administration. Stay with us. All right, David Hawkins from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
David Hawkins: You bet.
Daniel Raimi: So, David, we're going to talk about the relatively long arc of US climate policy today over the last five or six decades. But before we do that, we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on environmental issues. So, how did you end up working in this sphere?
David Hawkins: Well, I'd mention two big episodes. First, when I was in college, I spent a summer on an ecology field study, sampling lakes and ponds in Maine. That taught me an awful lot about how ecological niches work and caused me to marvel at it. Second, in the late 1960s, my wife and I spent two summers alone on a small island in Nova Scotia. That experience was really eye opening, and I guess, ear opening and all of my senses. I spent the summer every day seeing how the plants, the birds, the light, the weather changed day by day. With the backdrop of the human world in turmoil over the Vietnam War and the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and yet nature was functioning, changing, thriving. I took away from that experience how important it was to keep humans from messing up nature more than we already have done.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that sounds quite, quite lovely. I imagine many of us wouldn't mind so much right now going and spending a summer on an island and getting away from the turmoil in the last several weeks.
David Hawkins: Indeed.
Daniel Raimi: Well, we won't dwell on that today, although I'm sure we could. We're going to talk instead about the history of climate policy in the United States and try to take the long view on this issue, which you've been thinking about for a number of decades. I want to start off from the beginning. So, scientists have at least hypothesized about the greenhouse gas effect since the late 1800s, but of course, policymakers here in the US and globally have not been focused on it until much more recently. From your perspective, when does anthropogenic climate change start to really make its way into the minds of US policymakers?
David Hawkins: Well, scientists have talked about it and written about it for a couple hundred years. As early as the end of the 18th century, scientists were speculating about past climates and the role that CO₂ might've had in changing climates. In terms of policy, it was the start of the 1960s in the United States where the US Weather Bureau put climate change, or at least greenhouse gases, into the mix with a research program. A decision was made to fund research, notably the Mauna Loa CO₂ monitoring station in Hawaii that was set up by Keeling. That was the first step, and I would call it policies just because some government money had to be spent.
Then in 1963, the Senate committee that was drafting what became the Clean Air Act of 1963, wrote a report about air pollution and labeled CO₂ as an air pollutant that could disrupt the climate. That's the first congressional recognition that I'm aware of. Next, in the '60s, in 1965, President Johnson sent an environmental message to Congress where that report identified CO₂ as a pollutant that required attention. So, we have three items, right in the 1960s, that put CO₂ on the radar screen as a problem. However, there was no follow-up either, in the executive or legislative branch, from the standpoint of actual policy to cut emissions.
Daniel Raimi: Right. The background here is so interesting. There's so many historical details I would love to dig into, but we're going to jump over most of the 1960s and get to the 1970s, which is a period when there was an enormous amount of environmental and energy policymaking that occurred in the Congress. To what extent, if any, were those major environmental regulations driven by concerns over climate change versus other priorities that policymakers had at the time?
David Hawkins: Yes, acts like the Clean Air Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act—these are major bedrock environmental statutes—and the Clean Air Act was written broadly enough to cover greenhouse gases. However, it was not a focus of the executive branch programs that were undertaken under that act in the 1970s. I have a personal connection in the Carter administration because I served at EPA during that time. And during the Carter administration, Congress indeed heard testimony from scientists and even from policymakers about the need to pay more attention to carbon dioxide pollution. However, the administration priority was on energy security and, to the newly formed Department of Energy, that meant relying on coal. So, it shifted the focus away from where it should have been, unfortunately. You know, I have to say, I regard it as a personal failure on my part that I didn't push to get greenhouse gas policy on the agenda.
It wasn't as though I had a debate among myself and my staff about “well, should we do this,” or “no, let's not.” It just didn't get on my radar screen, which I find, in retrospect, to be quite astounding. But we were so focused on the problems, which were quite urgent problems, of smog and soot that we didn't look up over the horizon to see that action was needed on climate. So, this was a big mistake and one that I learned an important lesson about. You have to address urgent priorities, but you also have to leave some space to consider emerging problems before they become urgent priorities.
Daniel Raimi: That's so interesting. Just a quick follow-up to that, I'm curious if, at that time, there were organizations or groups who were making the case to put climate change in more of a central role, either directly to you and your staff, or to those in Congress, or maybe elsewhere.
David Hawkins: The major actor was my good friend, Rafe Pomerance, who was head of Friends of the Earth, and he was a one-man band on trying to beat the drum about climate change. I'm still sort of mystified about why his voice didn't cause me to pay more attention to it. But Rafe was out there talking to scientists, trying to get scientists to be less reticent and more definitive about the need for action, and Gus Speth at the Council on Environmental Quality also in the last week of the Carter administration issued an important report on greenhouse gases and the need for action.
Daniel Raimi: Hmm. Interesting. So, maybe relevant to that report, at what point in time did we start to see proposals and actions taken either by the executive branch or Congress that really directly targeted climate change as a focus, rather than looking at other issues such as air and water pollution or energy security?
David Hawkins: Yes. The first climate-focused bills were introduced in Congress in 1988, and they were pretty significant bills. They were driven by several things. First, it was a presidential election year and George H. W. Bush was trying to differentiate himself from President Reagan, and Michael Dukakis was a big pro-environmental candidate so there was a focus on environmental policy.
Second, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded and that got a lot of attention. Third, Jim Hansen gave a prescient and powerful testimony in the summer of 1988 and generated a lot of attention and bills were introduced and those bills were non-trivial. Some of them called for a 20 percent reduction in CO₂ from 1988 levels by 2005. Just imagine if we had adopted those laws and implemented them. But we didn't. There was no follow through. Most of those bills didn't even get a hearing in committee, and then didn't get taken up by the George H. W. Bush administration, which was more focused on acid rain.
Daniel Raimi: Right. You've touched on this a little bit in the answer to the previous question, but can you talk a little bit about some of those early bills and to what extent they had support from both parties? To what extent were they bipartisan, or were they divided along some of the party lines that we might expect to see today in the modern era?
David Hawkins: Yeah, interestingly, the bills that were introduced in 1988 had a significant number of Republican cosponsors. In 1989, after the election, the number of Republican cosponsors on bills introduced in the new Congress dropped off some, but there was still a non-trivial number of Republican co-sponsors. It was a different era. To examine that further, we really need to skip ahead to 2003. So, we really lost almost a decade and a half. During the Clinton administration, the focus was on the international treaties, and the focus in the administration was on voluntary efforts, which was quite unfortunate. We could never quite move the administration to move to mandatory policies. So, 2003 came along, and the McCain-Lieberman bill was introduced, and that bill was a strong bill for its time. It was actually voted on the Senate floor in October of 2003. The vote was 43 to 55, a losing vote.
There were six Republican yes votes, four of them from New England and, in addition, Richard Lugar from Indiana and John McCain. I would single out the Lugar vote as one of the most stand-up votes. Here's a man from a state that was reliant on coal for electricity for about 96 percent of the electricity generated in the state. It was a coal-mining state as well as a coal-using state, but he stood up because he recognized this. Of course, unfortunately, he was defeated and is now gone. The other bad news on the bipartisan spectrum is that while we got those six Republican yes votes, we lost 10 Democratic votes, almost all from fossil fuel-dependent states, and two other Democrats did not vote. So, in the tally, we were plus up for six Republicans, but minus 12 for the Democrats, and what you saw there was a political division that was driven more by economics and specific industry lobbying groups. That's what explained almost all the votes.
Daniel Raimi: Can you say a little bit more about that? What types of lobbying efforts were particularly effective at that time at getting some who might otherwise support climate legislation to maybe move away from it? There's a lot of talk in various communities about the role that energy companies, oil and gas companies, or electric power utilities have played over the years in making it hard for climate change policies to pass. Can you talk a little about their role in either the McCain-Lieberman bill or others that have come along the way in the early 2000s?
David Hawkins: Yes, I think the key force was a coalition of interests that centered around cheap fossil fuels. So, you had the electric power sector that was heavily dependent on coal, and coal was relatively cheap at the time. Natural gas was quite expensive at the time. Electric power not only caused the owners of the coal-fired power plants to be a forceful lobby to keep their assets valuable, but it also was heavily supported by industrial power consumers, and states actually advertised to attract industry to their states. “We have cheap power. Come to Ohio.” Finally, labor who worked both in the power sector and in the industrial sector was fearful of losing jobs due to energy cost increases that the producers of fossil fuels were very persuasive in claiming would threaten their jobs. So, you had that coalition of power producers, fossil fuel producers, industrial users, and labor employed in industry, all of whom thought that doing anything to cut carbon pollution would mess up their prospects.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Really interesting. It's just worth noting, for any of our listeners who don't have kind of much of a sense about the evolution of technologies over time, is that when we're thinking about the '90s and the early 2000s in the power sector, coal and natural gas, as well as nuclear and hydropower, are really the driving sources of electricity. It's not like today where wind and solar, and energy storage are competitive. Back then, wind and solar were really not competitive resources.
David Hawkins: Right.
Daniel Raimi: So when we start to move forward in time, as climate change becomes more and more polarized, when do you see that change hardening, where Republicans are becoming increasingly more skeptical of taking action to reduce climate change, and to what do you attribute those changes?
David Hawkins: Yeah, the watershed event was the Republican Party's reaction to the election of President Obama. It didn't have anything to do with Obama, except that Obama was a real threat to actually make change happen. The change from the previous opposition is that, as I mentioned, most of the votes against doing something on climate change were driven by regional energy economics. In 2009, what emerged was opposition that was driven by ideology. That ideology in turn, in my view, was driven by political survival. From the opposition to climate change to the opposition to healthcare policy, voters got organized to create a real threat to the political survival of Republican members of Congress by being primaried. Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance made it possible for the money to be mobilized to create those threats and not make them just speculative threats, but make them huge threats. Money became a weapon to be used against politicians, as much as it was a tool to support politicians.
Money could be thrown at politicians in a primary and knock them out. That caused this real lockstep adherence to opposition, to policy action. That doomed the Waxman-Markey bill in the Senate and has prevented any action since. The last thing I would say about this is that while this divide is often expressed as skepticism in the Republican Party, it's really not about skepticism. Skepticism is a talking point to justify the behavior of the politicians that are opposing these policies. The real motivation for their behavior is money and the fear that that money will be used against them. There needs to be a counter to that, and until there is, we're just going to have a hard time.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. The example of this that comes to mind for me, and I imagine for some of our listeners, is a representative from South Carolina named Bob Inglis, who I believe voted in favor of Waxman-Markey, or at least expressed support for climate policy, but was quickly primaried and ended up losing his seat.
David Hawkins: The Waxman-Markey bill in the house got more Republican votes than the healthcare legislation. The healthcare legislation got one Republican vote. The Waxman-Markey bill got eight Republican votes. Those members, as well as a number of Democratic members from coal states were targeted in the 2010 election. That's when the Tea Party Caucus was formed as a result of the 2010 election, and it instilled this fear that I've been talking about.
Daniel Raimi: Well, that brings us into the first decade of the 2000s and the 2010s. Now, we're sitting here in 2021. We're recording this today on January 11th. It's been a very difficult week for the country. It's been a bad week, I would say, for the country and for democracy, but we are here now. When we think about the legacy of the Trump administration, we're going to think about a lot of things, including the events of the last week. But when we think about climate policy and the long arc of climate policy in the United States, what are some of the lasting impressions, if any, that you think the Trump presidency will have made when we look back on it several decades from now?
David Hawkins: It can actually be quantified in tons of global warming pollution and billions of tons. The world is putting out, in round numbers, 40 billion tons of greenhouse gases each and every year. Trump's legacy is to have stalled for the four years of his presidency, but also for another five or six years following a reduction that could have occurred if a progressive, climate-protective president had been in office.
A round number to think about is that there's probably going to be a hundred billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere that could have been taken out of the atmosphere during this decade of Trump, plus five or six years. That's a hundred billion tons out of a budget of perhaps 500 billion tons. So, this is a lot of suffering, and that carbon pollution is going to be in the air for centuries. We may be able to remove some of the carbon pollution that's in the air through carbon dioxide removal, but we're not going to remove all of it. So, there is that lasting increment. That's a real legacy. It's going to be documented, as the science progresses, in more deaths, in more starvation, in disrupted ecosystems. It is a marker that is large and very harmful.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's a solemn but important point to remember. Yeah, it hits pretty hard, especially this week with everything that's been going on. Hopefully, by the time folks listen to this, the news in the United States and the state of our union will be a little brighter. So, David, now I'd like to ask you the last question before we go to our Top of the Stack segment, which is touching on the hope that I just mentioned. How hopeful are you about climate action under the incoming Biden administration and the new Congress, which we learned recently, will have a Democratic majority in the house and will be divided 50-50 in the Senate with the vice president, Kamala Harris, making the deciding vote? How optimistic or pessimistic are you about climate action in the next several years?
David Hawkins: I'm very hopeful that there will be major climate action during the Biden-Harris administration. It would be great if Congress acts, and it's too soon to tell whether, especially, the procedures in the Senate will allow a vote on significant, strong climate legislation. I think we will see a lot of activity out of the administration, using the powers that are in the laws that Congress has already acted. There's this disparagement of executive branch action, as though executive branch action is not built on the foundation of laws enacted by Congress. When the executive branch acts, it's acting to pursue the will of Congress. It's a previous Congress, but until Congress undoes the laws that have been acted before, they are perfectly legitimate vehicles for moving forward. I think that we will see the next administration do that if this Congress fails to take the needed action.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. That makes sense. Those are certainly going to be topics of future podcasts in the next couple of years. So, we may ask you back to talk about some of those and help us put them in context, especially with this great historical view that you've brought us today.
So, David, let's close it out now by asking you the same question that we ask all of our guests, which is to recommend something to our audience that you've read, watched, or heard recently that's related to the environment, even if peripherally, that you think is really great and that you'd suggest people check out. I'll start with a quick recommendation of a book that I'm about halfway through, which is called Coffeeland by an author named Augustine Sedgewick. It's a book about the history of the coffee industry in El Salvador, and kind of a little bit about the coffee industry, more broadly. I'm interested in coffee because I like coffee and because I have some friends who work in it, and it's a really interesting look at how El Salvador became very dependent on coffee as an export crop. It's also really interesting for those of us who are just kind of interested in global trade in markets. How about you, David? What's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack?
David Hawkins: You bet. Well, thanks for the tip on Coffeeland. I'll look for that. The book that I want to recommend very strongly is called Braiding Sweetgrass. It is by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Ms. Kimmerer is a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is a plant ecologist, and she is Native American. This book is really quite a marvel. I've given it to my three grown children. The book, the title, Braiding Sweetgrass, well, the book itself is a braid. It's made up of three strands of knowledge. Those three strands are indigenous knowledge, where she writes very powerfully and empathetically about indigenous knowledge in crop growing, in basket weaving, and in attention to the landscape. So, indigenous knowledge is strand one. Western science is strand two.
She is, as I said, Native American, but professionally, she is a scientist trained in Western science, and she doesn't neglect Western science, even though she respects indigenous knowledge. The third strand is family and especially motherhood. Her chapters on what it means to be a mother, I just found really compelling. It's a book of essays, but essay is too dry a word to really communicate the pleasure that I got out of this book. It's a book that's both energizing and comforting. I'll just tell a final little story. I was so moved by the book that I wrote to her and told her that we had a new granddaughter, and I wondered if she would be kind enough to write something in a copy of her book to our new granddaughter, that when our granddaughter is old enough to read, she could look back on and have as a memento, and she did so. So, our little granddaughter has that book with some words from this remarkable scientist and writer.
Daniel Raimi: Wow. That is a great story. And thank you so much for the recommendation, Braiding Sweetgrass. I will definitely check that out and congratulations on your new granddaughter, David. That's fantastic.
David Hawkins: Thank you.
Daniel Raimi: Well, once again, we'll say thank you, David Hawkins from the Natural Resources Defense Council for joining us. We'll make sure to have links to both of the books we talked about in our show notes so people can easily click and check them out. Once again, I want to say thank you. Really appreciate you taking the time to help us understand the long arc of climate policy in the United States.
David Hawkins: Thank you, Daniel. I enjoyed it.
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