ROBERT COSTA: Fires in the Amazon rainforest to the receding white ice of the Arctic. Climate change confronts global leaders. This is the Washington Week Extra.
Hello. I’m Robert Costa. Tonight we discuss the increasingly urgent intersection of politics and the environment.
It was a week of promises, acrimony, and environmental upheaval. G-7 countries pledged 20 million (dollars) to help fight record fires raging in the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, but President Bolsonaro of Brazil initially rejected the offer. Meanwhile, President Trump skipped the G-7’s climate meeting. It was the latest act of defiance by President Trump. In 2017 the president pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, and has made rolling back environmental regulations a priority. He opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration, and The Washington Post reported this week the administration will open 17 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest to logging and mining projects. And that news comes as Alaska is facing its hottest summer on record with very little rainfall and over 600 forest fires consuming millions of acres.
Joining me tonight, Vivian Salama, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; from Anchorage, Nathaniel Herz, environment and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media; and from New York, Henry Fountain, climate reporter for The New York Times. Thanks so much for being with us today. Vivian, really appreciate having you here; and Nat; and Henry, it’s excellent to have you at the table as well.
Nat, you’re up in Anchorage dealing with some real difficult issues. How are the forest fires up there, and how is it affecting Alaska?
NATHANIEL HERZ: Well, you can see – you don’t have to look very far; you can just look over my shoulder and see the wildfire smoke that’s infiltrated the city. Normally you’d be able to look out and see, you know, pretty spectacular mountains just outside of town, but right now we’re pretty socked in. You know, the wildfires have burnt a few dozen homes north of the city in the Mat-Su, and then south of the city we have another wildfire that’s really gigantic burning in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge that’s been burning all summer. Both of those wildfires have basically snarled traffic on two of the state’s major highways. We’ve had major impacts on tourism – you know, tourists getting stranded, cruise ships almost having to make detours to go pick up stranded passengers, and then even things like groceries and shipments of freight getting blocked at various points. So it’s definitely been a pretty disrupted summer here by the wildfires.
MR. COSTA: Beyond the fires, how is Alaska feeling the effect of climate change?
MR. HERZ: Well, you know, I’ve traveled sort of from one end of the state to the other this summer. You know, I started, I was in Kaktovik, which is inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, earlier this summer, and they’ve got, you know, increased polar bears coming into town because there’s less sea ice. Out in the Bering Sea they’re seeing unprecedented warming and diminished sea ice, that people are worried that – there are really huge commercial fisheries in the Bering Sea. Like, if you go to McDonald’s and buy a Filet-O-Fish sandwich, that fish is probably coming out of the Bering Sea; it’s pollack, and they’re worried that those fish are basically starting to swim north to cooler waters. And then you go to the southern end of the state and they’re in a drought. And you know, I was paddling a river earlier this summer and there’s a glacial lake that used to be blocked by icebergs that now they’re able to run motorboats into because that ice has diminished. So really from one end of the state to the other it’s kind of hard to find a place that isn’t seeing pretty dramatic impacts, especially this summer.
MR. COSTA: Henry, you’ve reported on ANWR – the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – and the Trump administration’s exploration there. What would the environmental impact of more exploration be in that area?
HENRY FOUNTAIN: Well, the initial exploration would be things like seismic studies, perhaps some exploratory wells, and that would all require infrastructure – roads, drill pads, room for crews, et cetera, et cetera. So the big fear is even a little bit of exploration activity could cause long-lasting damage, for instance damaging the tundra, leaving scars on the tundra that would last for decades.
MR. COSTA: And when you think about the Trump administration more broadly, you’re seeing an administration that’s not focused on climate change. Beyond Alaska, how is that illustrated, in your eyes?
MR. FOUNTAIN: Well, as you mentioned, Mr. Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris Accord, not showing up to the meeting last week, all those – all those acts that sort of demonstrate that he’s just not interested in the subject. It’s interesting, when the subject of climate change comes up he tends to talk about – not about actual warming of the Earth, but about the quality of water and pollution – water pollution and air pollution in the United States, which are really not the same thing as climate change. So it starts at the top. He is not interested in the subject, he’s called it a hoax, and it’s trickled down throughout the administration. Obviously, we have reported – all of the news organizations report about all the rollback of policies and regulations, and that’s a big part of it as well.
MR. COSTA: Vivian, you’ve reported on the Trump administration’s rollbacks of these regulations. What’s driving it inside the White House? Is it an ideology, is it an affiliation, an affinity for business?
VIVIAN SALAMA: Both, actually. The Trump administration, one of its first orders of business was to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, President Trump describing it usually as a bad deal. But also he believed that it was impairing the rights of a lot of businesses, and we just saw this week where he decided to withdraw from an Obama-era rule that essentially curbed emission of methane and he said again it was something that was impairing oil and gas industry from being able to thrive. And so a lot of it is driven by business, but also there is – there is an ideology behind it in his mind where he has questioned whether or not global warming is real or a hoax. He has repeated – but then again he’ll come out like this week at the press conference at the G-7 and say I’m an environmentalist, a lot of people don’t know that. And so his view of what environmentalism is is really sort of different from a lot of people, but he insists that he’s doing this with the environment in mind, essentially, at the end of the day.
MR. COSTA: And Nat, we’re looking at Alaska having a heatwave, one of the hottest summers on record. Is that part of a trend throughout the world, and how is it affecting Alaska?
MR. HERZ: Yeah, I mean, I think we’ve seen – we’ve seen record temperatures like this – earlier this summer we set a record high temperature for Anchorage; the previous high ever recorded in Anchorage was 85 degrees and this summer we hit 90 degrees. You know, this month has been, I think, the driest August on record. So you know, I think it’s really – we want to be careful about sort of saying that any particular moment in time or sort of short-term period of weather is reflective of climate change. But certainly the long-term projections are calling for things like we’re seeing here in Alaska this summer.
And, you know, I think we’ve had – we’ve had efforts by the government here to – the state government – to, you know, sort of prepare for climate change, set climate policy. That was under the previous governor’s administration. In the past year, that’s actually been reversed by the Republican governor who’s come in and disbanded a state climate commission. And right now there’s actually no state-level climate policy, but there are any number of local efforts working to adapt to climate impacts and figure out, you know, how are we going to deal with some of the major effects that we’re seeing around the state.
MR. COSTA: Henry, when you look at the Amazon and how President Bolsonaro of Brazil is handling this crisis, what’s your big take-away? What matters, as a reporter?
MR. FOUNTAIN: Well, what matters is what’s going to come in the future. I think, you know, the Amazon’s gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks. A lot of the activity, the clearing of land through fire, has been going on for a long, long time. And in some ways the number of fires, it’s much worse than last year. It’s not necessarily much worse than a couple years ago. But the big concern, and as a reporter what I am interested in is, what’s going to happen in the years ahead? And obviously Bolsonaro, he’s made it clear that he wants to develop the Amazon. He wants mining companies, farmers to have more or less free hand to do economic activity there. So that’s really – it’s not so much what’s been going on in the last couple of weeks, because that’s pretty similar to what’s been going on for the last 20 or 30 years in some ways. It’s what’s going to happen in the future.
MR. COSTA: And, Henry, you’ve written about how rainforests, these tropical rainforests, have been endangered long before the fires began in the Amazon.
MR. FOUNTAIN: Yeah. I mean, forests disappear for a lot of reasons. In the Amazon, as I said, people have been clearing land through fire for centuries, essentially. They’ve been doing it around the world, in fact. So it’s not that this is a new thing. The issue is, is it going to get worse? And that’s the concern with the new administration in Brazil.
MR. COSTA: Nat, I know you need to leave soon, but the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. What’s its future? We’re talking so much about the Amazon, but the Tongass is right there having its own issues.
MR. HERZ: Yeah. This is, I think, a really interesting story regardless of sort of what side of it you’re on. I mean, the Tongass, you know, just to put it in perspective I believe it’s slightly larger in area than the state of West Virginia. So we’re talking about – it’s a huge archipelago of mountains and ocean. It’s a spectacular area. You know, in the past decades it was a really productive area for natural resource extraction, especially timber. But you know, the Clinton administration in the ’90s, though the Roadless Rule, really clamped down on that. You know, it’s really debatable whether the lack – the sort of decline of the timber industry in the Tongass more recently is because of regulation or because of market forces, and the fact that Alaska is distant from some of the markets in Asia. But in any case, there’s still a lot of political pressure by the shrinking logging industry to promote, you know, more loose timber regulation in the Tongass.
The thing that’s happening at the same time is there’s a really robust tourism industry in southeast Alaska in the same area. And you know, you’ve got an exploding cruise ship industry and, you know, smaller scale people coming for glacier tours, and fishing, and things like that. And the owners of those businesses are saying, you know, we don’t want our customers coming in here and seeing clear cuts. And so you know, there’s a – while there’s a big political effort to open the Tongass more to timber, there’s also been a really robust pushback on the part of this new and growing industry of tourism in southeast Alaska, saying: This is our future. Our future is not cutting down old growth timber, which is a finite resource.
I think, you know, that – the timber industry over the past couple years has definitely found a more sympathetic ear in this federal administration, and in Alaska’s congressional delegation. But I think that battle is not decided. And I think it’s going to continue to rage and could very likely get reversed under a Democratic administration, if the election goes a different way in 2020.
MR. COSTA: Nathaniel Herz, environment and politics report for Alaska Public Media. Really appreciate you being here.
And before Henry and Vivian go, big picture, step back. President Trump, 2020, Democrats running for president are talking about climate change. What’s next politically in this country when it comes to climate change?
MS. SALAMA: The president has doubled down and really believes that he is helping businesses, and that’s the priority, and is viewing a lot of these climate policies with skepticism. And so so long as he’s bringing in business obviously he’s going to get that sector – segment of the population on his side. But in the meantime, it’s been a major alienating factor among our – with our allies. And this is something that he’s getting pushback from everywhere that you look.
In Europe, he was the one absent person from the climate session this week at the G-7. Allies really pressing him about the issue, even with regard to taking Brazil more seriously and pressing Bolsonaro. President Trump and Bolsonaro have a rapport together and they really wanted him to take the lead on this issue, as the United States has traditionally done. And so really down the line it’s a question of is the U.S. losing its position as that global leader in, you know, this effort to control climate and see if we can – we can regulate policies that are damaging to the environment. And President Trump has kind of stepped away and shied from that role.
MR. COSTA: Henry, final word to you. When you look beyond the U.S., is climate change policy and politics taking hold in a different way in different countries?
MR. FOUNTAIN: Well, a lot of other countries are really leading on the issue, whereas the United States has stepped back from addressing the problem. And so it’s a very powerful political force in a lot of countries, particularly in Europe where they’re seeing a – you know, they’ve experienced disasters this summer with bad heatwaves. So it’s, I’d say, large – parts of elsewhere in the world maybe not so much, but certainly in Europe it’s a really front and center issue.
I think in terms of the United States, a lot may depend on what happens over the next year or so. If there’s – for instance, this hurricane, Dorian, that’s approaching Florida, if that’s a really bad one, if there’s a couple of other really bad hurricanes, if there’s some bad flooding, all of which is somewhat linked to climate change, I think you might see the administration may have to start addressing the issue because of what the population is experiencing.
MR. COSTA: I want to thank my guests, Vivian Salama of The Wall Street Journal and Henry Fountain of The New York Times, and of course Nat Herz.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.