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How climate policy could change if a Republican is elected president in 2024

Mandy Gunasekara, Environmental Protection Agency's former chief of staff, speaks during a bitcoin mining event in Houston, Tex., on March 30, 2022.
Mark Felix
/
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Mandy Gunasekara, Environmental Protection Agency's former chief of staff, speaks during a bitcoin mining event in Houston, Tex., on March 30, 2022.

Updated August 11, 2023 at 6:32 AM ET

If Republicans recapture the White House in 2024, some conservatives will be ready with a climate policy plan.

The Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, has laid out its own climate ideas as part of a wide range of policy recommendations known as Project 2025.

While it's not certain that the next Republican president would follow this or any plan, it is common for think tanks on both sides of the aisle to generate policy ideas for current or future presidents. The Heritage project contributors include former officials from Donald Trump's administration and their product resonates with Trump's campaign rhetoric as he runs again.

Joe Biden, the current president, has called climate change a "clear and present danger" to the health of individuals and their communities. The Heritage Foundation report frames the issue differently.

In a shift from the past, many conservatives now accept the overwhelming scientific evidence of human-caused climate change, but they minimize the consequences of it, and criticize proposed solutions.

Mandy Gunasekara wrote the chapter of Project 2025 that addresses the Environmental Protection Agency, where she was chief of staff in the Trump administration. She spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep in an extended interview for Morning Edition.

Much of that discussion is reproduced here, edited for length and clarity. Where applicable, NPR's climate reporting team has provided context shown in [brackets and italics].

Steve Inskeep: Would you first define the problem you see that you want to address?

Mandy Gunasekara: Yes, certainly. I believe that the Environmental Protection Agency recently has become an instrument of overregulation, where there is a lot of excess in terms of the bureaucracy and staffing and process.

[The EPA is currently understaffed, due in part to an exodus from the agency during the Trump administration.]

What problem, if any, do you see with the climate and the way it is changing?

It is a serious environmental issue; and that is a part of Project 2025, and a part of the proposals is to reduce emissions so that we can deliver a lower emissions future.

Importantly, it is a balanced approach so that we don't get caught up in pushing out unproven technologies or setting us to comply with political timelines in a way that creates unintended consequences.

[The Project 2025 text contains six references to "emissions," which primarily focus on reducing regulatory burdens, for example: "Balance the goal of driving down emissions without creating significant costs or complex burdens on the industry."]

In your view, is human caused climate change real?

Yes.

You write of it, however, as a "perceived threat" that the left is overstating. What do you mean by that?

Well, it is overstated. A lot of the general rhetoric is more about capturing headlines or pulling from some of the most extreme analyses that are out there. A lot of the rhetoric that the public sees and experiences is based on a picture that's not consistent with what we've seen with observed climate data, and that the forecasts actually suggest a mild and manageable climate change in the future.

[The vast body of peer-reviewed science about current climate disruptions and how they will evolve in the future does not portray "mild and manageable climate change." Instead, they list catastrophic harms from extreme weather, some already occurringthis summer. The United Nations said in one of its most recent reports on climate change in March 2023, "Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health." Further, it stated, "There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all."]

I suppose it's true that the scientific consensus has a range of possible outcomes. We don't know how far global temperatures will go up over the next century, for example. But it seems that at this point the scientific consensus is a range between bad and extremely bad. Who is telling you that the consequences would be mild?

So there's two different types of scientific conversations. There is a politicized version that most people are exposed to, which is consistent with what you just characterized. There is an actual substantive conversation – but scientifically substanced – with a number of scientists all over the country, all over the world, where they understand that the outlook is more mild and manageable.

[NPR asked Gunasekara to name scientists she had consulted in order to conclude that the outlook was "mild and manageable." She said she had heard from numerous scientists but did not name them. Scientists who write reports for the U.N. and for peer-reviewed journals use their names. In a statement afterward, the Heritage Foundation said it "regularly consults many scientists and climate experts who have diverse areas of expertise that cover the full spectrum of issues." It added, "We value their contributions and also respect their desire to provide this guidance in confidence."]

It seems to me that a lot of the discussion is about business rather than politics. One obvious example that we've reported on recently has to do with insurance companies pulling out of California and Florida. And a major factor there is they are aware of increased climate risks over time, and their money is on the line. That's not about politics. It's about reality.

Well, a lot of the insurance focus is reflective of the fact that there's been significant buildup of wealth in areas that are prone to natural disasters. By no means am I an insurance business expert and wouldn't dip myself into that too far. But there's a massive buildup of wealth in these areas that are prone to coastal areas and the environment that goes along with it. So certainly, there are businesses making decisions based on their relative outlook. But back to the scientific discussion – which is only a piece of the overarching policy outlook that would ultimately guide a conservative EPA. Those are a lot more specific, a lot more nuanced. There is a high admittance of existing uncertainties.

Again, granting that there are uncertainties here, and we should be clear about that, the United Nations foresees very bad or bad outcomes. The Pentagon foresees bad outcomes. NASA foresees bad outcomes. NOAA foresees bad outcomes. Thousands of peer reviewed studies have looked at different aspects of this. Who is someone that you rely on to tell you that the climate effects would be mild and manageable?

Yeah, if you look at the latest assessment from the United Nations, if you get past the summary for policymakers, if you get past a lot of political talking points coming from these agencies right now — the ones that you mentioned that are being impacted by the agenda of the Biden administration — if you dig into a lot of those papers, then they do reveal that the observed data and the relative outlooks, as far as our understanding goes, lends itself to a more mild and manageable outlook.

You have another line here that I found interesting. You wrote that the extreme climate forecasts are "a favored tool that the left uses to scare the American public into accepting their ineffective, liberty crushing regulations." When I read that, it sounds like you think the real goal here is not to address climate at all. The real goal is to regulate people. What evidence draws you to think that the left, however you describe or imagined them, has this particular motive that all they want to do is regulate people for no reason at all?

Yes. So you can look at the agenda that's been coming out of the Biden administration. You have really extreme policies, basically a wholesale overtaking of energy systems, how electricity is generated, how it's consumed there, regulations from how power plants generate electricity to the types of appliances that consumers can ultimately use from plant to plug.

[NPR's Julia Simon notes that high-efficiency appliances are already widely used. The Project 2025 report calls for eliminating energy efficiency standards for appliances. The report also calls for more research into the effects of electric vehicles, for example suggesting that EPA rules should "include life cycle emissions of electric vehicles and consider all of their environmental impacts." The Project 2025 report does not call for analyzing the life cycle emissions nor environmental impacts of combustion vehicles. Republicans and conservatives have spent much energy questioning the practicality of climate solutions, as when Donald Trump recently mocked electric cars.]

You seem to think that even some companies are in on this. Some wording [has to do] with encouraging new and more efficient refrigerators, that you think the companies are out to sell more refrigerators. Is that what you meant to say?

Well, some companies—and certainly I saw this time and time again—larger corporations have a calculation that they don't mind additional regulation because it puts their smaller and mid-sized competition out of business. And then it creates an opportunity for them to sell a new product that everyone has to have by virtue of a federal mandate. So there certainly are some companies, and they tend to be larger corporations that see new regulation — they see a benefit from it in terms of reducing competition for companies that cannot afford compliance for a variety of reasons and then forcing the market to buy a product they may not otherwise purchase.

[For decades the U.S. and other countries have been phasing down the use of potent planet-heating gases called hydrofluorocarbons that are commonly used in refrigerators and air conditioners. The climate impact of these gases can be more pronounced than carbon dioxide. Today many manufacturers sell popular appliances, like refrigerators, with alternative coolants that have less or no climate impact.]

I'm curious about one other person, since we're talking about the left pushing this and the Biden administration pushing this. I'm thinking about Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is, I guess you'd say, a centrist or conservative Democrat who drives progressives crazy, who would agree with some of the things perhaps that you're saying. When Biden was pushing his climate agenda in Congress, Manchin was saying this is too much, it's too far. But Manchin ended up sponsoring and supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes funding programs and incentives to accelerate a transition to a clean energy economy. I mean, this is a former coal guy who supports the coal industry from a coal state who sees something valuable here. Is he wrong?

Well, as I understand it, Senator Manchin's support was achieved at the end by virtue of a promise for the Mountain Valley pipeline.

[Manchin did, in fact, seek support for a West Virginia natural gas pipeline during negotiations over the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022. He received further support for the ongoing project in the debt ceiling negotiations of 2023.]

So, yeah, he ultimately did vote for it ... There's a lot of problems I see with that legislation in terms of federal support for technologies that would not otherwise be accepted by the market. And the federal subsidy or taxpayer support is another tool the left is using to force this transition, in addition to overregulation from agencies like the EPA that push people away and take away the choice of businesses and consumers to decide what types of products they ultimately use.

You mentioned overregulation by the EPA, which gets us over to what you would like a future administration to do. Having defined the problem, what is your solution?

I think first and foremost, it is making sure that we respect the concept of cooperative federalism. So it's the federal government working alongside the states to achieve meaningful improvements to the air, land, water and reducing emissions. So it's reinstituting a meaningful relationship with state officials and ensuring that they understand the importance of a partnership.

[The EPA says it already works with state governments routinely to implement environmental laws and rules, and has regional offices all over the country.]

The other piece of it is accountable progress to the American people. I believe there has been a loss in confidence in final actions coming from the agency... We also need a reinstitution of balancing — ensuring that environmental standards are balanced with impacts to the local economy, small businesses and folks' day-to-day lives in the way that the law actually lays out.

I'm interested in the idea of collaboration with the states because it seems that in your guidelines here, you encourage collaboration with the states, except you want to prevent them from higher greenhouse gas emission standards. Why?

Well, that's a reflection of the law. States do have authority to establish higher emissions for state-specific issues. Now, the problem with greenhouse gasses is that that's not necessarily a state specific impact. And what we ran into in the past during the Trump administration is you had a state like California, for example, that was trying to dictate standards that maybe worked for some super urbanized communities in California, but didn't actually work for the rest of the states when it came to setting greenhouse gas standards.

[California has long led the nation in setting air pollution standards, particularly around emissions from automobiles. Today, 17 other states have chosen to adopt all or some of California's standards. Project 2025 calls to "restore the position" that California's waiver to set its own pollution standards "applies only to California-specific issues like ground-level ozone, not global climate issues." It also calls to "ensure that other states can adopt California's standards only for traditional/criteria pollutants, not greenhouse gases."]

I can see the argument for doing things on a national basis because you want to have a rational economy that makes sense, where things are efficient, and you don't want one state dictating to the other 49 states. But I'm particularly interested that you say specifically it is okay for California to adopt special standards that may influence the whole country on other pollutants. You only forbid them from doing anything about greenhouse gasses. Why?

Well, it's for state specific issues. So in California, for example, they can set higher standards when it comes to particle pollution by virtue of the topography of the state. Also the fact that they are on the receiving end of a lot of emissions from China. They are their particulate matter. And the ozone issues are distinct compared to the rest of the country. So for those purposes, it would make sense for the California regulators to be able to go above and beyond the standards that we would set.

I'm sorry to interrupt, but you just said that California has a special problem because it receives pollution from China, which would pretty much demonstrate the point that these traditional pollutants are also a global issue, which you're fine with California regulating, but you've got a specific problem with greenhouse gasses. That suggests to me an ideological point of view rather than a science based one.

We're talking about different pollutants, the traditional air pollutants. There are six, generally speaking, that the EPA has jurisdiction over. But the ones in particular for California, it's particulate matter, and then the various subsets that ultimately create ozone that's scientifically and chemically different than greenhouse gasses.

Do you think that if your recommendations were followed, that there would be meaningful action against climate change?

Oh, certainly. Yeah. I mean, it's very similar to the approach that we took in the previous administration and we issued four separate EPA rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. But importantly, it's balanced with the other aspects of the agency that are equally important: ensuring clean air and ensuring access to safe, reliable, clean drinking water and addressing legacy pollution in a variety of lands that fall under the scope of the Superfund program.

[NPR's Julia Simon notes that by limiting the ways that government agencies like the EPA and the Department of Energy can reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase energy efficiency, this plan would hamper the country's ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This at a time when scientists say the world needs to sharply curb planet heating emissions to avoid worse scenarios of global warming.]

Is this a fair statement? You are willing to address climate change to the extent that you think it is a problem, and you do not think it is that big a problem.

I would say that the project 2025 an approach that we would take includes addressing climate change and using the authorities deferred to the agency to meaningfully address it while also ensuring we are not distracted from fulfilling other important aspects of the administration.

Contributors to the audio and web stories include Neela Banerjee, Lauren Sommer, Jeff Brady and Nina Kravinsky.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.
Jan Johnson