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Timothy Wirth

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Wirth served as a U.S. Senator from Colorado until 1993, when he left the Senate to serve under President Clinton in the State Department. He is now president of the United Nations Foundation. Wirth organized the 1988 Senate hearing at which James Hansen addressed global warming, and he led the U.S. negotiating team at the Kyoto Summit. In this interview, Wirth describes the debate surrounding global warming within the Bush I and the Clinton administrations, including his experience of the Kyoto negotiations, and asserts that partisan politics, industry opposition and prominent skeptics have prevented action from being taken. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted Jan. 17, 2007.

... What was it in the late '80s, do you think, that made the issue [of global warming] take off?

I think a number of things happened in the late 1980s. First of all, there were the [NASA scientist Jim] Hansen hearings [in 1988]. ... We had introduced a major piece of legislation. Amazingly enough, it was an 18-part climate change bill; it had population in it, conservation, and it had nuclear in it. It had everything that we could think of that was related to climate change. ... And so we had this set of hearings, and Jim Hansen was the star witness.

How did you know about Jim Hansen?

... I don't remember exactly where the data came from, but we knew there was this scientist at NASA who had really identified the human impact before anybody else had done so and was very certain about it. So we called him up and asked him if he would testify. Now, this is a tough thing for a scientist to do when you're going to make such an outspoken statement as this and you're part of the federal bureaucracy. Jim Hansen has always been a very brave and outspoken individual.

What else was happening that summer? What was the weather like that summer?

Believe it or not, we called the Weather Bureau and found out what historically was the hottest day of the summer. Well, it was June 6 or June 9 or whatever it was, so we scheduled the hearing that day, and bingo: It was the hottest day on record in Washington, or close to it. It was stiflingly hot that summer. [At] the same time you had this drought all across the country, so the linkage between the Hansen hearing and the drought became very intense.

I think it was really cheap politics, and I think it's going to turn out to, long term, be extraordinarily damaging to 6 billion people around the world.

Simultaneously [Mass. Gov. Michael] Dukakis was running for president. Dukakis was trying to get an edge on various things and was looking for spokespeople, and two or three of us became sort of the flacks out on the stump for Dukakis, making the separation between what Democratic policy and Republican policy ought to be. So it played into the presidential campaign in the summer of '88 as well.

So a number of things came together that, for the first time, people began to think about it. I knew it was important because there was a big article in, I believe, the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated on climate change. [Laughs.] So there was a correlation. You figure, well, if we're making Sports Illustrated on this issue, you know, we've got to be making some real headway.

And did you also alter the temperature in the hearing room that day?

... What we did it was went in the night before and opened all the windows, I will admit, right? So that the air conditioning wasn�t working inside the room and so when the, when the hearing occurred there was not only bliss, which is television cameras in double figures, but it was really hot. ...

So Hansen's giving this testimony, you've got these television cameras back there heating up the room, and the air conditioning in the room didn't appear to work. So it was sort of a perfect collection of events that happened that day, with the wonderful Jim Hansen, who was wiping his brow at the witness table and giving this remarkable testimony. ...

The one thing that Hansen didn't do that day in front of your committee is use the term "global warming." He said, "Gentlemen, I'm 99 percent sure that human beings are contributing to climate change," but he didn't quite have the nerve, because he was outside scientific consensus at the time. ...

Oh, Hansen went a long way. This was a very, very brave statement. He was on the edge of the science and almost 20 years younger than he is today, so he's relatively new in the field. He's working for the federal government, and certainly this was not cleared far up the line, what he had to say. So the summary of what Jim Hansen had to say that year, plus the fact that it had gotten so much attention from the [press] -- it was on every channel, Hansen was widely reported. He went as far as anybody could possibly have expected him to go, I think. Again, it was a very brave thing for him to do.

We talked to Eileen Claussen, who was in the EPA during Bush I, and she said that there was the [Energy Star] Energy Savers Program, there was a lot that was happening within the EPA, but the one thing she wasn't allow to do was to say the words "global warming." ... Do you remember that?

... There were a number of people in the Bush I administration who really wanted to act, and we began to then merge into the Clean Air Act, and that was in 1990. You've got people like [former White House Counsel and current EU Ambassador] Boyden Gray and [Office of Management and Budget Associate Director] Bob Grady from Bush I working very closely with a number of very active Democrats on a variety of measures. They were more concerned about energy policy; we were concerned about trying to set the table for climate policy. So it became a very interesting combination of people on both sides of the aisle in 1990 with the Clean Air Act amendments and then the Energy Policy Act of 1992. ...

The Bush people had one set of interests, but they were pretty progressive. I mean, they were out there; they were pushing hard. It wasn't until they got to the election of 1992 that the Competitiveness Council, which had been run by Dan Quayle and was the conservative side of the Republican Party, began to really pull back on President Bush. He was much more of an advocate in the early part of his administration than the politics appeared to allow him to be in the second part of his administration. Not a dissimilar phenomena, I think, that happens to any president. ... I think it happened in Clinton-Gore as well: You get split factions; you get a very complicated remuneration process going on.

So then do you think that's what explains why President Bush, the father, said after [the 1992 Earth Summit in] Rio, "Our way of life is not up for negotiations"?

Yeah, he was under a lot of pressure by the time he went to Rio and then post-Rio. First, President Bush almost did not go to Rio, and it became a major issue: Was he or was he not going to go to the Earth Summit? And at that point we on the Democratic side were beating up on them as hard as possible, saying: "What do you mean the president's not going to go to the Earth Summit? It's the most important gathering in the history of the world." And on the right, the Competitiveness Council, the conservative Republicans, were all saying, "You don't want to go down to that trendy thing with all those nuts people and this false science," and so on.

So he was really caught, and his biggest mistake was that he didn't make a decision; he appeared to waffle. He was getting pushed one way and pushed the other, and only at the last minute did he decide to go to Rio. And so it wasn't a victory that he went to Rio; it was a sign of all the pressures that were on him, and it became a sign of weakness. So he really got beaten up for doing the right thing, which was to go to Rio. ...

Do you see a direct connection between what [Hansen] said on television ... [and] the way to get a U.S. president to go to Rio?

Oh, of course. There was a direct line between the Hansen hearings in 1988; the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990; Energy Policy Act of 1992; Rio and the president's ambivalence about going to Rio; the climate treaty, which was one of the products of Rio; and then the ratification of the climate treaty in late 1992. Quite a lot happened in this four-year period of time.

People say, "Oh, the U.S. didn't do anything." The evolution of policy was really very rapid, particularly when you consider that we had a Republican president. You had an activist Senate pushing a number of these things with a mixed leadership. George Mitchell [D-Maine] was the majority leader and helping to push all of that. ...

Did you think ... after that rapid set of changes, that we were on our way to dealing with this problem?

I thought we were going to move a lot more rapidly than we did. For example, legislation that I introduced in 1988 that had, I think, 18 Senate co-sponsors, called for a 20 percent reduction in emissions by the year 2000. This was early on -- 18 co-sponsors for something as controversial and difficult as that. ... And there was that four-year period of time where you had the sense that this was really going to happen. President Bush decided to go to Rio, we got the climate treaty, and then Clinton-Gore got elected.

I think that [the opponents of action on climate change] then began to try to figure out how to put the pieces together in '93, '94. And then the Congress changed in 1994, so it became extremely difficult at that point and became highly politicized. Both parties began to understand that ... there was a lot of rhetoric surrounding the issue. The conservatives could do well attacking the climate science, which they did, and those of us on the other side, who were much more activist in intent, didn't do as good a job as we should have in terms of defending the science and defending the need for action. ...

... Congress was fine with Rio, and Rio's idea was that the developed countries would go first [in reducing their emissions]. ... How did that change so substantially between Rio and Kyoto?

I think there are probably two answers to that. One of the answers is that we probably didn't handle it very well in terms of explaining to people that this was in the treaty; that we weren't negotiating this away, which we were accused of doing. ...

Second, we had other things that we were trying to accomplish during the Kyoto negotiations. One of those was tradable permits to get the Europeans to go along with [carbon] trading, which they resisted. They said, "You've got to have absolute reductions." We wanted the Europeans to go along with [carbon] sinks -- you can get credit for capturing carbon [by planting forests or through sequestration technology] -- and Europeans were adamantly opposed to that. And then third, there were some other things that we lost in the negotiation.

But all eyes were on, how are we going to achieve the goals of Kyoto? ... [The] Byrd-Hagel [Resolution] became part of that, ... and we didn't get much support in that negotiation, either, from a lot of the economics people who looked only at the downside of this negotiation, not at the upside of we ought to be protecting ourselves against the future.

Were you surprised by that vote, 95-0?

... I didn't take it very seriously. It wasn't a real vote; it was a sense of the Senate resolution ... I'd been up there, and I sort of knew where people registered this. It was their protest at it. ...

So you didn't see it as a deal killer?

Well, it certainly didn't help, but no, I didn't see it as putting a nail in the coffin. ... You work your way through it. You go meet with Sen. [Robert] Byrd [D-W. Va.] and -- well, [Sen. Chuck] Hagel [R-Neb.] was not somebody who wanted to negotiate at that point. But Byrd certainly did, and we had a lot of discussions. I went up and talked to him. I'd been in the Senate with him; I had enormous respect for him. He liked me; we used to talk poetry together and so on. He was very interested, and we'd done some interesting things on the Clean Air Act.

So I think that there were some possibilities there if in fact the administration had really pushed it, but we began to get right to Kyoto and then post-Kyoto, and the political environment was getting awful poisoned. ...

Eileen [Claussen] tells a great story [from the Berlin conference on climate change which preceded Kyoto] that the two of you have now actually moved the ball quite far, ... and she walks out and announces this to these businessmen, who are incredulous that you guys have done this. So can you sort of take us backwards and [tell us] how you get this worked out?

... What we finally worked out [was] what the parameters of what the original treaty said: that the developed world would go first, and the developing world would go second.

There was a lobbyist who had worked on the Hill who I knew very well, who was then representing the automobile industry. ... He was sitting outside the room with the Saudi representative, who was the guy representing all of the kind of "downside" people around the world. The two of them were the two lead sort of "bad-guy lobbyists," in my opinion. We went out, and I remember I finally make this statement to the automobile company guy ...

I remember the look on this guy's face, and he looked at me, and he shook his head like this. Then he looked at the Saudi guy and then got up, and they walked across the room, and they were out of there. ... So I went skedaddling after [them] and found the Saudi representative and spent most of that afternoon and evening with him. He was a very knowledgeable guy, and he was under instructions for trying to explain what we had done, and why we had done it.

Then I went back and tried to talk to the General Motors guy and the overall industry group, and they were absolutely impossible. ... Couldn't make a dent in them. So, in fact, it might have been easier to deal with the Saudis than it was to deal with the lowest common denominator of the industry people -- who, of course, were the same people putting out all of the false information on climate change and were really leading the effort in the worst way. ...

Yeah. What do you think the Saudis and the car industry people were responding to: that the developed nations went first, or that you got a deal?

That we got a deal, and they didn't want any deal at all. ... The industry lobbyists at that point at the so-called [Global] Climate Coalition with their so-called scientists that were supporting them, they were just opposed to doing anything. And that was reflected in some of the neoconservative staff people who had come over from Capitol Hill. You see them all having breakfast together and huddling for their strategy of the day. ...

Did you feel after [the 1995 conference in] Berlin actually that you had done something?

Of course. Well, we did something all the way up through Kyoto, and we got a lot done through Kyoto. That was a major first step. ... Putting that together and establishing that first groundwork ... and setting up the first rules and getting the negotiators on board, creating a consensus, all of those things take a devilishly long period of time. And you are dealing with 191 nations around the world trying to do this, and you are dealing with all of these conflicting currents. It's very hard to do. ...

So you are still proud of that?

Of course. Absolutely. I like to be introduced as "This guy was our chief negotiator for Kyoto," and I am proud of that.

... Except what an irony: Here the Americans sorted the world, got everybody together, and we are not in it. Do you think about that?

Well, I think it's just hugely irresponsible of this administration not to engage in that. I mean, it's not that major a step. I think it was really cheap politics, and I think it's going to turn out to, long term, be extraordinarily damaging to 6 billion people around the world. It's very damaging to the United States of America, and it's harmful to our economy. And my God, I don't know what it's going to mean to the future of our children. I think the Bush legacy on the war in Iraq is number one, and his legacy on climate change is number two.

With all due respect, there [are] two administrations that didn't bring us Kyoto. I mean, the Clinton people didn't even bring it to a vote.

Well, we had got it negotiated, ... and I was gone by the time that the politics of ratification came up. What we were going to do and how to work the politics on the Hill, I know it was brutal at that point. The politics got very nasty and very polarized.

Do you think that they should have tried at least to get a vote on it?

There is no point in getting a vote if you are going to get hammered. But you don't know what the vote is going to be unless you go up and start counting heads and working people and explaining it and so on. That's a long-term strategy, and by that point we were into the election of 2000, and it was probably an impossible thing to do at that point.

... Phil Clapp [of the National Environmental Trust] ... said the problem is that you had industry who could lobby the Republicans, but they could talk to their unions and say, "You are going to lose jobs," and then they would lobby the Democrats. So you had this really interesting anti-coalition that was across party lines, that was coming at all from all directions. ...

Well, of course that's difficult, but there is a coalition on the other side as well. There is a coalition of very enlightened financial leaders, for example; there is a whole coalition in the natural gas industry. ... We tried to use them during the Clean Air Act, and they were a very effective and positive force.

If you worked the politics right, you find your coalition on the other side and try to count up the 50 percent plus one; that's what you've got to try to find. And it takes a lot of time and a lot of work to find that 50 percent plus one. But you will never do it if you don't try, and you've got to go out and find it, and you've got to work it and work it and work it and work it. And that was not done, domestically, in terms of the ratification of Kyoto. ...

Do you think that President Clinton was as committed as he could have been to push this through?

I must have been in a half a dozen detailed meetings with President Clinton on various aspects of the climate negotiation, and choices would be put on the table, and every time he took the high choice; he took the toughest road. He said, "That's the way we ought to go; that's what we ought to do," every single time.

But remember, there's a difference between what he might want to do and then what the machinery of the interagency process does. It happened to Bush I, and I think it happened to Clinton-Gore: Interagency process sets in. You've got these conflicts between us, say, at the State Department and EPA, who [were] much more the activist side of the administration. You've got Treasury and the National Economic Council [NEC] and the Council of Economic Advisers [CEA], who were the conservative part of the administration. And the interagency process kind of grinds to a halt. ...

Do you think that [Vice President] Al Gore made the case strong enough to the president to say, "We have to do this"?

Well, I think the president depended upon Al Gore to give him the information on this, make recommendations to him, and nobody knew this issue better than Gore did. Gore was the greatest scholar I've ever seen on the subject. He was remarkable. I remember once flying over the Amazon with Al Gore -- this is 1988 or 1989 -- and he had a seminar on that airplane in which he was giving us a detailed description of how air currents and humidity coming off of the rain forest and the climate issues coming in from the Pacific influenced what was going on in the Sahara. Everybody was sitting there with their mouths open in extraordinary wonder at how much this guy knew. ...

But is it, then, a disappointment for you? ...

Yeah, of course. If you were committed to this issue -- and I had grown up with a lot of these scientists, ... I had known these people for 20 years, and they were bringing the data in -- and you get more and more of a sense of prices. And to try to explain to the people at Treasury that you've got to think not only of the cost of action; you've got to think about the price of inaction. And they never got the price of inaction.

That's why the debate today has gotten so interesting, is that the price of inaction is now high on everybody's agenda. The ski industry is coming in; people are looking at Greenland falling apart, whatever it may be. The price of inaction is now getting to the top of the agenda, but it wasn't then, and you couldn't get the economic people to think about anything except the relatively modest, we would argue, price of action. ...

Now, you have two pretty powerful guys; you've got Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton. Why couldn't they do it? Why couldn't they talk their economic people into it? ...

Well, ... Gore went to Kyoto, and it was a really brave thing for him to do. A lot of, again, conservative part of the administration, I know, was arguing against him going to Kyoto. It was a bit like the conservatives arguing against George [H.W.] Bush going to Rio. ...

At that point, I was then gone from the administration, so I can't tell you internally what transpired. I do know that it became Gore was obviously running for president, and you could imagine what all of the political handlers were saying: "Don't touch this issue." ... Being a candidate in a big office, nobody understands it unless you've been there and watched it and been engaged in it. It was really hard to do. Really, really hard to do. ...

Why did you leave the administration?

Well, I'd gotten an offer from Ted Turner to run his global philanthropy, and so that seemed to me to be a very interesting thing to do. I was on my way just at the time of Kyoto, and then I was pretty exhausted and beat up by that point. I was ready to go.

And I've actually heard that it was a little stronger than that as you were walking out the door?

Well, my own view of climate was that we ought to take a very aggressive posture, and that was a view that got expressed as strongly as I knew how in this interagency process. You know, you've got to be a big boy about these things, and if the interagency process and what you buy into isn't working, then it's not working. So you sort of nod and say, "OK, you guys have got the ball, and, by the way, this extraordinary opportunity has come up, so I'm going to take it." ...

Today you have Wal-Mart, who understands this issue as well as you do these days; you have the evangelicals, who are -- at least 50 to 60 percent of them -- are onboard; and you now have public opinion that believes that global warming will happen in their lifetime, as opposed to a problem for their children or their grandchildren. Do you think, as you watch, that we are close to having some federal policy? ...

I think whoever becomes president in 2008 will have run pro-climate change, and that individual will then put together the evangelicals, the environmental community, Goldman Sachs, Wal-Mart and General Electric, the progressive side of the coal industry, the natural gas industry, a lot of the farming community. There is your coalition, and you've got the votes to do it. It's going to take a lot of work, but the votes are there. ... Whether it's a Republican or a Democrat, they can get it done. ...

Now, do you think that in 2008, we will actually see on the stump the Democratic and the Republican candidate talking about global warming?

Well, at this point -- and who are the nominees going to be? Is [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] going to be the Republican nominee? Pro-climate change. Is [former New York City Mayor Rudy] Giuliani going to be the candidate? Pro-climate change. Is the [former] governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, going to be the nominee? Pro-climate change. They are all pro-climate change. On the Democratic side, every one of the people running there can talk about climate change, not from note cards but because they know the issue now, ... and it's going to be brought up.

I hope that you all in the press will bring it up. One of the disgraceful things that happened was that in 1992 and in 1996 and in 2000, the issues of the environment and climate change were not brought up in any of the presidential debates. Now, who are these much-vaunted journalists asking questions? I mean, you've all got a responsibility, too. ...

Do you think that this disinformation campaign -- where the press got into this, "On the one hand, these 2,000 scientists say this, and on the other hand, this one guy ... says this" -- do you think that had an impact on both how the American public saw these events, and the Congress?

I think much of this was played in the press like a pingpong game: on one hand and on the other. You've got to report one side, and you've got to report the other. I suppose that one could say that's good journalism, but it's lousy science. I don't think the press would do that anymore. ... I think people really understand now that the science is overwhelmingly clear on the fact that man is having a significant impact on the climate, and it's time to take action. ...

... Frederick Seitz: Do you think that he had particular impact because of who he was?

I went to see Mr. Seitz at Rockefeller University when we were doing the negotiation, because he had been the president at the National Academy of Science[s], a major science figure in the country. And out of respect, I went to see him. I have never been treated so rudely by an individual that I can remember -- I mean, just dismissive of everything we were saying, everything we were suggesting. I went up with a scientist from Princeton, and it was a courtesy call, and he dismissed me. And I figured, well, I did the best I could; I had learned all I have to know. He is not listening, doesn't want to listen, doesn't want to know about it and has got his feet dug in, and he is living in a different century. ...

... Do you think that had an impact?

Of course. The disinformation campaign that was cranked up by Seitz and some of those other guys, of course it had an impact, particularly when it's backed by tens of millions of dollars of great large members of the Climate Coalition disseminating this false science and misinformation. They ought to be tried for crimes against humanity, in my opinion. ...

[We've had] three administrations -- two that either didn't know, or said they didn't know, and one in the middle that did -- and still we are where we are. And so in each one, you have to ask yourself, what was happening? ...

Well, there are a number of reasons why we didn't get as much done as we might have. One is that I don't think that we had the politics inside the [Clinton] administration together. Second, I don't think a good job had been done in mobilizing constituencies outside the administration. Third, we put our greatest effort in terms of getting international agreement, which we did a good job at, but that's where the greatest part of the negotiating strategy came. And fourth, the science has gotten a lot better now than it was 15 years ago or 12 years ago. It's evolving very, very quickly. And finally, I think we have all learned a tremendous amount over the last 15 years. It's just these things take a while. ...

I think there was a time, from 1997 to about 2007, where federal action was dead stopped, wasn't happening, but the states were picking it up. I mean, [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger [R-Calif.] becomes a hero in the climate world, and [former Gov. George] Pataki [R-N.Y.] becomes a hero in the climate world, and [Sen.] Richard Lugar [R-Ind.] is a hero in the climate world, and John McCain is running on it. So you get 1,000 flowers blooming out there, and suddenly we are going to get a bouquet, and that will be in the 2008 presidential election. And they'll all be working on climate change.

You just named a whole bunch of Republicans. Does that surprise you?

That surprises people to think that this should be bipartisan, and it used to be. Let's go back to Bush I. In Bush I, it was a very bipartisan operation, and that's how things got done in the Senate, and that's how things got done in the White House. ...

So is it [that] we have a flaw in the system, or is this a problem like we have never had before and it just takes a long time?

This is the biggest, most complicated and most interesting issue that I think we have ever faced, outside of blowing ourselves off the face of the earth. Climate change is the single most important issue economically, politically, socially, diplomatically. It's got everything involved in it. Of course it's difficult, of course it's hard, but it's also filled with opportunity. And whoever wins the presidency in 2008 has got not only a tremendous obligation, but a wonderful opportunity to really change the future of the world. ...

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posted april 24, 2007

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