James Gustave Speth has worn many hats throughout his environmental career. Twenty-five years ago, he advised President Jimmy Carter on how to globally deal with emerging environmental problems like climate change and deforestation. Since then, he’s founded the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He talks with host Steve Curwood about his observations over this key period in environmental progress, and about his new book, “Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.”
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
Twenty-five years ago, climate change, deforestation and a host of other environmental problems started to become international concerns. James Gustave Speth, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality at the time, took these problems to his boss, President Jimmy Carter. In turn, the President supported the controversial idea of reducing fossil fuel consumption to combat global warming during his run for a second term. Jimmy Carter’s attempt at re-election was unsuccessful, so Mr. Speth moved on.
A co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, he also founded and led the World Resources Institute and then headed up the United Nations Development Program. He’s now dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, and you can find his latest project on bookshelves now. It’s called, “Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.” In it, Gus Speth, as many call him, says U.S. environmental leadership has faltered since the days of the Carter White House.
SPETH: In the Carter administration, we got lots of information that there was this set of emerging global scale issues, which were very different from the domestic issues. So we began to get information about climate change, about deforestation, about species loss, about spreading deserts, and the problems in the tropics, and declining fisheries. They’re global scale problems and Carter initiated an effort to put together a program to deal with these issues, and then it sort of fell by the wayside when he didn’t come in for the second term.
After that, there has been an international response to these issues, but with very, very few exceptions, the U.S. has been a foot dragger in those efforts, and not a leader. The one exception was the protection of the ozone layer which the U.S. really led on and it worked. But since that time, both Democrat and Republican administrations have not really given strong international leadership on these issues.
CURWOOD: Can you just briefly tick off the missed opportunities of the administrations after yours in the Carter White House?
James Gustave Speth (Photo: Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
SPETH: Well, I think we had in 1992, we had the Earth Summit at Rio, and the U.S. goes down there very reluctantly, sort of not really very supportive of the agenda, refuses to sign the biodiversity treaty, for example, to protect biodiversity. So, and then, all during the Clinton years, we had a period in which the administration did some things on these issues, but did not make them a priority. Focused on domestic issues, did a good job on domestic issues on the environment, but neglected these global scale issues. Got hung up on the Kyoto Protocol. Congress was not supportive, and I grant them that it was not entirely the administration’s effort, to say the least, Congress was not willing or able to move. But we didn’t get a lot of leadership on these issues from the Clinton administration.
And then, of course, Bush has really reneged on his promise to do something about climate and ignored these other problems, pushed the wrong energy strategy, and neglected, basically, can’t find an international agreement that he likes, best that I can tell.
CURWOOD: Tell me the difference between our approach to domestic problems and international problems, how effective the U.S. has been in those two arenas.
SPETH: Right, well, I think we’ve been, at least moderately, and some would say even more effective in dealing with our, over the long term, in dealing with our domestic issues. The air is cleaner, the water is cleaner. Yes, we have a long way to go domestically with protecting our natural areas and cleaning up our air and water. But things are better and we’ve made substantial progress.
The problem with the global scale issues in terms of deforestation, desertification, species loss, decline of marine fisheries, and, the most serious of all, the problem of climate change, global warming, is that we haven’t made much progress at all here at home. And, you know, global warming promises to be extraordinarily disruptive. It could change the pattern of rainfall, it could lead to sea level rise. And I think there, far beyond the local consequences, globally it could be very disruptive of social stability, of economic prospects, and other things. I mean, my message is one of a plea finally to take these problems seriously, 25 years after they were first put on the docket. We’ve only got a little bit of time, and we need to get very, very serious.
CURWOOD: This is all very depressing. What’s to be done?
SPETH: Well, there are lots of things to be done, and the good news is that, over this quarter century, we really have studied these problems nearly to death. I mean, we know so much about the nature of the problems, and we know so much about what needs to be done. Well, for starters, here in the U.S. we need a new energy strategy for our country. We use twice as much energy per dollar of GDP produced as the rest of the industrial countries. Another way of looking at is, we could almost double the size of the U.S. economy with the same amount of energy that we have today.
We also have to get serious about making the international agreements work. We have toothless treaties today. The process of negotiating these treaties will give you toothless treaties over and over again. So basically, what we did on climate, internationally, we got a climate convention. We were worried about biodiversity -- we got a biodiversity convention. We’re worried about fisheries loss -- we got a law of the sea. The big response over the past 25 years to these issues has been to negotiate agreements. And the problem is not weak enforcement of these agreements, it’s not weak compliance with these agreements, it’s weak agreements. And unless we get a new system put in place to toughen up these agreements, we’ll be stuck with them, and we’ll be stuck on these problems.
CURWOOD: One of the problems you bring up in your book, Gus, is that regulators try to treat symptoms of problems rather than the problems themselves. What do you mean by this when it comes to the environment?
SPETH: Well, I mention that the principle thing that we’ve done so far to deal with these issues was to put major treaties, conventions, protocols in place to deal with these issues. And in a way that’s a dodge, because while we do need them, we have to deal with the underlying problems, with the underlying drivers also. I think the biggest issue, in a way, the biggest driver, is the fact that we have a market economy which is giving consumers and purchasers very, very bad signals about the environment. Prices don’t reflect environmental scarcities, don’t reflect environmental realities. I mean, you know, polluters pollute, that cost is not in the price of the good that is on the marketplace. Worse than that, we come along and subsidize bad environmental performance, deeply now, to the tune of over $800 billion a year internationally. And, as a result, consumers get all the wrong signals from the market about what to buy and how much of something to buy.
CURWOOD: You say subsidized by $800 billion a year. What are you talking about there?
SPETH: Well, governments step into the picture, and they subsidize energy use, they subsidize water use, they subsidize agricultural practices that are bad for the environment. And as a result, the prices of water, the prices of energy, the prices of food products, particularly those that are heavy consumers of the environment, are too low. And we have over-consumption of things that destroy the environment.
CURWOOD: Now, how much is advertising and the other calls to consumption, how much is that increasing?
SPETH: Well, in the last 20 years, global advertising has doubled in volume. I’m not anti-consumption but I sure do want to see consumption shifted to sustainable patterns. For example, in Europe they now have increasingly stringent laws about returning products. So, my car, your car, your refrigerator, the TV, the computer, when you’re through with it, it goes back to the producer. So you get, all those materials then become useable materials for the producer, and are recycled into new products. And we need that, and we need very strict controls on emissions of green house gases.
And glad to see that California is taking the initiative in regulating the greenhouse gas, climate changing gas emissions from automobiles. State’s really giving leadership. And Massachusetts giving leadership on regulating climate emissions from power plants. These are the kinds of things we need to get serious about.
CURWOOD: What’s the role of corporations in this, and how much of the part of the problem, and how much of the part of the solution do you think they are?
SPETH: Well, corporations are the main actors on the world stage. So they are the main emitters of the gases that are disrupting global climate. But the interesting thing is the steps that a lot of corporations are taking today to deal with these issues, ahead of government. There are now scores of companies organized on the Chicago Climate Exchange making real commitments to doing something about the climate problem. And so, rather than sort of dump all the blame for these problems on the corporate sector, I think we need to be encouraging these very positive initiatives that a number of companies are taking.
CURWOOD: By the way, can you explain for us what’s going on at the Chicago Board of Climate Exchange?
SPETH: Well, this is a remarkable initiative that’s being taken in Chicago. Companies, more than 20, maybe a good bit more, have come together and made a voluntary commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. And to do it in the most efficient way, they are trading among themselves. So one company will go further than their commitment and another company for which reductions is very expensive, will buy that extra reduction from them. So it’s basically what is called a cap and trade scheme. It’s a market-based mechanism for achieving greenhouse gas reductions in the most efficient way possible. And some universities participate, but mostly it’s big companies, and they’re off and running. And they’re doing something about climate change.
CURWOOD: How much business are they doing?
SPETH: Well, they have, in their membership, the companies that participate have greenhouse gas emissions equal to about half of German emissions. So you see, it’s considerable. But basically, basically, let’s face it, the corporate community has got to step forward and say, “We want to be regulated on these issues.” Because they will never do the things that they need to do to deal with climate until they’re all in the same boat. And just as they did step forward to deal with the ozone depletion issue, and say, “Let’s have a global treaty that has real teeth in it, they’ve got to step forward and say, “We know that there’s a climate problem. We know that we can’t deal with it acting alone, even though we can take some good steps. We need an international agreement.”
CURWOOD: Ok, you’re now at the academy, you’re not in government, so you can put on your philosopher’s hat, and tell me, all these years studying, advocating, lobbying for the environment, what’s the core problem here?
SPETH: Well, I think the core problem is that all of our patterns of thinking and doing, in a way, almost all of them came up in a world that was not a full world. It was a world of abundance where you could throw things away and they would disappear. But we have now grown so large that we are in a full world. We have increased the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by a third. We have accidentally depleted the ozone shield of the planet. I mean, we are a force now as big as nature. We’ve transformed the world. And, as you know, if you tame something, you own it, and you have to care for it.
CURWOOD: Now, in your book “Red Sky at Morning,” you get to a point where you talk about green jazz. What’s green jazz?
SPETH: Well, I basically think there are three ways forward. One is to deal with the underlying driving forces that are promoting these problems. The second way is to really change the way we do international treaties. But the third way is the way that’s really working right now, and that’s green jazz. And jazz is all the things that institutions and people are doing to deal with these issues on a voluntary basis. So I call it jazz because it’s un-scripted, it’s improvisational, but they’re making music.
So, what’s happening in our country is really quite extraordinary. Because below the radar, there’s real movement at the state level, the city level, at the consumer level, at the individual investor. We have at the beginnings in our country of, I think, a real revolution. The infrastructure is being put in place for a bottom-up movement that can really change things, and eventually it will force the political process to change. So things are beginning to stir, but it’s in this realm of jazz, it’s not in the realm of global governance.
CURWOOD: Former White House advisor and Yale University dean and professor Gus Speth’s new book is entitled “Red Sky in the Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment.” Thanks for taking this time with me today.
SPETH: Thank you, Steve.