What On Earth? Episode 3: A Debrief on US Climate Policy

By Molly Lowney and Jennifer Ng | October 27, 2020 3:00pm
In this episode of What on Earth? Molly and Jennifer chat with Grist reporter Zoya Teirstein for a crash course on climate policy.
Media Credit: Jennifer Ng / The Beacon

Donald Trump  0:00  

I want crystal clean water and air. I want beautiful clean air. We have now the lowest carbon. If you look at our numbers right now, we are doing phenomenally.

Joe Biden  0:11  

And the first thing I will do, I will rejoin the Paris accord. I will join the Paris accord because with us out of it, look what's happening. It's all falling apart.

Amy Coney Barrett  0:21  

You have asked me a series of questions like that are completely uncontroversial, like whether COVID-19 is infectious, whether smoking causes cancer and then trying to analogize that to eliciting an opinion on me that is a very contentious matter opinion, from me that is on a very contentious matter of public debate.

Molly Lowney  0:39  

You just heard audio from the first presidential debate and from Amy Coney Barrett's first Supreme Court confirmation hearing, where Biden,  Trump and Coney Barrett each responded to questions surrounding climate change. Speaking of which, Jennifer, have you voted yet? 

Jennifer Ng  0:56  

Yep. I sent in my ballot last week. What about you, Molly? 

MollyLowney  1:00  

Same here with so much at stake in this election, which is just a week away. I can't imagine not participating.

Jennifer Ng  1:07  

Agreed. And one of the biggest issues on the table is climate change, and along with it, arguably, the future of our planet.

Molly Lowney  1:14  

Yeah, passing environmentally conscious policy is one of the key ways we can address climate change. And the way to get that done on a massive scale is at the federal level.

Jennifer Ng  1:25  

Exactly. But most of us aren't policy experts.

Molly Lowney  1:28  

True. But we have the chance to determine who represents us in the policy making decision with the upcoming election at both local and national levels. But when it comes to choosing the president, it kind of determines whether or not climate change is going to be addressed at all on the federal level. 

Jennifer Ng  1:44  

So today, we're going to talk about What on Earth is up with the US climate politics heading into the 2020 election. We're talking about Trump, Biden, the Green New Deal, Supreme Court Justice nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, and much more.

You're listening to What on Earth?, a podcast from The Beacon. I'm Jennifer.

Lowney  2:08  

And I'm Molly, and this is a podcast where we look at climate change and environmental issues through the lens of current events. Today, we're talking about US climate policy with Grist reporter, Zoya Teirstein, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work with Grist?

Zoya Teirstein  2:24  

First of all, really happy to be here with you guys. Um, so I'm a Grist politics reporter as part of our sort of news pod, which is relatively small, Grist is a small newsroom, and we cover all things climate change, and I specifically cover the politics and climate change. So things like what candidates are saying what kind of plans they're putting out. I also cover science a little bit I like stories about little critters that affect your health, that always interests me. Um, yeah, so it's really kind of a range of things, but mostly focusing on politics, specifically US politics, and how everything is shaping up. 

Jennifer Ng  3:04  

So as we all know, there's a big election coming up. And we've had Trump as our president for the last four years. Are there any stories that come to mind that illustrate what's happened, and in those four years where the current administration has left us?

Zoya Teirstein  3:21  

For the most part of this administration has done a really good job of rolling back basically every single environmental protection that the US has implemented, implemented at a federal level. I would say that, you know, there's like 100 rules and counting that Trump has attempted to or has succeeded in rolling back. So that's the biggest story. I mean, you can look at a lot of different examples of that. 

However, Trump is not a consistent guy. And recently, he announced that he was going to ban offshore drilling in a bunch of states, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida. And this was after promising when he was campaigning, and then when he was elected, to open up drilling off of like, I think he said, like every US state, and so he reversed that. So you know, it's hard to sum up what this administration has done super specifically, because it's just like kind of all over the map. And there's reasons for that. I think that the reason why he might have opened up drilling, might have banned drilling, in those states is possibly for political purposes. And it was a close election, and people are starting to feel, you know, if you like, look at polls, a lot of voters are pretty concerned about the environment. So yeah, it's a really good question. I wish I had like a better answer, but it's just it's kind of all over the map.

Molly Lowney  4:34  

So I mean, this is a question I think a lot of people are wondering, and I mean, no one can be for sure. But if Trump gets reelected from what you have reported on throughout his administration, concerning environmental policy, what do you think that we can expect moving forward if he does get reelected?

Zoya Teirstein  4:53  

We have sort of talked about this at Grist a little bit internally, but in the reporting that we've read, other reports from other newsrooms have noted that his advisors have said that there's just something like Armageddon, like full on. If we thought that the last four years were bad in terms of environmental rollbacks, it's just a taste of what's to come. I'm trying to think what else he could possibly roll back at this point. There are some things left that he could definitely dismantle. Like, for example, right now, he's still trying to open up drilling in Alaska, and trying to get a couple mines through, definitely pro a bunch of pipelines that are still sort of like tied up in the courts. 

Um, so I think if he's reelected, you can expect more of the same if not a more aggressive approach to dismantling the sort of like environmental regulatory process that exists currently in the country. Yeah, beyond that, it's hard to speculate it like a lot of things could happen, again, like, just like your reverse that that offshore drilling thing that he had initially, you know, been like, wholeheartedly for, anything could happen is just like, very much, tends to waffle on certain things. Although I will say for the most part, you can likely expect, like I mentioned, more of the same.

Jennifer Ng  6:10  

So let's switch gears to Biden, the Democratic nominee, who in stark contrast to Trump, he does believe in climate change. And on his website, there's a very extensive plan for “a clean energy revolution and environmental justice”. And it's all about getting us to zero emissions and making the US a leader in climate change. And so it's really, really extensive. And so we're just wondering, like, how did this plan come to be for Biden? 

Zoya Teirstein  6:41  

So what the Biden campaign has told me is that Biden had always, has always been a leader on climate. You know, he was one of the first people to introduce a climate bill in Congress, he basically doled out a huge sum of money under the Recovery Act when Obama was president. So he has experience in this realm. But what you see happening, especially what happened during the primaries, is these candidates, there were so many of them, and many of them were very progressive, like Bernie Sanders, for example, it was with Warren, Julian Castro. So they all released these climate plans that were like, increasingly aggressive, like everyone's trying to one up each other with these plans, which was a really effective strategy to get Biden to adopt a stricter climate plan, is what it looks like. Now, again, the campaign has told me that, like, you know, he always intended to unveil a more ambitious climate plan, because, you know, he recently kind of like, rolled out a slightly updated climate plan that's more money, it's now $2 trillion, and direct some money to minority communities. So it looks a lot like the Green New Deal. Um, and so there's a lot of reasons for that. I think some of that was pressure from other candidates who were looking pretty good with their climate plans. I mean, Bernie Sanders, I think his climate plan was like $16 trillion, and really, really expensive, really ambitious. So that might have been part of it.

I think that the way it came together is also an interesting story. Basically, Biden has been advised by this, like, sort of a circle of advisers for a long time, he trusts his team, and those are the people who are writing the actual plan, but what Biden did is he brought in a whole bunch of people from across across the climate spectrum, to help advise him on this issue. So like, you know, like John Kerry, AOC, Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement, all those folks were in a room together, no they weren’t in a room together this is COVID times, they were in a Zoom room together just talking about climate plans and policy and what they want Biden to do, and they would send those recommendations to Biden's campaign and the campaign would would maybe incorporate them or not, I'm not sure. And so that that's really what happened there. It was an interesting kind of bringing together of people on both sides of the climate spectrum, not Republicans, but on the left to advise him on climate policy.

Molly Lowney  9:00  

You've mentioned the Green New Deal. And obviously, like in the presidential debate that was mentioned, and Biden really emphasized that his plan is completely separate from that, would you be able to kind of give like, a mini breakdown of what the Green New Deal is versus what Biden's plan is?

Zoya Teirstein  9:17  

The Green New Deal, is an idea. It's a proposal. It's not a concrete piece of legislation yet. Alexandria Occasio-Cortez in the House, and Ed Markey in the Senate, co-introduced this resolution last year that basically creates sort of like a pyramid, where it's like equity, climate, basically bringing those two things together, as opposed to just being like, this is a climate plan we're just bringing down emissions. It's kind of like, basically, like casting a wider net, I would say, when it comes to climate policy. So including things like public housing, and like a jobs guarantee, not a federal jobs guarantee, but like unions and that kind of thing, like you know, like that don't necessarily seem like they sound like they are related to climate change, but in reality kind of have to do with it when you think about how many workers are going to have to transition out of the fossil fuel industry, to jobs and renewables, that kind of thing. I'm getting off base. Basically, it's like an economy wide plan to bring down emissions and create a more just society. 

And so, because there's no concrete legislation really attached to this plan, yet, it opened the field wide up for basically anyone to interpret the Green New Deal as they wanted to interpret it. So Republicans were able to interpret it in a negative way. They said, this plan will take away your planes and your burgers. On the left, a lot of primary candidates used it however they wanted to use it. I mean, Bernie Sanders literally called his climate plan, the Green New Deal, which is pretty smart. It's not necessarily “the” Green New Deal like there is no Green New Deal right now. It's and that's what's so kind of effective about this thing. But it's like more of like an ideology, and people are able to use it as they want. 

Joe Biden is trying to distance himself from this proposal, because people on the right have sort of used it as a scapegoat and are really up in arms about it. But I don't know if he's smart to do that. Because the Green New Deal is really popular. It's like surprisingly popular, I think that might be because it has the words “new deal” in it. And that is popular still people but for whatever reason, I mean, voters like this plan. Still, I think that he's trying to stick out his territory. He's kind of an old school, climate and environment guy. He's like, he has his own plan, which is fine. I mean, really, I think that the conversation being like, do you or do you not support the Green New Deal is a little misguided, because anything could be the Green New Deal, if it has a justice component, if it brings down emissions, that creates jobs, looks a hell of a lot like the green New Deal. 

Jennifer Ng 11:47

Even though Biden's said, like he has this aggressive climate plan, do you think that is helping his campaign or hurting it?

Zoya Teirstein 11:57

Candidates do this tricky thing when they're in the primary stage, they have to get super aggressive on progressive issues and go for the left, and then when the general hits, they kind of like meander closer to the middle to appeal to a wider swath of voters. So any candidate’s always caught in that trap. I think he might be smart to distance himself, I think that there's like, he's pretty worried about voters in like Pennsylvania, for example, who don't want a ban on fracking, necessarily, although the polling on that is starting to shift a little bit, which is interesting. Um, and you know, other folks who might be like, wow, these, like, progressive proposals seem like too much for me, I don't want to vote for someone who's, you know, coopted by socialists, or whatever. And I think that he's brought enough people to the table that he can kind of like, toe the line between these two disparate groups, and still kind of appeal to folks on the left, because remember, he did bring AOC and the Sunrise Movement and a bunch of different folks to the same bargaining table to talk about climate policy. So he's already got those folks on board. And I think that it makes sense that he's now trying to make sure that he's got, you know, some more moderate voters on board too. And it's like a good, it's a good political strategy.

Molly Lowney  13:10  

So you recently wrote about the new Supreme Court Justice nominee, Amy Coney Barrett and her stance on climate change. So if she's confirmed, which seems fairly likely, at this point, what do you think that means for climate policy, and action on climate change? From the perspective of like, the justice and legislative system?

Zoya Teirstein  13:33  

It's a really good question. It's also kind of a tricky one, because it's hard to speculate what she will actually do, as you know, I mean, I don't know if you guys watched the confirmation hearings, but it was, you know, she was very, um, like, what's the word she was she didn't want to like divulge a lot about how she would rule and how she would vote, which makes sense. Supreme Court nominees never do, they don't want to like play their hand. 

But you know, what was weird to me? And what stood out is that, like, she didn't have to say that climate change was a controversial issue or that she didn't have a stance on it, or that she hadn't read the science. Like, we've kind of moved beyond that, like Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Brett Kavanaugh has talked about climate change in the past. Like it's not a taboo subject necessarily. So that really caught me off guard. I was surprised. I mean, she kind of made it into a controversial issue. And the New York Times wrote about this, but it was like, there was no reason for her to do that. And I'm referencing the fact that she was pressed a couple times by Senators to explain her views on climate change, and she declined or pivoted or dodged or said that she didn't want to weigh in. And so yeah, I think that what that means for policy again, I don't want to speculate too much. But there are some, there is a climate case that might come to the Supreme Court. It's I don't want to get too into it because it's kind of like procedural and it's a little too tricky to explain. 

A lot of outlets are reporting this wrong. There's the city of Baltimore is suing a bunch of oil companies over their contributions to climate change. And the idea is to make these companies pay for the damages the city has now had to deal with thanks to rising temperatures, like flooding and heat and that kind of thing. And it's part of this wave of lawsuits that are known as climate liability lawsuits that are sweeping the nation right now, there's a lot of them. Big Oil is nervous about them. Because if these losses are successful, oil companies will have to pay possibly billions of dollars in like climate reparations for the heating that they've contributed to already. 

So what the Supreme Court will hear, is, and stop me if I'm getting like, it might be two insideball, but the Supreme Court is going to hear like a very small procedural issue with these climate lawsuits. It's not weighing in on whether the climate lawsuits are legit or not. And it's even not even weighing on which court it should be in state or federal court. Oil companies want it in federal court, where they'll probably get like a more favorable ruling states. The states that are suing want it back in state court, and cities that are suing. So anyway, the Supreme Court will hear this very small thing about it, and what happens, will kind of determine possibly how these lawsuits go forward and how the Court of Appeals deals with them. I'm gonna leave it there. 

But needless to say, any Supreme Court Justice that we have, should recognize that climate change is manmade. Otherwise, I don't really know. I mean, I'm like, it's like beyond me, I'm not sure what to do at this point. It's like kind of crazy to me that she didn't want to say that she like even like knows about this issue. I mean, that's, that's wild to me. So I'm excited to report on what happens next, if she's confirmed. I do think that there will be some consequences of her not not having firm views on climate going forward. I just don't know what they'll be yet.

Jennifer Ng  16:58  

You see, you as a reporter for environmental issues, you focus on how environmental policy like plays out in the real world. And so what stories are, what have you learned, I guess, and what kind of policies like do you think, do we need right now? 

Zoya Teirstein  17:17  

Okay, so to your question, because tomorrow, Grist comes out with a politics package we've been working on for a long time. And it's about eight different things that the US could do to become a leader on climate change that can literally, we can achieve today. It's not like some far off thing. You know, it includes like disaster preparedness for low income communities and communities that need it. So that means like, directing more federal resources to communities that get flooded a lot or that deal with hurricanes a lot to like weatherize them, to prepare them for hurricanes, that kind of thing, which is kind of a no brainer. But still, we haven't figured out how to do that correctly in this country. You know, building efficiency, that sounds kind of boring, but it's actually all super important that you should have buildings that run on less energy, fuel efficiency standards for cars are essential, making sure that your car can go further on a tank of gas, that kind of thing. There are things that are super simple that we could use right now to bring down emissions significantly in this country. And they're just like, ripe for the picking.

Molly Lowney  18:24  

So reporting on environmental issues, in general, must be pretty draining in terms of like, natural disasters and policies constantly being overturned and increasing emissions. So how do you as a reporter, kind of cope with all of that and deal with those emotions?

Zoya Teirstein  18:43  

As you guys might tell, I'm like, not much older than that. I don't know how old you guys?

Molly Lowney, Jennifer Ng 18:47  

I'm 21. I'm 21.

Zoya Teirstein  18:49  

I'm 25. So I've been doing this for three years after I graduated from NYU, I got an internship at Grist, and it turned into a job. And I will say that it is depressing to write about this stuff. It's hard. Um, and what I have found myself doing is I will just like check out like I had nothing that I write about will like penetrate like the emotional centers of my brain, it's like, probably not a very unhealthy thing. So it's important to like, and once I identified that, I was like, Whoa, like, how do I get back in touch with like, how I'm actually feeling about this stuff? Exercise helps. Like I've been meditating. I don't know, it's really hard to write about these things. But apart from that, I don't know like, yeah, try and take breaks and try and like get out and seeing nature and being in it helps me a lot, even though it makes me a little sad at the same time. So I'm like, oh, like, this is all going to be affected by what I'm writing about. All the things we're writing about are going to be visceral here. So I wish I had better advice. I don't know. What do you guys do? You guys have tips from me? I would gladly accept them.

Molly Lowney  19:55  

I hike and I exercise and yeah, I mean Jen and I are both environmental. She's science and then I'm environmental policy like our degrees. So yeah, it's hard to be constantly surrounded by it.

Jennifer Ng  20:09  

Yeah, definitely. I just try. And I think, I don't know, educating myself. I don't know, I always feel better staying in the loop, knowing the information, being able to talk about it just makes me personally feel better about educating others so that, you know, the circle of impact expands. So how can young people, college students like us in our age range, stay educated and informed about climate policy?

Zoya Teirstein  20:38  

Oh, my God. Well, you can read grist.org, so much fun, great website. We're actually redoing it, the website itself, so it's even better to read. In addition to that, you know, I don't know. What can you do? I'm loving the NRDC, Natural Resources Defense Council, like guest blog, where they have different experts just weigh in on stuff. Super good stuff, like really clear, breaks everything down. I go there for sources for my startup stories. 

There's a lot of resources out there. I love InsideClimate News. It's another good journalism, I think it's a nonprofit as well, Grist is a nonprofit. I'm, like, as climate change starts to infiltrate more and more of our conversations about other stuff, you're going to read about policy virtually everywhere. So being just like a well-read person who reads a bunch of different sources will probably keep you up to date on what you need to know with climate. But if you need climate specific stuff, you can always go to Grist.org, we have you covered.

Molly Lowney  21:38  

Okay, so this is just our last question. But is there anything else that you want to talk about or mention about the election, climate policy in general that we haven't brought up?

Zoya Teirstein  21:50  

Yeah, I think that I think what's going to be really interesting. First of all, something I want to say about climate in general is that the world has really changed in like the past, very recently, even a few months, um, obviously, because of COVID. But more importantly, climate policy in the US was stalled for decades. I mean, it was just a non-issue, there was virtually no conversation about it. You know, Republicans in Congress who talked about climate and like a carbon tax, for example, got kicked out, like Bob Inglis in South Carolina. So it's crazy to me, and it's really amazing to watch how fundamentally things have shifted in the past like two and a half years, basically. Thanks in no small part to the Green New Deal, honestly, like it's really shunted the issue into the national spotlight. But a bunch of other things, too, like young people are super engaged on this issue, they are fighting for it. 

The effects of climate change are so visible. I mean, that's it's really hard. But that's also what's moving the needle on this people can see what's happening and with their own eyes, you know, finances and mourning for a long time that wildfires are gonna get really bad hurricanes are gonna be really bad that you're seeing it now. And it's just a taste of what's to come. So I think that those factors all combined have created for like a really amazing and rare moment of opportunity where almost like anything seems possible. I mean, I guess it depends what happens this election. 

But even then, I mean, I don't think when people stop fighting, if Trump is elected again, I think that if anything, it'll reinvigorate them. And then, if Biden's elected, then I think that there's like a really awesome opportunity to watch, especially as someone who's involved, or as a young person involved in climate and environmental policy to watch these things possibly get enacted, which will be a first, I mean, an economy wide climate plan, like Biden is suggesting has never been done before. So anyway, I would just, I guess it's like me preaching a little bit, but I would just, like note that it's a really wild moment. And we're pretty lucky to be living through it, even though it feels pretty unlucky right now, for a variety of reasons. And just to pay attention, and see what happens.

Molly Lowney  24:12  

You can keep up with What on Earth? on Spotify, Google Podcasts, anchor.fm and upbeacon.com in the multimedia section. If you would like to submit a topic or questions for future episodes, go to upbeacon.com and click the story idea button on the right hand side of the page. 

Jennifer Ng  24:30  

Thank you for listening to this episode of What on Earth? Check out our show notes for links to resources and articles we talked about in the episode. Keep asking questions. 

Molly Lowney  24:34  

And don't forget to vote. See you next time.

Jennifer Ng  24:41  

Special thanks to Zoya Teirstein for appearing on this episode. Audio clips are from CNN and The Guardian on YouTube. This podcast is brought to you by The Beacon, hosted and produced by Molly Lowney and Jennifer Ng and music is from freemusicarchive.org.

Jennifer Ng is the Opinions Editor and a photographer for The Beacon. She can be reached at ng21@up.edu.

Molly Lowney is a photographer for The Beacon. She can be reached at lowney21@up.edu.

Zoya Teirstein is a climate reporter for Grist. Find her on Twitter @zteirstein.