In TV Interview, EPA Head Explains U.S. Stance on Energy and the Environment

National Geographic News
April 24, 2001

Former governor of New Jersey Christie Todd Whitman was appointed by President George W. Bush to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in January 2001. Last week, Whitman spoke with National Geographic Today anchors Tom Foreman and Susan Roesgen at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.

What is your assessment of the United States and the world as we approach Earth Day?

[It's] getting better. [We have] better understanding of what we need to do to protect our environment, that we all have a role in this—not just government, or not just industries, but as individuals we can make a difference, but still with a lot of challenges ahead of us. And some of that will be very frustrating because it will require some changes in behavior today [for results] that we may never see.

Well let's talk about one of the biggest issues for environmentalists—global warming. If the United States is the largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, why did we not sign the Kyoto agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

If you move forward with a treaty that only looks at us and requires the biggest changes come from us, it will actually severely impact the economy. We had some real concerns. We also had some concerns for not including the Chinas and the Indias even now. There's a lot you could do with technology transfer that's a positive way to encourage their economic growth. Without allowing them [to participate], there seems to be an attitude of some that you can't bring them into the process until they've reached a point of economic development that the developed nations find themselves at, and if that means polluting then that's fine, you let them do that. That's just counterproductive. We don't want them to do that and inflict the same kind of damage that we did getting to where we are today.

Well, the suggestion from so many people is that the United States is the world leader and should lead on this issue. You said yourself, you don't support this plan, but we ought to have a plan. What sort of plan? Some details.

Well, what we're doing now, I'm part of the Cabinet-level group that is putting together a series of options for the President—a whole briefing paper on where the science is still really lacking, which is not in "Is there global climate [change] taking place and do humans have an impact on that." Although there are some scientists that would disagree, we're beyond that in this administration, and this President is beyond that.

But where we do still have some real scientific question is which one of the behaviors is the most egregious. How much of what we're seeing is really human versus natural, and where should we target our resources? Where are we going to make the best investment? Do we need to invest more heavily in research and development to understand exactly what we should be doing, to have an appropriate long-term impact?

Within that, we are also arguing for the fact that we should be taking some steps right now to deal with some of these issues. And we are going to be presenting a series of options for the President—things that are market-based things, technology transfers, issues that we believe we can find a measure of engagement with the rest of the world that will allow us to continue to promote some of the things that were discussed in the previous treaty initiatives but where we can have some agreement and can actually get ratification and actually move forward this whole process.

Earlier out of the chute, you were out on a limb, though. You went out and you were going to go forward with this, and the President seemed to pull you back. What happened?

Well, the president really stopped, and took a long hard look at the energy crisis that we're facing in this nation. I've heard some describe it as a so-called energy crisis. I want to tell you, as a member of the Vice President's energy task force, it's a real crisis. What we've seen in California to date on the blackouts is unfortunately just the beginning—it's going to get a lot worse in the summer, and we're very concerned about other parts of the Northwest.

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