On Wednesday, Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler told CBS News that a lack of safe drinking water around the globe is a far more urgent threat than climate change.
“Most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out,” Wheeler asserted, adding that the world should be “focused on the people who are dying today, the thousand children that die every day from lack of drinking water.”
Water, he added, is “a crisis that I think we can solve … It takes resources, it takes infrastructure, and the United States is working on that.”
Let’s put aside the fact that climate change is not some distant challenge but one already wreaking havoc on communities around the globe — and that Wheeler has proposed gutting existing regulations that protect drinking water. It’s absurd to act like planetary warming isn’t a significant threat to the world’s freshwater resources. It’s the biggest threat of all.
Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told HuffPost that water and climate are inextricably linked.
“It’s not one or the other,” she said. “You have to address both at the same time.”
Climate change is a multiplier. Very few of the problems that we have right now related to water are going to be made better by climate change. That’s not going to happen.
Astrid Caldas, Union of Concerned Scientists
There’s no denying the magnitude of the water crisis in the U.S. and abroad. Droughts (which are made worse by climate change) lead to water shortages, while inland and coastal flooding can contaminate drinking water supplies. Under the current climate change scenario, nearly half the global population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, according to the United Nations, which warns that “water is the primary medium through which we will feel the effects of climate change.”
Last year’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, the work of hundreds of scientists at more than a dozen federal agencies ― including the EPA ― documents significant changes in water quality and quantity across the country and warns that “water security in the United States is increasingly in jeopardy.” The report details how rising temperatures and variable precipitation can have “cascading effects on water quality,” increasing the risk of drought, pollutant runoff and harmful algal blooms.
“Climate change is a multiplier,” Caldas said. “Very few of the problems that we have right now related to water are going to be made better by climate change. That’s not going to happen.”
It’s unsurprising that Wheeler is calling for a massive mobilization to tackle water woes without acknowledging the climate change link, considering the administration’s relentless push to boost domestic fossil fuel production. It is also reminiscent of former Interior Department chief Ryan Zinke’s response to wildfires in the western United States.
On a visit to fire-scorched California last August, Zinke made clear that the Trump administration has no interest in the scientific research showing that climate change is helping to drive extreme fire.
“This has nothing to do with climate change,” he told KCRA-TV in Sacramento at the time. “This has to do with active forest management.”
And in an interview with Fox Business after returning to Washington, D.C., Zinke said whether climate change is contributing to the infernos is “irrelevant to what’s occurred.” He emphasized the need for better forest management by pointing to the more than 120 million dead trees in California but failed to mention that the trees died because of a multi-year drought that scientists have concluded was made worse by anthropogenic climate change.
When a reporter later pressed him outside the White House, Zinke said that “of course” climate change is a factor in the California fires ― a rather unconvincing acknowledgment, considering previous remarks and the number of times Zinke cast doubt on the all-but-irrefutable body of scientific research that shows human carbon emissions are driving global climate change.
Early in his tenure, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt prioritized fixing Superfund, the struggling and financially strapped program responsible for cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated sites. The administration then turned around and proposed slashing funding for the program, from $1.09 billion to $762 million. Pruitt said that it wasn’t a lack of money that was plaguing the program, but rather “poor leadership” and “poor focus” on the part of the Obama administration.
Superfund’s problems have almost everything to do with resources, which have all but dried up over the last two decades. Superfund experts have said the administration’s approach highlights its lack of understanding about how the program functions.
EPA maintains that Superfund is a “top priority” and that it “is making great strides in accelerating sites through remediation and back to productive use.” Yet the $4.75 trillion 2020 budget blueprint the administration released this month once again calls for cutting Superfund dollars, this time by 10 percent.
When it came to wildfires, Trump applauded Zinke for saying they are “not a global warming thing.” They very much are.
When it comes to water, Trump has repeatedly said that he wants it to be “crystal-clean,” even as he and his team take aim at clean water protections and dismiss the threat of climate change.
Perhaps the administration can learn something from Naoto Kan, the former prime minister of Japan, who knows a thing or two about what happens when policy responses fail ― and who once said: “If you are unable to understand the cause of a problem, it is impossible to solve it.”