Carl Pope on Trump, Paris, and the Climate: We’re Going to Be Okay

June 02, 2017

On June 1, President Donald Trump declared that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord, an international agreement meant to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the global average temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. For those who accept the reality of the threat posed by climate change, the news has sparked a good deal of anger, outrage, and not a small amount of despair for the fate of our planet.

Despair not, says our guest, Carl Pope, the former Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and the co-author of the optimistic new book Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet, co-written with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In a timely conversation with Point of Inquiry’s new host Paul Fidalgo (in his first episode as host!), Pope rejects doomsday attitudes about global warming, insisting that the window to stop climate change has not closed. He’ll tell us why he’s so optimistic, and what he thinks about the president’s decision to reject the Paris accord.



This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 2nd, 2017. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, an organization that advances reason, science and secularism. I’m your host, Paul Fidalgo. And yes, this is my first episode as your host, the brilliant and delightful Nora Hurley, the producer of Point of Inquiry. There’s going to be hosting right along with me. But things have changed in the past weeks and Nora will be moving on to some new ambitious projects. We’ll talk about that in our next episode. Now, a few weeks back, we announced that our first new episode would be released on June 12th. But here it is, June 2nd. So we’re moving ahead early because as we record, it’s been about 24 hours since President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord. And we could not have a better guest lined up to talk about this major development than the fellow. You’ll hear from today Carl Pope. He’s the former head of the Sierra Club. And along with Michael Bloomberg, he’s the coauthor of an optimistic new book on what we can do to stop climate change. So what better way to begin my stewardship of point of inquiry than with a sort of emergency breaking news podcast. 

Carl Pope, thank you so much for joining me on point of inquiry on my very first show as host, no less. Thank you for making time. I’m assuming that you are probably very much in demand today. 

There’s a fair amount going on this trip. 

Oh, OK, good. As we speak, it is June the 2nd. And just yesterday, President Trump let it be known in his particular creepy game show style that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreements. So the timing could not be more perfect to have you on to talk about this. 

But before we do, you have a new book out coauthored with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Climate of Hope How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet. So before we get into the news, because I definitely want to tackle all that stuff about Paris, but I’m interested in this particular pairing of Carl Pope, formerly of the Sierra Club, and Mike Bloomberg, business titan. How does this pairing come together? 

We began working with Mike when I was still at the Sierra Club, and he was trying to develop some innovative ways to fund public transit in New York City, which we were supportive of. And several years later, when the Sierra Club decided that the time had come to start retiring America’s dirty, outmoded and climate destroying coal-fired power plants, we went to Bloomberg Philanthropies and pointed out then that in addition to helping the climate, but also save thousands of lives, something that was very important to make is a big public health advocates. And they agreed generously to fund that campaign, which has now led to the retirement or announced retirement of more than half of America’s coal-fired power plants and a reduction in the 30000 people who were then dying from pollution from these plants by about 50 percent. So it’s very tremendously successful campaign. That’s why I left the Sierra Club. I continue to work with mine. And at some point, his chief of staff said, you know something? Nobody would believe it. But you two pretty much agree about climate. They disagree that other things, but you pretty much agree on climate. You should write a book because that would give people a sense of some ideas that have broad agreement. And that was the idea for the book. 

You know, it’s interesting. I have this image of you guys. Now, I know that in the book, you kind of go back and forth on you trade chapters, as it were. I have this image of, like, you guys in a hotel room and there’s like pizza boxes and soda cans everywhere. And one of you seriously tapping on a laptop while the other one’s shooting ideas. Was there any of that going on or was it all very, you know, distant? 

Well, no, it was. We wrote our chapters quite separately. Yeah. But we did have to write the opening and the closing because those are in our joint forces. And that was where most of the back and forth conversation and, you know, the arm wrestling about. Okay, what about this word or that word is too strong. I’m not comfortable with that word. And now I really think that’s over the top. Well, but it’s got to be punchier. So we we had we had a fair amount of that on the opening chapter, in the closing chapters. But the chapters that are in our own voices, I mean, we edited each other. Sure. And we review it. But we agree that we didn’t have to. I don’t think we said anything. It gave me the group heartburn. He agreed that we wouldn’t try to make sure that we agreed with everything in each of the steps. 

Yeah, yeah. Speaking of heartburn, the the way you put it in the book is that the window for action is not closed. Now, I’m gonna go ahead and confess my own kind of pessimism on on this topic, because climate change just as a phenomenon. I think you’ll agree. It just feels so big. 

Way beyond any single person’s control, like the world is boiling. Civilization is in trouble. Earth is in trouble. 

I feel like it’s hard for regular people. I’m not talking about experts and politicos and things, but just regular folks to kind of come to grips with climate change as a phenomenon. 

And, you know, Gary Johnson, remember during the campaign, he talked about how, you know, well, one day the Earth is going to get swallowed by the sun. Nothing we can do about that. So it feels big like that. So I’m interested how you think regular people rather than the experts and people who follow this stuff day after day, how should they be conceiving of climate change and its threat? Is it is it good to be talking about it in terms of these kind of global threats? 

Well, first of all, regular people see it that way because the experts have encouraged them to do so. And that was one of the things Mike and I felt was a big mistake. If we only talked about medicine by talking about the problem of human disease. We were still pretty overwhelmed. Yeah, let’s be a very generous Delattre to medical research. I think it’s a lot of money you just to help. But if he gave the money to Johns Hopkins and said solve the problem of human disease, what happens? Right. And climate change is really a symptom. It’s not a single problem. It’s a symptom of five or six problem. Right. And each one of those five or six problems has a solution which ordinary people and frankly, experts can wrap their head around relatively easily. So the reason for the book was to say this is not this humongous single thing. Like it’s not like a meteor hit the earth. We couldn’t do much about. Well, you know, we could try, for example, 50 percent of the problem is deforestation, which is primarily caused by illegal logging and corruption. So if we can clean up the print, even contraband timber and help countries like Brazil and Indonesia solve some of their domestic corruption problems, we can solve that. Fifteen percent of the climate change problem. Another 30 percent of the climate risks. Future climate change was posed by these chemicals, chemical seas, which we’re currently beginning to use as refrigerants. But last December, the global community agreed to phase them out before they can do very much damage at all. So not only are these problems we know how to solve. We’re in the process of solving media. 

So people should be thinking about it in terms of individual problems that they can solve on a local level, on an instance by instance level, I’m thinking particularly. You were speaking about the coal plants. And I remember in the book you talked about how after the election of George W.. The reelection of George W. Bush, you kind of took it upon yourself to do this major campaign of just going after individual coal plants. Is that the kind of piecemeal way we should be looking at this? 

That that that that that is indeed an example. And, you know, for example, if every parent who has kids in a school that is leaky and needs to be modernized, realize that the second largest budget item in most school budgets is the utility bill for heating and cooling leaky buildings, which is bad for education, it’s bad for the schools budget, and therefore it’s bad for teachers salaries. And said to the school district, let’s prioritizing, let’s prioritizing cleaning up our schools. That would make a huge difference in all kinds of ways, not only the climate to American education, but there has to be done school district by school district. We’re not going to do it from the top down. 

That’s a really good point. I want to return to that first. I want to make sure we we get to the Paris agreement here. I do want to return to that idea because I have a lot of thoughts about how how that gets talked about. So Paris, as I said, as we as we speak now, yesterday President Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris agreement, generally speaking. And you can tell me if I’m missing anything here, that the idea was to hold down the increase in global average temperature to below two degrees centigrade pre-industrial levels, to have a major carbon emission reductions by 2020 in mid century, hoping for a net zero level of greenhouse gases. And we’re out of that right now. So for me, this feels like and a lot of people feels like this is a major kind of punch in the gut, even though I guess we sort of knew it was coming, it still feels like kind of a shock. What is what is your immediate reaction to this news? 

Well, first, we’re not out yet. It takes four years to get out. Second, we were already not Trump was already doing everything he could to avoid complying. So the announcement doesn’t actually change very much in terms of our emissions policy announcement. Did was to say to the global community. Donald Trump will do anything to please his isolationist followers. He really was saying, I’m pulling out of global diplomacy because he didn’t need to do this. And it doesn’t really change any of the things he claims. It changes. It won’t save the United States money. It won’t create more jobs. It won’t give us more flexibility in terms of our energy supply. All it does is say to the rest of the world, we’re not interested in collaborative solutions to global problems. That’s the biggest harm it’s done. It’s the US leadership and America’s reputation. But it also reveals something very important about itself. Trump has always argued that he knew how to make better deals than anybody else. Well, the Paris deal is practically the best deal you can imagine making. Every single thing the United States promised to do in Paris is something that most Americans want to do. Every single thing we promise to do in Paris is either good for our economy, good for the health of the American people, good for our national security. There are no sacrifices. I underscore that no sacrifices required of the United States by the Paris treaty. I can’t imagine a better deal with you when you give up nothing and get everything. 

So it’s a symbolic move on both ends. In other words, because it’s a he pulls out and do so doing, he pleases a particular base. But it’s also symbolic in the sense that had he stayed in, there’d be nothing that he would have had to sacrifice. 

That’s correct. And in addition to thinking that he alienates most Americans and most surprising, he alienates most of American business, the business community was skeptical of Trump, but they were very reluctant to take on the White House plan for a powerful yeah. Businesses don’t like to pick fights with the president. Trump force American business to pick a fight with him. For him, just say no to say yesterday, CEO of G.E.. 

Right. 

COAG business is going to have to solve the climate problem now. We can’t wait for. I mean, that’s not the kind of things more force that Exxon Mobil didn’t want in to pull out to pull out. This is the advantage to be you are Musk is one of his economic advisers that just quit in protest. So what Trump is doing is demonstrating once again that he believes that the passion of a minority of the American people is all he needs to govern. And he is sadly wrong. This is a democracy. You have to govern with the majority. And he doesn’t have a majority or anything like a majority on this issue. 

Do you think it’ll be definitive for him? Do you think it will matter in the long term for his political prospects? I don’t claim to say that you’re a political pundit, per say, but do you think he suffers for this? 

Well, he did something yesterday that Al Gore and Jim Hansen and the Sierra Club and Climate Science couldn’t account. He made climate change breaking cable news. That’s a great point. It’s really kind of we’ve never been able to get it up there. And I think he’s now running a significant risk because, look, the American economy, is there enough licenses. Many people, employees and clean energy is employed. It’s all fossil fuels combined. So he’s actually challenging the very economic growth promises that got him elected. And I think that can come back within the criminal law. 

And the response, as you say, the business community is having to respond. We read in the I read The New York Times that your colleague, Mike Bloomberg, is coordinating a kind of I don’t know what we’d call it, a shadow state in the sense that he’s gathering up states and cities. He’s got 30 mayors, three governors, 80 university presidents, 100 businesses are looking to kind of coalesce and negotiate with the United Nations to to kind of be a signatory to the Paris accord without the federal government. Are you involved in this at all? 

I am, and I am involved in that. And I’m strongly supportive. And Mike Bloomberg poll monitors the election by just suddenly came together. All of a sudden when Trump started talking about pulling out, we started getting calls. We already been talking to cities and we were initially focused on cities. But we started getting calls from governors and businesses saying, we want to do this, too. And so, yes, there will be something we’re calling America’s pledge that will be as ambitious as the one President Obama submitted in Paris. It won’t be exactly the same because some of what Obama promised only the federal government can do. Yeah. So we’ll do less about methane on public land and more about leaky buildings that shouldn’t have a lot of control over leaky buildings. But actually, we’re actually going to create a new kind of diplomacy in which a society, not just the federal government, actually takes responsibility for America’s role in the world, which is very exciting. 

Do you think? Do you think that’s enough? 

Do you think that makes up for the federal government, whether in the short term to Tennessee or enable us to meet our Paris place in the long term? You have to bring the federal government back to the table. Sure. Example, one of the major problems with America’s climate emissions are outrageously stupid farm subsidies, and that’s going to be fixed at the federal level. Similarly, methane leaks and flares on public lands, really, that’s a federal responsibility. So we need Washington eventually. But we can clearly meet our Paris pledge with Bottom-Up sources. 

Is there any precedent for this kind of thing where states I mean, other than, let’s say, the civil war? Is there any precedents for states and cities kind of acting on their own and going over the head of the federal government to do something on the international stage like this? 

Not since 60, 48. In fact, up until 60, 48, international diplomacy was kind of fluid and all kinds of players at the table. And in the Treaty of Westphalia, European governments decided that from now on, only nation states could be diplomats, that nobody else could be a diplomat. So this is really unprecedented. I think it’s healthy, but it’s impressive. 

It’s very remarkable. That’s one of the most surprising things that I found about all all of this developing news. So I’m glad you guys here have had thought ahead on that. And we’re planning ahead. I really can’t wait to see how that develops. So back to your book a little bit. It’s actually quite a quite a good read, frankly. So if people are interested in this topic, it’s it’s very readable and it’s interesting. And you’re going to find lots of very kind of you’re going to feel like things are very doable in a lot of ways, gives you a lot of instances where individuals and cities and companies can take very specific actions and add it up. They become major projects. So, as you say, eventually, to kind of get to the bigger goals of something like Paris, we we are going to need the federal government. We’re going to need something to me anyway. It seems like we’re going to need something akin to like a works. Progress sort of thing, you mentioned like the Tennessee Valley Authority in the book as a kind of a model for electrifying, like you talk about when you were in India and electrifying different cities in India and stuff in that kind of thing. So it’s going to need something at that scale. I was reading something by Bill McKibben, a climate activist. He says, What we need now to really stop global warming from becoming catastrophic is ramping up our efforts in something too akin to the prep for a world war. So he considers climate change to be World War Three. We only to gear up for it on that end. Do you agree with that kind of thinking? And is that a dead idea with someone like Trump in the White House now? 

Well, I don’t actually agree with that kind of thinking, Trump aside. We do need even if there’s no climate change, we need to modernize our infrastructure and we need to spend, you know, hundreds of billions of dollars doing so over the next several decades. And if we do so, we’re almost certainly going to build stuff that is cleaner and better than what we have now. So really, the challenge we face is that the United States is currently we’ve managed to make the idea that bridges shouldn’t fall into rivers and the highways shouldn’t swallow up cars, a partizan issue which Washington manages to argue about. Yeah, we need to get past that. Yeah. But I don’t like a World War Two analogy because that implies that we have to do different things, totally different things, and give up our very lives and make sacrifices. All we really need to do is do the things we’re already doing right. We can we can pay farmers subsidies. I think we’re probably going to I think that’s the politics. But we should subsidize them, produce things. We need cleaner air and water rather than crops we don’t meet. So my view would be, let’s not think about this as a war. Let’s think about this as prosperity. 

That’s that’s a very positive spin. I can appreciate that, although you said something that that really sticks out to me. One hang up. I know that I have always had about the way we talk about climate change. You know, we do accept the science of it, that there is an assumption that we are going to do all these important things. 

We’re going to fight global warming. We’re going to clean up the air. We’re going to clean up the water, do all these great things, and we’ll maintain our lives as they are now. We’re going to make sure everybody maintains the standard of living uninterrupted. We’ll still get to drive cars, but there’ll be electric or there’ll be public transportation. We’ll use a lot of electricity and use air conditioners and but it’ll all be solar and wind power. So I guess it’s the idea that we’ll still have the kind of consumerism lifestyles that we have right now. We’ll still be able to buy stuff and throw stuff away. But that doesn’t strike me as being. And I’m saying you’re saying I don’t mean to claim that. You’re saying that it’s that extreme. But it feels to me like the idea is we’re gonna keep going as we always have, but we’ll have this technology to back it up. So don’t worry, your lifestyle will not change over the next 20, 30, 40 years. 

As I said, I think two things are true. But that’s not entirely in accord with people’s lifestyles. Little. I suspect that in four years, very few restaurant, our own private cars, our own private car round private elevator. Mostly, you know, if you get elevators and you increasing numbers, especially young people, they don’t want to drive their own cars. They want to call up a list or a number because they want to be able to stay on line while they’re driving. And that’s going to become the dominant way within a different lifestyle. I mean, young people think it’s a better lifestyle. People who are real car heads don’t. They love the idea that they drive their own car. And your car is a statement about them. Yeah, I think that’s not likely to be true in 25 to 30 years and in 25 or 30 years. When you buy a new house or a new apartment or a new commercial building, it won’t come to a utility bill. It’ll be connected to a utility for a period when it may need a lot of power, but you’ll be generating this much power on your rooftop if you’re using in such a bill, you’ll have a utility bill. That’s a big change. I don’t think it’s a sacrifice. We’re probably going to be eating the problems will be more people working in agriculture in 20 years than there are today. Farming will be more labor intensive. The food will be better for you when will taste better and would be better for the country. And it will cost more. But that’s change. We’re going to go back to the farm to some degree, I suspect. So there’ll be a lot of changes, but I don’t think we’re going to get poorer. I think we’re going to get more prosperous. 

That’s that’s a very good outlook, and I hope you’re right about that. Another thing you guys talk about in the book is how in you. You actually mentioned something about it that you’ve lost interest in the debates over climate change on Capitol Hill, that the interview said our interest is not in winning an argument or an election, but particularly when you’re talking about what happens at the local level schools and how they’re going to handle their their buildings in there and their efficiencies. And mayors are a major part of this. But these people still need to be elected. Right. So these mayors need to be elected. We need representatives in Congress who want to see these changes implemented. And so don’t we still have to win these debates on Capitol Hill to get anywhere? 

You essentially, yes, we won the debates on Capitol Hill. But Mike and I believe the way you win the debates on Capitol Hill is by electing mayors do these things and then they become ceased to be partizan issues. They can really how can it be that the idea that American bridges should not fall into rivers where the train goes over them has become a partizan issue? Sure, sure. How can that be? So it’s not a partizan issue in a place where it happens. 

It’s like everybody says, oh, my God, I find the mayors more amenable to the message then regardless of their party affiliation. 

And I think this is what we need to do is to demonstrate that America works well when it works together at the local level. And then we can create a new national politics. But I don’t think we, including in national politics, by winning an argument, we have to demonstrate the pathway. 

Yes. Piece by piece. Yeah. You know, one of the arguments against doing anything is the this idea that God will never let anything like a climate catastrophe happen. And if you take them at their word, there’s plenty of members of Congress who like they take a very firm stand on a religious belief that God is going to keep us safe. Now, you know, my organization that does this podcast, the Center for Inquiry, we are a secularist organization. So we are we’re not the kind of people who are ever going to convince people like John Shimkus or Tim Walberg out of their biblical stance. So do you have any insight as to how we talk to folks who come at it from that position? Is that a hopeless project? 

Well, I’ll begin with one of my favorite quotes, which is from a very nonsecular fundamentalist and conservative Republican, Mike Huckabee when he ran for president in 2000 and eight. His response to that was. Yes, I think that’s going to determine what happens. But when God says a flood, if my God put up the sandbags. And I think the reality is this is not fundamentally a religious problem. It is fundamentally the fact that the Supreme Court has unleashed a flood of special interest money into American politics. The carbon based industries see their profits of hegemony going away. And they have poured huge amounts of money to create and essentially blow this belief that a wind turbine is somehow a socialist project right now, given the fact that these states that have the most wind turbines are Kansas and Iowa. I have a hard time imagining that have a socialist project, but that’s the narrative in Washington. And it’s it’s a narrative driven by money, not driven by safety. I actually don’t think faith is the problem. I think. 

That’s that’s interesting. So let’s let’s step away from politics for a moment and take a broader view. I really appreciate that. In your book, you describe a little bit about what humans should be expecting from the changing climate because it is changing no matter what we’re doing right now. We have certain things locked in. We have a certain degree of warming and changing. That is definitely going to happen. So maybe you could just maybe briefly summarize for us what what do you see as regular folks having to prepare for in their day to day lives? Let’s say next 20, 30, 40 years? 

Well, there’s going to be less predictable. That’s the only thing we know for certain. It’s going to be less predictable. We’re going to have more brassed. We’re probably going to have more floods. We’re going to have more hot summers. We’re probably going to have more cold winters. Yeah. So the phrase global warming is actually, in that sense, a little misleading for most people, because then when it gets really cold, they say, I thought it was warming. Right. But what warming really means is the climate has more energy stored in it and more energy needs more extreme weather. So I think fundamentally, we have to expect the weather to be more extreme and less predictable. You know, in some places, that’s not such a big deal because they’re not right at the margin. But if you’re living in the coastal area and you’re almost flooded already, you’ve got a bigger risk of flooding. And we need to build our infrastructure to be more resilient. We have to prepare our infrastructure. So we ought to let the flood plains of river bigger. We ought to build our houses further above the high tide line. We ought to insulate our buildings better. We ought to construct our roofs more strongly so that they don’t blow off and wind storms. And we ought to make sure that we have more ample water supply for our cities so that we’re okay in a drought. 

What about the food supply? Is that going to become a crisis in the next few decades? 

Not in the United States, but it could easily in Africa. Africa really is the frontline because Africa is a place where farming is already marginal. Yes. And so if you make the weather more extreme in Africa, you could create a big problem. 

You had mentioned that in some areas because of the warming, it’s going to actually help some agricultural things. So there’s going to be some more fertile soil for longer periods of time. Is that is that part of what helps us? 

Not really. I mean, I think what’s going to help us if we’re if we’re smart in agriculture can be much more resilient. We are we are operating. That’s less than we’re probably. And have more people back on the farm. Yeah. Because, in fact, labor intensive farming can be more resilient to climatic changes. But yes, there will be some places where there will be agricultural benefits. But net net, it’s going to be negative because extreme weather plants are like unpredictable. They like to know when it’s going to rain. 

Okay, well, we’re we’re almost out of time. So before we end, the message of the book, seems to me is writing the final chapter there, we can stop global warming. I read that sentence and it, you know, fills me for several emotions. So let’s imagine that you don’t like the war metaphor that much, but let’s imagine it for now. The listeners of point of inquiry. Right now, they’re your soldiers in this in this effort to prevent catastrophic climate change. What should we be doing when this show is over? What’s the first thing that our listeners should do? You now have permission to give us some marching orders. What do you think? 

Oh, look around your life. Look around where you work. Look around where you live. Look over in your community, your schools. And look for the most wasteful thing that you see happen. Or something. I mean, it’s really stupid and wasteful and effective. And bit by bit, we get there. And yes, this whole problem is a problem of waste. Yeah, and of doing stupid Rieslings that we are missing in the site. One of my favorite lines is the great thing about stupidity, which is an enormous amount. It’s always optional. 

I like that line of thinking. I do very much like that line of thinking. So, Carl Pope, the book is Climate of Hope How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet. Thank you so much for your time on what I’m sure is a very busy day for you. And thank you for being my first guest on Point of Inquiry. 

Terrific. It’s an honor to be here first. Yes. Thank you so much. 

This episode of Point of Inquiry was produced by Nora Hurley Point of Inquiry’s production of B Center for Inquiry. Learn more at Center for Inquiry Dot Net. You’d like to support the show. Just head over to a point of inquiry dot org slash support. Follow us on Twitter. At that point of inquiry, I’m Paul Fidalgo. And for all of us here, thanks for listening. 


Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo is editor of Free Inquiry and executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. For ten years he served as communications director of the Center for Inquiry. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, and his writing has appeared in outlets such as Religion News Service, CNN, USA Today, Dark Mountain, and Android Police. Fidalgo is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center.