In his first televised interview since being confirmed as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Andrew Wheeler said, “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.” However, major scientific reports, coupled with the rise in catastrophic fires, floods, and heatwaves around the world, contradict this statement.
In fact, the very first line of the government’s own National Climate Assessment states, “The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country.”
It’s unclear to what extent Wheeler has read the assessment; during his confirmation hearing in January, he told lawmakers he was still waiting for additional briefings. He has also made similar statements in the past, stating climate change “is not the greatest crisis.”
During his Wednesday interview with CBS This Morning, Wheeler pivoted to drinking water. “What we need to do is make sure is that the people who are dying today from lack of having drinking water in third world countries, that problem is addressed,” he said.
Safe drinking water is a serious issue around the world, including in the United States, where communities like Flint, Michigan, have struggled with lead issues for years, as well as several states currently concerned with elevated PFAS levels. Wheeler’s EPA is under increasing pressure to set a legal limit on the chemicals, which are leaching into drinking water and have been linked to several serious health conditions.
In his first TV interview since being confirmed, @EPA administrator @EPAAWheeler says unsafe water is a bigger environmental crisis than climate change.
More from @MajorCBS‘ exclusive interview coming up on @CBSThisMorning pic.twitter.com/QAzIyz6aiE
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) March 20, 2019
In the same week Wheeler gave his interview, four people have died due to historic flooding in Nebraska as several cities issue emergency declarations. Also this week, at least 250 people in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe have died following Cyclone Idai, according to the Associated Press; the Mozambique president fears the final death toll could surpass 1,000. The U.N.’s World Food Program has called the situation “a major humanitarian emergency that is getting bigger by the hour.”
Scientists say the devastating flooding impacting communities around the world is what can be expected with a warming climate. As global temperatures rise, the atmosphere begins to hold more water. This means storms like hurricanes or cyclones are more intense and wetter.
Cyclone Idai, for instance, brought more than two feet of rainfall in some parts of the region, representing nearly a year’s worth of rain. In the United States, storms such as Hurricanes Harvey and Florence are also emblematic of this trend. Both storms having stalled in place, dumping record amounts of water.
In the Midwest, the historic flooding is the result of rain coupled with a considerable amount of water already on the ground. February brought a record-setting 30 inches of snow to the state, which locked in several inches of water as it melted. With eastern Nebraska’s rivers already higher than usual following the state’s fifth-wettest season in 124 years, the recent bomb cyclone unleashed even more water, submerging parts of the region.
And according to the National Climate Assessment published last fall, the Midwest can expect more flooding as climate change intensifies.
All of this flooding comes on top of recent droughts in both the Midwest and the southeastern region of Africa. And when followed with a period of intense deluges — which are also expected to get worse with climate change — this causes more soil to run off the land. This makes it harder for the land to absorb water, and also creates lasting agricultural impacts that will affect farmers’ ability to grow food.
While no single event can be attributed to climate change alone, the pattern of intense, destructive storms, historic wildfires, and record-setting heatwaves the world has seen over the past two years is consistent with what scientists say can be expected from climate change.
And while the Trump administration may ignore these clear impacts, people around the world are increasingly aware of the urgent threat posed by climate change. Recent polls show a majority of Americans accept that climate change is caused by humans and that it is happening now.
In large part, experts believe this is because of their recent experiences; half of the people surveyed by Yale Program on Climate Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication say California’s wildfires and Hurricanes Florence and Michael were made worse because of climate change.
From Democratic hopefuls like Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg, to the more than one million youth activists who marched around the world last week, calls for urgent climate action have grown increasingly loud this year. And the message being sent to politicians is that there isn’t time to waste. As the U.N Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned, without dramatic action now, global emissions are set to rise to a level that would usher in catastrophic consequences in just over a decade.
As Buttigieg said over the weekend, “The bottom line is scientifically, the right year to do that was yesterday. We have got to do this. This time table isn’t being set in Congress, it’s being set by reality, it’s being set by science.”