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Peter Wilcoxen and Sarah Pralle on the Campbell Conversations

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Peter Wilcoxen / Sarah Pralle
Peter Wilcoxen / Sarah Pralle

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with experts in the fields of environmental policy and politics about climate change, both from the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Sarah Pralle is a Political Science Professor there, and Peter Wilcoxen is a Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guests today are experts in the fields of environmental policy and politics. And I've asked them to join me today to discuss climate change, or global warming. Both of them are at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Sarah Pralle is a political science professor there and a regular panelist at WCNY’s Ivory Tower. And Peter Wilcoxen is a professor of public administration. He's also the director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Administration. Professors Wilcoxen and Pralle, welcome to the program.

SP: Thank you.

PW: Thanks, Grant.

GR: Well, Sarah, I'll start with you, a very basic question. This is going to reveal my level of ignorance about some of these issues, but, you hear these two phrases, you hear global warming and climate change. If I'm if I'm correct in my memory, I think global warming was kind of the big one earlier on and now I hear climate change more. Is there some significant difference between using these two phrases and why have they shifted? Just explain that basic thing to me.

SP: Sure. I don't think there's a really significant difference. I think it's partly a result of climate scientists and climate activists trying to find descriptions and phrases that might better resonate with people or really explain better to them what is going on. So, global warming is an accurate term in the sense that emissions of greenhouse gases are getting trapped in the atmosphere, which causes overall global average temperatures to go up. And since the industrial era, we've already increased temperatures by about 1.1 degrees celsius on average. However, I think that term started getting some criticism and so what you saw is the introduction of terms like climate change. I think partly that was the idea that was trying to get at this aspect of disruption, that things are changing, that it's not just about warming because people weren't really experiencing like average warming. You don't really experience average warming, you experience flooding and hurricanes and heat waves and think changes, right? And sometimes those are quite drastic changes that are being driven by climate. I've actually a colleague, (unintelligible) and myself has wanted to change the term to climate disruption because he thinks that climate change sounds almost too benign.

GR: Yes, exactly. I wanted to ask you about that because it would seem from a standpoint of grabbing people's attention, at least global warming rather grabs mine more so. Yeah, go ahead.

SP: Right. Because sometimes we think of change as a good thing. And so I think the idea is to try to kind of pinpoint the fact that these are negative changes. But to be honest, you know, political scientists have done some research on public reactions to these different phrases, and they really don't have that much difference, they don't make much difference to people. I think this has been in the news long enough. We've known this is happening long enough that people understand, have a rough understanding of what those terms mean.

GR: Okay, thanks. And Pete, I've been reading lately that we are in some kind of new category of urgency regarding climate change. Several pieces I've read have kind of pointed to the last year in making that claim. What has happened recently that's driving what I'm reading?

PW: Well, I think it's really two different things that have been going on in parallel. One of the things has been that there's been very little action by most major economies up until very recently. So even though we've known about the problem for a long time, there's just hasn't been much momentum to do anything about it. And that makes people more and more concerned. The second thing that's happened, though, is that many of the events that people have been worried about being associated with climate change have started happening sooner and with greater severity than people expected 20 or 30 years ago. Frankly, over the time that I've been working on this, the things that people have been worried about as consequences of climate change, flooding, weather disruptions, sea level rise have all actually happened faster than the models that climatologists were using 20 years ago were predicting. So it's those two things together that there hasn't been any action and that the bad news is happening much earlier and with greater severity than we expected.

GR: And that leads directly on to something that I wanted to spend a little time on, which was thinking about what we in the United States have done or not done, and also maybe taking a quick look around the world too. Sarah, I know one of the things that you focus on is policy. What do you think are the most significant things that we as a nation have done? Let's just maybe take the past decade because, you know, as Pete just pointed out, there wasn't much done for a long time that have been good. What would be your greatest hits for the United States, for good undertakings to try to do something about climate change?

SP: Sure. Well, I think the most significant thing is the Inflation Reduction Act, which is a, you know, obviously a fairly recent policy that was instituted by the Biden administration. Kind of to a lot of people's surprise, it looked like it was initially, the climate components were part of the Build Back Better Plan, which looked like it was going down in flames, as you know, as recently as last fall. And the climate aspects of that legislation actually got pulled out and put into this Inflation Reduction Act. And for reasons I still don't understand, Joe Manchin decided to vote yes on this. And it's really significant because it's a huge, it's a $370 billion investment in clean energy, renewables and infrastructure. And it takes a really different approach than previous attempts at the federal level to address climate change, which have really been focused on regulatory measures as well as things like pricing carbon, which have proven to be very unpopular. Instead, this is, you know, putting a lot of money, you know, throwing a lot of money at the problem in the form of things like subsidies for clean energy, for example. And it's exciting in part because I think it has the potential to kind of create to change the politics of climate as well, because it's giving people lots of goodies. And it could potentially really create a constituency for these policies. And it can help build some of these industries, these renewable energy industries, such that they can become powerful political players that might someday rival the power of the fossil fuel industry. So I really think that right now we will see how this gets implemented if it gets fully implemented. And it will also have a pretty big impact on emissions across the country. But it really is going to be coming down to how well it's being implemented.

GR: I want to come back to a couple of the things that you said a little bit later on, and one of them is emissions. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Syracuse University professors Peter Wilcoxen and Sarah Pralle. So I wanted, Pete to ask you the negative version of this question. You mentioned before, if I understood correctly, kind of the biggest thing, biggest mistake we've made is not acting, not doing anything. But in the last decade, has the United States actually done things that have been actively harmful? Have we been more proactive in creating the problem? Sarah just talked about the potential of this big new program, but what are some of the greatest bad hits that we've done?

PW: Well, you know, that's a really interesting question Grant, because it because it turns out that when you look at it, it depends on what you mean by the United States. So the federal government, if that's what you mean, has been basically missing in action on this. There have been a long list of bills that people thought might advance through Congress that would have made a big impact and they died in committee or they were voted down. And that goes back for decades. And so we could have done some very useful things decades ago, but nothing happened at the federal level. But on the other hand, the United States is not the federal government. It's lots of state and local governments which have been acting on their own. So here in upstate New York and New England, we have a program called RGGI, which is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has been reducing emissions from the electric power system for quite a long time now. California has a very effective law in place that's reducing its emissions. California has another law in place that is greatly expanding solar energy. A number of states have electric vehicle credits which have been very effective at deploying electric cars, especially in California, but also in New York and other places. So there's lots of state and local action. And then the other piece of this story, which is really important, is that the private sector has actually made strides on its own to deal with climate change. Sarah and I are a part of a team, we team teach a graduate course in climate policy every couple of years. And one of the bright spots this time around was that there has been a lot of reduction in emissions basically voluntarily by the U.S. private sector. So emissions from electric, the electric power system have dropped dramatically as natural gas has come online and supplanted coal as the cheapest way to generate electricity from fossil fuels. That's really important because a lot less CO2 is generated when you produce electricity from natural gas than it is from coal. So there has been a lot of movement, it just has not been at the federal level.

GR: Yeah, I want to follow up on the last point you made about how the electricity is produced. You know, this has always been a puzzle for me and thinking about some of the messaging and some of the policy. But let me go back to the car emissions and Sarah, I'll come to you and warning here. I'm going to grind a little bit of a personal ax on this. Probably I'll get some nasty emails from people that drive these cars that I'm about to criticize. But I can remember a few years ago reading this, that these large SUVs that I see driving around my neighborhood, oftentimes they have just one kid in them, but they're huge cars. They get breaks on the gas mileage by the government, moving the goalposts for what those targets are on fuel efficiency, or by just simply reclassifying them. I forget whether they, you know, now are trucks or however that works, but, you know, to their advantage where the where the efficiency rules are less strict. So, you know, I mean, I think how many people really need a Yukon, right? I mean, you know, so where are we on this issue? I mean, first of all, is my gripe making sense and where are we on this issue?

SP: I think you're gripe makes sense, I probably share your gripe. Yeah, it's been, so typically, you know, those have been tailpipe emissions have been regulated through corporate average fuel economy standards are called so-called CAFE standards, which are required, you know, which require automobile companies to achieve a certain fuel economy standard for their entire fleet. But there have been sort of carve outs for particular types of vehicles which you're referencing. And the other thing about is that the car companies lobby extensively to try to decrease those CAFE standards, to try to, you know, lengthen the time for compliance with those standards and it's been a real battle. And I think, you know, now partly again, as one of the goals now is to rather than work on that, try to really work on EV’s. Right. And really get people into electric vehicles. And I think that's been kind of the push.

GR: Yeah, I've seen a lot of that. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Sarah Pralle and Peter Wilcoxen. The Syracuse University professors are experts in environmental policy and politics, and we've been discussing that topic so before the break, I grinded an ax with Sarah over the emissions of these huge SUV’s. Peter, also, I want to direct another element to this. This seems to me there's another real perversity in all of this in my mind, and that's regarding safety of these vehicles. Particularly the large ones versus the smaller, more efficient ones. And the larger vehicles are always lauded as being safer. That's the way they're sold, you know, you won't get as hurt in this car. But all they're really doing, as far as I understand it, are shifting the risk and the injuries to those who are driving smaller, more efficient cars and probably electric cars are going to be in that category, too. Is anybody fighting that battle? Is anybody raising that issue in policy circles about, it's really almost like a social justice issue. The people that are doing the most good are paying a safety price to do it.

PW: That's definitely a concern that a lot of people have been worried about. And as you probably know, Grant, I think it's worth mentioning there are a lot of vehicle safety rules that are in place are designed to try to cut down on that risk. You know, that's why bumper heights are standardized so that large vehicles don't ride up over smaller vehicles. So that definitely is a big concern of the National Transportation Safety Board, the NTSB. People have tried to measure that, you know, the extra risk that people in smaller vehicles suffer from big vehicles. And it's pretty complicated to measure because accidents are complicated. And it's not always that just the biggest, heaviest vehicle wins. But it is a concern that has been raised a lot. It fairly notoriously led the EPA and the Department of Transportation to make some pretty serious mistakes when they tried to revise the CAFE standards under the Trump administration. So, , we were talking about this just before the break, Sarah mentioned the CAFE fuel efficiency standards. They had been strengthened under the Obama administration. So the plan was that cars would have to get increasingly good mileage over the next decade or so. Under the Trump administration, the EPA and the Department of Transportation and tried to weaken the rules. And part of their justification had to do with safety, and they sort of made this argument that tightening the rules would cause manufacturers to build smaller, lighter cars and that that would increase accidents on the road. But it turned out that the way they did the analysis was deeply, deeply flawed and eventually withdrawn.

GR: So the other thing I wanted to ask about was the source of electricity. Peter, you brought this up before. And Sarah, I'll put this question to you, but it does seem to me in all of the conversation about the move to electric, whether it's electric vehicles, or, and we'll get to this a little bit later, having to get rid of our gas stoves, which is not popular in New York State so we'll talk about that. But it depends, doesn't it, on where the electric power comes from. I mean, if I if I charge my electric car with electricity is generated by a coal fired electric plant, I haven't accomplished anything for the environment. I've probably made it worse. So that's, first of all, I guess just a just to verify this, knowing where the power is coming from is absolutely essential if we're talking about moving to electric, right?

SP: Well, yes. Yes, but actually, EV’s, driving an EV regardless of the electricity source. It’s still more efficient than fossil fuel driven cars.

GR: Is it? Oh, okay.

SP: However, it's a lot better if you're getting that electricity from low carbon sources or no carbon sources, obviously. And I think that that brings up this larger question of, you know, in the transition to zero net emissions of greenhouse gases, we have to electrify everything. So it not only requires replacing current fossil fuels that are being used for electricity but doubling, maybe tripling the amount of electricity that we're supplying because demand is going to go up, right? Just through population, but also as we bring cars into the mix, as we bring heat pumps and all these other technologies that are going to be using electricity. So, it's a big infrastructure project. It took us about 140 years to build today's power grid, and we have to build that twice over in the next 30 years if we want to meet our climate goals.

GR: Yeah, that's going to be a tall task. So, does that issue though, if we look to Europe, for example, suggests nuclear power should be part of the conversation? It does come up in presidential debates in particular. I believe Europe uses it a lot more heavily than we do. Peter, is there any, does this open up any conversation about a future for nuclear power or is that just…

PW: …No, it definitely should keep that conversation open for sure. So one of the things that's really important is that if we're serious about climate change, we should not be rushing to close existing nuclear power plants unless they're very close to major population centers and are known to have poor safety records. Otherwise, we're just making things more difficult by getting rid of zero carbon sources that have to be replaced with other kinds of sources. So Germany after the accident, probably about ten years ago in Japan, Fukushima Daiichi, decided very abruptly that they were going to close all of their nuclear power plants, which they did, and they replaced them by burning brown coal, which is the dirtiest form of coal of all. So not only did they end up increasing their carbon emissions, they increased their regular conventional pollution by closing down their nuclear power plants prematurely. Now, having said all of that Grant, the big question I think you're getting at is should we be building new nuclear power plants? And there the question has a lot to do with the technology. So people are working on developing small modular plants that would be cheaper to build and easier to site. And more reliable than the old, very large plants that were built in the 1960’s and 70’s. So that's the coming technology, but it is still very expensive so that could be the big hurdle.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guests are Syracuse University Professors Peter Wilcoxen and Sarah Pralle. Well, I do want to leave some time to talk about some things that have been more recently in New York State news regarding this. And Sarah, you mentioned, you know, we're going to have to move to all electric. I think the governor is listening to you. And so I do have some questions about natural gas. Let me just start with a basic one. And again, you're going to have to pardon my ignorance here, but I'm old enough to remember when natural gas was being heralded as the answer. You know, that this was the cleaner fuel, this was the alternative. How did it transition over time to being such a bad actor that it's now being banned in certain cases? And we'll get to those. But just tell me, natural gas’s story here.

SP: Well, I think there's sort of two things to bring out. One is the natural gas industry and gas utilities pour a lot of money into politics and lobbying and PR campaigns and so they have done a good job of perhaps convincing you and others that natural gas is a green energy. And so that's number one. And they spend they are still spending a lot of money because they see the writing on the wall and they, you know, understand they're being criticized now. But secondly, just in terms of emissions, it is cleaner than, for example, coal, right, so that is the truth. And so to the extent that we are replacing very dirty sources of electricity, like coal with natural gas, we are doing better. Bottom line, though, is that it's a fossil fuel. And, you know, really what we have to do is stop burning fossil fuels by 2050 or have net zero carbon emissions. So at some point, we have to also stop using natural gas.

GR: And so, Peter, what do you think of Governor Hochul’s proposed ban on gas cooking stoves in new homes, and these are just family homes starting in 2026? There's another set of provisions about commercial things that are more complicated but that's the one that's getting a lot of attention. What do you think of this?

PW: Well, so I'm going to have to start by saying that I'm not really a foodie or a chef. So people who are may have different opinions, but in terms of just the climate, this is a problem that is actually people have worried about a lot because it's very hard to cure. We can get rid of a lot of carbon emissions by replacing a small number of power plants, but if we build carbon emitting technology into everyone's house, that's hundreds of millions of units and getting carbon creating technology back out of those houses is really hard. So I think the governor is right. I think the sensible way to go is to start phasing out new construction that uses technology that frankly we know is not going to be possible to use indefinitely. We're going to have to stop burning gas in our houses eventually. And every house that's built now that uses gas is another problem that a future homeowner is going to have to worry about later replacing.

GR: Yeah, that's another shoe to drop is do you have to switch yours out and how expensive will that be? We've just got a couple of minutes left, but I want to stick on this point just a little bit more. And Sarah, let me pose it this way. Everything that Peter said sounded reasonable and wise and on point. But could you not make the argument that gas stoves are at least kind of different? That I mean, I've cooked on gas and I've cooked on electric and I'm not a great chef. But even at my level of skill, there's just no comparison between the two. I mean, you just can't create the same kind of effect particularly with, you know, seafood or meat that you need to produce. So, I mean, I just think I just think that was perhaps politically a bridge too far.

SP: Well, first of all, I'm a vegetarian, so I'm not as attached to that flame having to have a flame to cook my meat. That said, you know, sometimes we're thinking about the really old electric stove technology like my parents had, which is the coils and stuff, the electric stoves that come a long way. And now we have these great things called induction stoves that even a lot of chefs are now talking about. Melissa Clark in the New York Times has written an article about this, in fact. Again, one of the reasons people think they like gas more is because the gas industry has really, you know, consciously tried to sell gas as the best way to cook right in your home. So I don't think our preferences are completely outside of the fact that we've been sold this. The other thing I think about gas does it really has to be said, is the quality of the indoor air pollution. We've known for 50 years that homes with gas stoves have much higher rates of asthma for children, for example. It creates really poor indoor air quality.

GR: I didn't realize that, that's an important point. Good point to end on, we'll have to leave it there. We could talk about these things for hours, obviously. That was Sarah Pralle and Peter Wilcoxen. Sarah, Pete, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, really appreciate it.

SP: Thank you, Grant.

PW: Thanks very much, Grant. Thanks for having us.

GR: You bet. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.


Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.