Benjamin Schreiber has been working for a decade to promote renewable energy and fight climate change, first for Environment America and more recently for Friends of the Earth, where he serves as Senior Political Strategist. While Friends of the Earth is active in 75 countries around the world, Ben. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman interviewed Schreiber in person at Friends of the Earth’s office in downtown Washington, DC…
EarthTalk: Donald Trump has called climate change “a Chinese hoax.” His EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, previously sued the EPA 14 times, including 4 times to block the Clean Power Plan to stop climate change. Given this, what do you see as likely Trump actions with regards to the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Climate Agreement?
Schreiber: That’s a great question. I think first of all let’s start with the Paris Agreement. Donald Trump has made it very clear that he doesn’t support the Paris Agreement. The question just becomes whether or not he’s going to try to undermine it by withdrawing the United States or whether or not he’s going to undermine it from within. The signal that we’re getting right now is that he’s not going to immediately withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. The United States is going to send a delegation to the Bonn Intersessional—that’s coming up in a couple of months, so they’re going to participate in the process. At the same time, it’s really clear that Donald Trump is not committed to climate change; he’s continued to question the validity of climate science. So we are talking about a situation where we have a bad actor in this international agreement. With the Clean Power Plan, Donald Trump has appointed Scott Pruitt as the head of EPA. One of the things that’s really interesting is that in his confirmation, Scott Pruitt was very clear that the Environmental Protection Agency has the obligation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act because the Supreme Court decided a case—Massachusetts v. EPA—which said that greenhouse gas emissions were a pollutant and that they had to be regulated, and there was an endangerment finding. Since he’s has his nomination confirmed, Scott Pruitt’s actually really gone back on that, and he’s started to say that maybe the EPA doesn’t actually have the regulatory tools, that it is actually not something that they have the legal authority to do, to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. So we’re seeing, you know, the climate denier Scott Pruitt, who is really a tool of the oil and gas industry, walking back the regulations on greenhouse gas emissions by EPA.
E: So, they could just kind of not enforce it very much, but it looks like they might more directly attack it at this point?
Schreiber: It looks like they’re actually talking about potentially just undoing the endangerment finding, taking all the structure that’s been built up for almost a decade to regular greenhouse gas emissions and saying actually the Clean Air Act doesn’t apply to carbon. That we don’t have the tools in law right now to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. And if they can’t do that, if they’re not successful, what they look like they’ll do is going to starve EPA with massive budget cuts. You know, they’re already talking about 25% of the EPA budget being whack so that we can increase defense spending.
E: Right, because the Supreme Court has said clearly that the EPA does have to have some kind of action against climate change.
Schreiber: The Supreme Court has said that, but we’re also seeing that Donald Trump doesn’t have a lot of respect for the rule of law in the courts. That ruling was very clear, but at the same time, there’s an executive order that’s going to be handed down today on the Water Rule, where the EPA and Trump administration is pointing to a dissent by Justice Scalia to rewrite the Water Rule and saying we should be using the standards of the dissent (i.e. the opinion that was not carried, and which was not the majority opinion, and not the rule of law by the Supreme Court). So Donald Trump is really disregarding judges and justices that he doesn’t like or doesn’t agree with.
E: Which is of questionable legality, to say the least.
Schreiber: Yeah, I think Donald Trump is really threatening the structures of our democracy. You know, it started with some of the rules and norms, like releasing your tax returns and showing that you don’t have conflicts of interest—the Emoluments Clause. It’s clear that he has conflicts of interest and is getting money from foreign corporations and foreign governments through his hotels and other business deals, that he’s continuing to do arrangements and deals overseas in places like Indonesia, that he hasn’t actually given up or put his companies in any kind of meaningful “blind trust.” And he has all kinds of conflicts of interests. He’s just basically ignored the decades of norms and rules and saying, “You know what? I won the election. Too bad.”
E: So if the executive is actually just steamrolling over rules illegally, basically, but his party is in power, what are the best strategies against that kind of action?
Schreiber: Yeah. This is, I think, one of the things that’s really interesting about the situation we’re in right now, is that we haven’t really had someone challenge the legal structures in the way Donald Trump is right now, really undermining the judiciary. He refused to follow through with the judiciary’s instructions to halt the Muslim ban at first, when he put it in place. What we see is that the Republican Congress has been enabling him by steamrolling through his appointments, just basically rubber-stamping what he wants to do. What we need is more protests. More people out. More people like Darrell Issa, who are afraid that they’re going to be held accountable. Because basically, the people who are enabling Donald Trump have to be held accountable at the polls when we have elections in two years. That’s really the only thing that we’re going to do to be able to stop Donald Trump from really running Russia over our democracy.
E: So basically you need a mass movement putting pressure on our legislators.
Schreiber: Yeah, our legislators. We can’t only focus on Donald Trump. We have to recognize that there’s a whole host of members of Congress who are refusing to investigate him, who are hiding behind partisanship, who are so excited by the opportunity to really destroy our government and cut funding that they’re looking past all these conflicts of interests: the ties to Russia, the shady deals, handing over the Department of Education to an unqualified woman who has never had a real job in her life. They’re willing to ignore all of this in their zealous zest to remake government.
E: What about Friends of the Earth? What specific actions has your organization taken?
Schreiber: There are a couple of things. The first is, we’re using the courts. And so there are decisions that Donald Trump has made or is making that we are challenging. And the courts, so far, have been a break on some of the things that Donald Trump is doing, such as the Muslim ban, which is a perfect example. So, yes, we’re going to the courts and we’re using that as a resource. The second thing is, we are making sure the Democratic Party actually resists Trump and his extreme agenda. When we first—right after this election, there was a lot of talk on the part of Democrats that they can do the work with Trump. And then the nominees came, and the nominees were one of the most extreme set of nominees we’ve ever seen. The Women’s March came. More than a million people came out on the streets—almost a million people here in Washington, D.C., millions of people across the country. And so, we’re making sure that the Democratic caucus stands strong, especially in the Senate, where most of the really bad legislation has a 60-vote threshold and the Democrats can stop it. And then we’re getting our members and our activists to turn to town hall meetings to be heard. We’re seeing powerful responses at the town hall meetings.
E: And specifically about the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement—do you have specific actions you’re taking on those?
Schreiber: The Paris Agreement right now… we are definitely focusing in on members of Congress and the administration, and that’s a really—an ask of going to the town hall meetings and making sure you’re being heard. The Clean Power Plan, we’re actually expecting a Clean Power Plan rollback any day now. That’s going to be an accountability ask, making sure that when that happens—again, people are going out to the town hall meetings. We’re seeing these confrontational town hall meetings that the Republican members of Congress are having all over the country.
E: On a related issue, the Trump administration has moved forward on the Dakota Access Pipeline despite the massive Native American protests. And also on the Keystone XL, which moves the dirtiest of oil—tar sands oil—to ports where it can be shipped out. It reverses two major Obama administration decisions. Given this, how can the “Keep It in the Ground” strategy move forward?
Schreiber: The “Keep It in the Ground” strategy obviously is a really important campaign that we’ve been running. I think there are two things. First of all, there’s an important legal strategy to try and challenge both Dakota Access and the Keystone XL Pipeline. So we’re going to the courts to try and slow down or stop those decisions from moving forward. We are also continuing with protests, making sure legislators are held accountable. And finally, these projects are not that economically viable right now. The price of oil is still really low. So we’ve been targeting the banks that are financing these projects to try and undercut the financing and really stop them from being built. We’re seeing cities like Dallas and Seattle withdraw their pension funds and funding for them, as well as some of the banks that we’ve been targeting actually withdrawing from financing these projects. And I think we do have a really good opportunity to stop some of these projects from actually getting the billions of dollars of finance that they need.
E: And I guess the economics have been shifting toward renewable and against fossil fuels for at least the past five years.
Schreiber: Yes. I mean, what you’re seeing right now is that renewable energy is incredibly cheap, and that actually fossil fuels are so concerned about the price of renewable energy that they’re going into states like Nevada and they’re actually trying to make it impossible for homeowners to put solar on their rooftops by putting all of these additional surcharges and fees on, because they don’t want the competition—the utilities don’t want the competition because they know they can’t compete. At the same time, you know, Canadian tar sands—which is what most of these pipelines are shipping—is incredibly expensive, and relative to the cheap price of oil that we have right now. Shipping and mining tar sands oil doesn’t make a lot of economic sense. And so the financing on these projects is really fragile, and pulling out a couple of big banks can really make the difference between whether or not a project gets built or not.
E: So the Trump economic plan really does not make that much sense right now, even when you don’t put the environmental impact into account.
Schreiber: The Trump economic plan has never made a lot of sense, but it makes good talking points, and unfortunately, we’re stuck with good talking points right now. That has carried the day about, we’re going to bring back coal jobs and we’re going to put miners to work. When the reality is that it was changing markets and dropping prices of renewable energy that has cut the bottom out of the coal market, and also declining coal reserves.
E: And then, there is actually a group of Republicans that does believe in climate change, that has an alternative plan, and they’ve recently released this. Led by James Baker, Henry Paulson, and George Shultz. They suggest a carbon tax and dividends scheme as an alternative to the Clean Power Plan. I know this is something that usually has pretty wide support across the political spectrum, so what’s your position on this?
Schreiber: The Friends of the Earth has long been in support of a carbon tax. We do think that a carbon tax is one of the most important tools that our government could put towards regulating greenhouse gas emissions and reducing our carbon emissions. We don’t think a carbon tax is a silver bullet—it can’t be a replacement for regulation, for EPA authority—but it’s an important complement to regulating greenhouse gases and getting the reductions that we need. At the same time, we’re not really putting up a lot of energy into promoting a carbon tax right now. We’re seeing with the Trump administration to basically gut the social cost of carbon and take the impacts of climate change and carbon out of government decisions. We’re seeing a government that is filled with climate deniers who just are fighting the science and reject it. So we’re much more focused on stopping the administration from rolling back what’s already in place because we don’t see a lot of opportunity for good legislation right now.
E: Right. So at the moment, it would be worth supporting, but it has so little chance you have to put your eggs in another basket right now.
Schreiber: That’s right. And also, I don’t we would necessarily want to roll back the Clean Power Plan to put in place a carbon tax. A carbon tax, again, isn’t a silver bullet; we also need to complement it with legislation, with regulation so that we’re assured we’re getting the reductions we need, that we actually have—that we don’t have hotspots, that we’re fighting the co-pollutants, that we’re actually regulating all of the emissions from smokestacks.
E: Well, we definitely want clean air and we don’t want as much… Which is a related but different issue. Right?
Schreiber: Well, they’re incredibly related in the sense that they come out of the tail pipes and the smokestacks at the same time. One of the critiques of both the Clean Power Plan and also the Waxman-Markey Bill was that these trading schemes actually allowed for hotspots by creating incentives to have emissions sort of bunched together in the cheapest, most efficient places, without looking for the other co-pollutant impacts and what it was doing to the communities that were living near those facilities.
E: The Markey-Waxman Bill was about 7 or 8 years ago, right? And that was just another way to put a price on carbon.
Schreiber: Yes, exactly. That was the bill that was really sort of champion ed for the first two years under President Obama’s first term.
E: Okay. So let me talk to you about Native Americans and environmental justice advocates such as African communities. They’ve lately been at the forefront of a lot of environmental action; of course, Standing Rock would be the most famous. And they are often victims to environmental pollution more so than other communities, but they have historically seen themselves as ignored by mainstream environmental groups. How does Friends of the Earth see these groups as healing old differences and working together in the future?
Schreiber: Yeah, so I think the first thing to note is that their feeling of being ignored by the biggest environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, is quite valid. For too long, our movement has been a largely white, upper-middle class movement that’s been concerned about protecting parks, protecting lands…fighting climate change without real concern for the people who are living near the plants and who are on the front lines of the extractive fights. And solutions like carbon capture sequestration, where you’re still mining coal, you’re still burning coal, but you’re just burying it under the ground and in fact you might need more coal—are examples of solutions that might be solutions for the climate problem in theory, but are actually worse than all of the co-pollutants and the other impacts. I think the first step is just recognizing that yes, this has been a problem: listening to the concerns that frontline communities and environmental justice communities and environmental justice organizations have internalizing them, changing the way that we interact with those groups to be much more responsive and respectful. And then also making sure that we’re not co-opting some of their fights. And so, I think Dakota Access is a perfect example. Dakota Access was a super important fight for indigenous groups, for Native Americans. It was a fight that was about protecting water and it was a little about the environment, too, but it was about indigenous sovereignty and centuries of abuse of indigenous peoples by the United States government. Rather than turning that fight into a purely climate fight, Friends of the Earth made it very clear that we were supporting those groups because we support their sovereignty, and because we recognize how important it is for them to have a say and consultation in the decisions that are made about them and about their lives. And so I think it’s really just changing how we think about things. And I think the “Keep It in the Ground” really did a good job of this as well. The “Keep It in the Ground” movement was very much local-led. People living near extractive facilities and near mines coming out and making it clear that they didn’t want fossil fuels coming out of the ground; they didn’t want to live with the impacts and the consequences.
E: Okay, so the local groups will start it and guide it—maybe about nearby coal mines, for instance—and then the environmental groups will support, for instance, with legislative expertise.
Schreiber: For sure. And it’s also about supplying those groups with resources is well. Making sure that not all of the funding goes to green environmental organizations so that community-led groups are actually being resourced and listened to. So it’s the way that we interact and then supporting them.
E: And of course, you’re a global organization with chapters around the world. So, that probably influenced the way you were able to interact with Native Americans, for instance, because you’re used to working with different groups, right? But, how do you see your global stances affecting your attitude toward the Trump administration? And might the excesses of Trump help galvanize environmental organizing around the world?
Schreiber: Yeah. So I think there are two really important parts to that. The first is that Donald Trump needs to be seen in a global context. He’s part of a phenomenon that started, in some ways, with Brexit—the rise of fascism in Europe, the move to really tug at and potentially undo the European Union. So that’s one piece. The second piece is, I think, the increasing power of fossil fuel industries all over the globe, especially in Latin America. I think in some way Donald Trump is reflective of both of those growing phenomena. And I think—I hope—that Donald Trump can serve as a cautionary tale for Europe as they fight fascism, as you see. The rise of nationalist parties in Poland and France—that people can see what it really looks like here in the United States and choose for themselves, that they don’t want to go down that pathway and they don’t want to see the impact. I think, also, it’s a cautionary tale for the rest of the world in terms of the power of the fossil fuel industry and what happens when you hand over control of the fossil fuel industry. Donald Trump has basically given our foreign policy to the former CEO of ExxonMobil. He’s put Scott Pruitt, who more or less is an employee of Devon Energy and other Oklahoma energy companies, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. And we’re seeing the impacts. The impacts are dirtier air, dirtier water, less regulation. So I’m hoping that the energy and the revulsion that people feel about what’s happening here in the United States galvanizes movements in countries across the globe to take on the pressing issues that they have there. So that’s first.
I think secondly, though, the global network is an important tool to keeping Donald Trump in check as well. Donald Trump right now is an international pariah on climate change, and he’s turning the United States into an international pariah on climate change. He’s the only one world leader that denies climate change right now, and that’s saying a lot. Our international allies can put incredible pressure on the United States, and they can do it in two ways. The first is by putting pressure on world leaders to use diplomatic and economic tools, to try and pressure the United States into action. The second is by putting pressure on corporations and other entities that do business with Trump and his friends to actually pull back. We’re seeing opportunities to use the network to put pressure on the United States to be better actors.
E: Okay, great. Can I go back a little, because I wasn’t aware that the fossil fuel industry was actually becoming more influential in Latin America? Can you tell me a little bit more about in what countries and how that’s manifesting itself?
Schreiber: I think it’s not just the fossil fuel industry. It’s really the corporate power, to some degree, and it’s a couple of ways. But you’re seeing, for instance, big mega projects in places like Brazil. You’re seeing in Honduras everything that happened with Berta and her murder. You’re having those governments being more responsive to corporate interests. It’s also sort of the rise of Chinese capital as well, as indigenous peoples are being moved off of their lands. You’ve seen fights in Ecuador, for instance, with the Sarayaku, who—their traditional lands, there’s a desire in Ecuador to open those up for oil and gas explorations, so indigenous peoples are actually being forced off of their lands so those lands can be opened up. This, in some way, is the rise of not only the fossil fuel industry, but big corporations who have large global reach.
E: So even countries that might have signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement are still developing fossil fuels as kind of the quick way to get jobs, etc.?
Schreiber: Yeah. One of the interesting things about the Paris Agreement is it’s really about demand. It’s really about how much you use, but it doesn’t really do much about supply. So we’re seeing this race from countries all over the globe to extract their fossil fuel resources. And I think this is really about stranded carbon, in some ways. Something like 80% of the world’s carbon, 80% of the world’s fossil fuels, have to stay in the ground. And so the world is racing to fill that 20% and to see who’s going to profit, who’s going to be able to extract. These are also, I think—if you look at the Russia interaction and the Russia sanctions and what’s happening with Trump and Russia, right? That’s really probably about Exxon drilling in the Arctic in Russia. The contacts that the Trump administration has been having—or had, during the campaign—and the sanctions… what those sanctions really did was it stopped Exxon from drilling in the Arctic, and it stopped Russia from getting the revenue from Arctic drilling as well. The influence of fossil fuel companies as intermediaries, or almost quasi-governments, is massive.
E: So it extends to Trump and Russia and relations between the two countries now.
Schreiber: No question. That’s one of the things that was so troubling about Rex Tillerson as CEO of Exxon. Rex Tillerson and Exxon were doing deals with Iran when we had sanctions with Iran, they were doing deals with Russia when we had sanctions with Russia. In some ways, oil companies have become quasi-states, and that sort of was the argument for why Rex Tillerson made sense as a Secretary of State. It’s because he had incredible access and experience with foreign leaders. ExxonMobil basically has its own security forces; they have their own investments; they have their own infrastructure and analysis and the analysts. It’s a quasi-government, and we’re seeing just the incredible power that these massive corporations have over global policy.
E: Okay. And turning to Europe and the rise of a new nationalist riot, for instance with Marine Le Pen. Are these just white nationalists, or do they also have connections to the fossil fuel industry and to climate denial?
Schreiber: I think it depends upon what we’re talking about. I think there’s definitely a white nationalist—anti-immigration bent, right? That was a huge theme in Brexit.
E: And in Trump.
Schreiber: And in Trump. So you’re seeing this shared scapegoating of immigrants. I think you’re also, though, seeing a shared scapegoating of environmental laws. One of the things that was also criticized was the over-regulatory state of the European Union in Brexit, and one of the first things that’s likely to go when Britain does leave the European Union is the environmental regulations that were put in place because of the EU. And so, it’s an attack not only on immigrants and not only fascism, but it’s also an attack on environmentalism that we’re seeing as well. I think they’re intertwined, even if sometimes it’s not as outfront and transparent as, say, the immigration rhetoric is.
E: This is all even gloomier than I had thought. I had thought it was extremely gloomy. Do you have any last, hopeful word to leave our listeners with?
Schreiber: Yeah. I will say that the silver lining of this movement is that the rise of the progressive left has been really powerful. The millions of people that have come out to the streets. The people that have been active that had never been active before, that are taking actions that they would never have taken before because they recognize that this moment is a moment of crisis. I think it’s also important to always remembers that Donald Trump did not win the popular vote. Americans don’t support his extreme agenda. There is going to be incredible resistance, and that resistance is going to continue. We are not alone; no one is alone in this struggle. And I think there’s a real good chance that the rise and strengthening of that resistance will not only topple Donald Trump and carry the day, but will actually take us beyond neoliberalism into a new politics that really is about providing for working Americans and workers and protecting the environment—a new way of interacting with the world. It’s not that Barack Obama was actually necessarily the progressive champion that we needed. I think we can do much better than President Obama. There’s hope that actually this new activism will get us somewhere that we had never imagined possible before.
E: Okay. So, pretty much an either/or situation. Thank you very much.
Schreiber: Thank you so much for having me.