White House

EPA’s Wheeler on dangers of climate change: ‘I don’t know what the tipping point is’

President Donald Trump listens during the United Nations Climate Action Summit during the General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in New York.
President Donald Trump listens during the United Nations Climate Action Summit during the General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in New York. AP Photo

President Donald Trump’s top environment official acknowledges the growing risks posed by climate change – but blames Congress for restricting the administration’s ability to respond.

Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told McClatchy in an interview this week that the Trump administration is “statutorily” limited by Congress to respond to Americans’ reliance on fossil fuels, amid its protracted campaign to roll back regulations on earth-warming greenhouse gas emissions put in place by former President Barack Obama.

As world leaders gathered at the United Nations to discuss action plans to address the perils facing a warming Earth, Wheeler said he agreed that changes in climate pose risks to the nation.

But the EPA chief said he would not speak for Trump on climate policy, a topic the president omitted from his speech to world leaders on Tuesday despite heightened focus on the crisis this week at the U.N. General Assembly.

“I’m not going to speak for the administration on that,” Wheeler said. “Just from my own perspective, as the administrator of the EPA, I believe that climate change is happening and I believe that man has an impact on climate.”

“I believe also that we’re very limited at the agency in terms of our statutory authorities to address the issue,” Wheeler continued. “So what we’re trying to do is address the issue with the authorities that Congress has given us.”

Over the spring and summer, GOP lawmakers became increasingly vocal on the need for Republicans to accept the scientific consensus on the societal impacts of global temperature rise.

Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina began work on a bill that would incentivize businesses to reduce emissions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who has supported the president’s efforts to roll back regulations on the coal industry – said for the first time that he believes the climate is changing due to human activity.

Before joining the Trump administration, Wheeler represented leaders of the coal industry and worked for Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a prominent skeptic of climate change.

He has been a lightning rod for criticism from environmentalists who accuse him of leading a sophisticated crusade against California’s pollution rules, as well as against a series of Obama-era federal regulations on methane and auto standards for carbon dioxide emissions.

While Wheeler was definitive in his statement acknowledging the realities of climate change, he followed up with several caveats: that the climate has been changing “forever” and that climate science has been exploited for political gain at home and abroad.

Trump unexpectedly showed up at a U.N. gathering on Monday to outline action plans to meet emissions reduction goals because “we take climate seriously,” said Wheeler, who did not attend the conference himself.

He said it was appropriate for the Defense Department to plan contingencies for rising oceans threatening its bases, and for increased instability caused by droughts and mass migration due to food shortages.

But he renewed his criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has warned that an average global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would have catastrophic consequences for the planet.

“I don’t know what the tipping point is,” Wheeler said, asked whether an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius would be of concern to him. “You know, the IPCC process is highly politicized. So I talked to scientists at the agency, and I’ve tried to talk to scientists outside of the agency, but the U.N.’s IPCC process has been highly politicized for years.”

Michael Wilner joined McClatchy as its White House correspondent in 2019. He previously served as Washington bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post, where he led coverage of the Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 US presidential campaign. Wilner holds degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Columbia University and is a native of New York City.
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