By William D. Ruckelshaus

Whether you believe it a moral obligation to care for other living things or an intelligent instinct for self-preservation, we need collectively to constrain our conduct so we don’t wipe out other living things that are completely dependent on us for survival.

William D. Ruckelshaus, one of the nation’s most distinguished senior Republican thought leaders, gave the following address on April 20, 2016. Mr. Ruckelshaus served as the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 during the Nixon Administration, and led the agency again from 1983 to 1985 under President Ronald Reagan. He also served as acting Director of the FBI and Deputy Attorney General of the United States. During his time at EPA, Mr. Ruckelshaus laid the foundation for many of the nation’s landmark environmental law. Now 83 years old, he serves as a member of the Presidential Climate Action Plan’s National Advisory Committee. He and his family live in Washington State where Mr. Ruckelshaus continues practicing law.

Forty years ago I was asked to make a speech on nuclear power and its potential. I didn’t know anything about nuclear power. I had been EPA Administrator for a week and had regulatory authority over the use of nuclear power. Earl Butz, President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, advised me not to worry just give them the three F’s. “The three F’s,” I said, “what’s that?” Earl said a little fun, a little fact and a little philosophy. Earl was always full of good advice.
There are many ways I could have approached this talk. I could have tried to scare you to death by quoting all the most draconian things that some are predicting will happen if we don’t act quickly to reduce the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
I could have cited a litany of solutions to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane. The race toward developing alternatives to our reliance on fossil fuels has been on for over two decades and we were making remarkable progress at an accelerating rate.
I could have analyzed the development of policies that will push the world toward a low carbon future in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The agreement in Paris last December that will be signed by the U.S. and China on Earth Day and another 155 nations by April 27 is a particularly hopeful event. All the nations agreed upon a goal – hold the increase in global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius – 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The assembled nations then agreed to individual countries’ measurable targets of greenhouse gases. The accumulation of non-mandatory targets doesn’t get us there but it is a stronger start than any international body has embraced to date.
Instead of all that I’ve decided to tell you exactly what I think and why I am more hopeful today than I was just three months ago.
Over the last 25 years we’ve watched the scientific consensus grow that the earth is warming and that man’s contribution through the burning of fossil fuels and emissions of other trace gases are the only controllable cause of this phenomenon. Not only is the earth warming, but the pace is accelerating and the effects are already appearing.
I was going to use a couple of charts. One shows the annual temperature increase of the planet since the beginning of the industrial revolution until 2014. 2015 is very likely to show an even sharper increase– 99% likely according to NOAA. The temperature increase parallels the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the 18th century CO2 was 280 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere where it had been for hundreds of years. Today it is just over 400 ppm and climbing at an accelerating rate.
This is the so-called greenhouse effect. The process goes like this: The sun warms the earth, and the earth absorbs some of that heat, and emits a certain amount of heat, in the form of infrared radiation. CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere trap some of that heat rather than letting it all escape into space. The greater the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, the more effective the atmosphere is in preventing radiant heat from escaping and warming the planet.
There are other trace gases like methane that contribute to the accelerating warming, but carbon is the principal culprit because it stays in the atmosphere so long (around 100 years). There are also El Nino and La Nina events out in the Pacific that periodically warm and cool the earth in a much shorter time and must be factored in when assessing the short term pace of warming.
The problem is that the earth’s atmosphere is like a big bathtub into which we keep pouring carbon dioxide. The bathtub drains, but at the rate we are adding carbon dioxide not fast enough. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (or bathtub) continues to increase and the carbon dioxide prevents more heat from escaping, trapping it in the atmosphere where it warms the earth.
If we humans don’t reverse this trend and begin to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at a much greater rate, the here and now problems, and the effects the scientific models increasingly identify as likely, will cause potentially catastrophic problems for us humans and other living things. Not everywhere but in enough places that it will test our ability to maintain a livable planet to house us in the manner we’ve come to expect.
The already occurring problems include the 1° Celsius increase or 1.8° Fahrenheit in Alaska. As I mentioned, the current international goal is to stay below 2° Celsius. The residents of Newtok, Alaska, have seen their village fall into the sea and numerous other Alaskan settlements are threatened with the people being forced to move. I have seen this happening. It’s sobering. Don’t tell the Yup’ik tribe, or the residents of Newtok, there’s no problem as they move to their new town of Merturvik on Wilson Island 9 miles away from their current village.
Alaska is not alone. Although it’s small, Tuvalu, an island nation in the South Pacific, has begun evacuating its people to New Zealand. Tragically, the President of Kiribati — an island nation with 32 atolls stretching 3.5 million square kilometers from Australia to Hawaii — is negotiating with Fiji to buy 5000 acres of land so that his population of 102,000 can relocate. Several similar island settlements are going to be forced into comparable decisions.
Bangladesh, the eighth most populated nation on earth, is threatened by sea level rise and is among the most vulnerable in the world. Its floodplain is the largest on earth, formed by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. It is subject to annual battering by floods, tropical cyclones and monsoons. The numbers affected by these naturally occurring calamities are overwhelming. A 1991 cyclone that struck Bangladesh killed 140,000 people. These floods are getting worse. In 1998 two thirds of the country was underwater. Certainly not all of these calamities can be directly traced to climate, but scientific models are predicting more severe weather and rising seas as the planet warms. What’s happening in Bangladesh tracks with the models.
The N.Y. Times recently chronicled the mass bleaching of coral reefs around the world. Most scientists believe this is caused by an exceptionally powerful El Nino compounded by climate change. These reefs are the incubators of the ocean’s ecosystems. An estimated 30 million small-scale fisherman and women depend of the reefs for their livelihood. One study shows 500 million people will see their health, food and weather protection seriously threatened.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of 21 Florida mayors wrote to CNN, the host of a Florida Republican Presidential primary debate, urging them to grill candidates on what they would do about the damages the sea is inflicting on coastal communities in Florida. Miami Beach already has spent $100 million of a $400 million project to elevate streets and install pumps. Sea level rise is affecting 230 miles of the South Florida coast and the ocean is expected to keep rising even if we hit the Paris promised carbon targets.
The mayors wrote, quote “any serious presidential candidate, regardless of party, needs a clear plan to tackle climate change, because the reality of the threat is no longer up for debate” end quote. The effects on coastal cities throughout the world where moving is the only option left has been identified as a serious national security threat, according to countless Army- and Navy-sponsored studies.
I have listened to most of the debates of both parties. The Mayors letter sparked a single question in the Florida Republican debate. Two candidates answered saying they weren’t sure it was a problem and the moderator moved on. None of the remaining candidates “believes” it’s a problem, so what happens if one of them wins the election? The Pew Foundation has been polling on this issue for over 15 years. Its data show that the single biggest factor influencing those who don’t believe in climate change is their membership in the Republican Party. What being a member of the Republican Party has to do with scientific findings about Climate Change is beyond me.
This party division on this issue is beginning to crack. A bipartisan congressional caucus has formed. This is a global risk assessment management problem. We identify the risk, led by the scientific studies and using the scientific method, which calls for peer-reviewed findings through various scientific institutions, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the 12 studies from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and similar scientific bodies throughout the world. Then the political risk management process kicks in and we decide what to do. That’s what happened in Paris. But remember that it’s a risk management question – a political question. It’s hard to have a believable solution to a problem you don’t believe exists.
Ice shelves in western Antarctica and land-based glaciers in Greenland are melting at an accelerating rate. Recent studies show this could cause a 0.25 to 1.5 meter rise – 0.8 to 4.9 feet – by the end of this century. It could happen faster than that, or slower. This is not yet judged to be imminent, but sea level rise is accelerating. Sea level rise of that magnitude would flood many of the coastal cities of the world including Miami, New York and New Orleans.
In some regions, the frequency and severity of storms, extreme drought and wildfires alarm scientists as the earth warms. The contribution of climate change to those observable events in being intensively studied. The acidification of the ocean is accelerating and it is now 30% more acidic than prior to the industrial revolution – the major contributor is CO2 emissions. This is affecting the ability of oysters to form shells right here in Puget Sound. The shellfish industry is a $270,000,000 contributor to our economy in Washington State. So this is not just a 2050 or 2100 problem. We thought the ocean was our friend for absorbing 30% of the airborne carbon dioxide; now our friend is paying the price for its friendship. I could go on.
Fortunately the world is not ignoring all of this, as I mentioned. The recent gathering of all the nations of the world in Paris last December came up with still inadequate but major steps forward. Many believe those steps fall well short of what is needed. But they are achievable and represent a strong start. Most of the people who were in Paris came away greatly encouraged. What we lack so far is political will.
There are problems. The goals nations have committed to are not mandatory but they are public and all have agreed to a common set of measures to chart progress. There are periodic and timely global meetings and accountability assessments that will help keep track of progress. My own belief is that if the world goes to work on the problem, it will stimulate progress beyond what can be imagined by simply staring at it and scaring ourselves into immobility. This is the history of big intractable environmental problems like acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, and innumerable struggles with automobiles and polluted waterways. If we stop wringing our collective hands and set achievable standards, rely on the market where it makes sense, involve governments with their positive incentives and command and control regulations where they prove necessary, track progress, hold people accountable – things begin to get better.
In America starting with the creation of the EPA in 1970 air and water standards were set by the federal government, plans were submitted by the states to the feds to achieve the standards, the plans were approved by the Federal Government and enormous progress was made. There are three times the number of cars on the road today as there were in 1970, but only a fraction of the pollution emanating from their exhausts. Waterways have been cleaned – Lake Washington being one of the first; sewage and industrial waste are treated pursuant to permits issued by the state and federal governments.
Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. and the world still have problems. Ask the people of Beijing or New Delhi, or for that matter Flint Michigan. That simply means the environment won’t stay clean or the public protected unless we stay everlasting at it. We have to say to ourselves, “We want a strong economy but we also want a healthy environment.” They are not mutually exclusive. In fact one isn’t sustainable without the other. The global nature of the climate change problem is massive and the worldwide steps to control its upward trajectory never have been tried before on this scale. To make progress the world must aggressively move away from dependence on fossil fuels as our chief source of energy. This is a tough political problem because those whose economic well-being is dependent on our current reliance on fossil fuels will not give up easily. And some are fighting furiously.
If we were simply witnessing two economic interests — the fossil fuel industry and the alternative or green energy industry — vying to provide different pathways for energy availability then let them duke it out. In an open market the winner would probably be the low cost producer whose products reflect their cost advantage.

[(The problem today is that one of those economic interests fossil fuels is having a potentially devastating impact on the planet and we won’t know for sure how devastating before we have to act to avoid it. This is the essence of the problem. Therefore we must collectively intervene through government policies that will establish the rules of competition that take the planet’s well being into account.
My own solution is to make fossil fuels cost more by taxing them until their use is reduced to acceptable levels. If you want people to use less of something make it cost more. Politicians hate to say that but it’s true. It’s the lesson of the market and the only way we’d get there fast enough to avoid the worst of what we are already seeing and more, is eventually to price the bad stuff out of competition.
Some will say using the market combined with a carefully constructed regulatory system interferes too much with American values of freedom. I believe that objection ignores the true meaning of freedom. Not freedom from government interference with individual choice – that’s the first eight amendments to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. When the first wave of environmental concern swept America in the late 1960s and early 1970s under a Republican President and Democratic Congress, we passed massive laws controlling air pollution, water pollution, pesticides, radiation, toxic substances, and even solid waste – some 10 federal laws during the 1970s and countless state counterparts. We put in place a national system of restraints controlling the unwanted actions and substances. Yes, I said a system of restraints – laws, rules, regulations, norms, and even cultural restraints.
Appropriate restraints voted on by freely elected officials are the essence of freedom. Let me quote from a speech delivered forty years ago by Chief Judge Barett Prettyman of the District of Columbia U.S. Court of Appeals at the Pentagon in honor of Law Day:
“In an ordered society of mankind there is no such thing as unlicensed liberty, either of nations or individuals. Liberty itself is inherently a composite of restraints. It dies when restraints are withdrawn. Restraints are the substance without which liberty does not exist. They are the essence of liberty…” Freedom is not the absence of restraint; it is a system of restraints. Governmental restraints provide the framework that defines the rules of competition.
To be sure government regulations could be greatly improved and if we could get our Congress to work, if it could fashion laws that provide the citizens deeper protection, and do so with much more regulatory flexibility and wisdom. Climate change puts us in the midst of an experiment that tests these concepts that underpin American liberty. Are we wise enough to lead in putting in place restraints on individual, corporate and national conduct so as to avoid the worst effects of climate change and protect the economic and ecosystem health of the world? It is an open question and the years ahead will tell whether our leadership, our system and our people are up to the task.
If we think of what must be done in this country alone to begin to generate less carbon dioxide it sounds overwhelming: We must rationalize the energy distribution system, develop more storage capacity and increase the effectiveness and cost competitiveness of wind and solar. This is happening. Our transportation systems need to conform to the well-being that a well-designed and clearly thought through system can provide. Buildings must be more energy efficient, such as the Bullitt Foundation’s widely acclaimed headquarters structure here in Seattle. This type of building should be emulated throughout the developed world. Buildings should be managed to consume carbon dioxide and not release it.
We need to decouple energy use and economic growth. This is already happening as well. These are only a smattering of what we should do. But all of these things and more are not only possible but necessary and are happening now. We know they are necessary now so why not get on with them while they will do the most good?
Most importantly I believe we should stop chasing the false God of U.S. energy independence. The goal should be energy independence for the world. It will avail us little if we are free of dependence on the many unstable parts of the world that have dominated the oil markets for so long, when too many other nations are not.
We need to forge an international governmental energy institution dedicated to a peaceful world that pools the world’s resources, human and economic, along with as many nations as we can sign up, and together fund an unparalleled effort that matches the size of the problem. We need technology that will assist all nations in the pursuit of carbon dioxide-free energy generation that will permit all people to prosper. That technology must be aggressively and intelligently pursued. And as quickly as it proves successful at addressing part of the problem, it should be vigorously transferred to those who need it. In some ways this is the toughest problem of all: Try to get people to see something they didn’t think of.
The U.S. is essentially energy independent now or you can see if from here. If India, China and Brazil and many other countries can collectively benefit from cost competitive sources of energy that give the developing world a chance to meet the economic, and environmental benefits their people want, we should do everything we know how to assist them and all will prosper.
We Americans are fond of calling ourselves exceptional. Other nations want to be like us but only if our system delivers on its promises. We will be thought of as exceptional if we lead by example and have as our goal the betterment of all mankind. If we lead this effort we won’t have to call ourselves exceptional – others will do that for us.
Our relationships with the rest of the world too often today lead to violence, deep misunderstanding and even war. Why not seize on this collective, slowly unfolding crisis called climate change and use it to gain a greater ability to work together, a shared commitment to take the uneven distribution of natural resources and combine the needs of the world’s nations into an Energy Institute for Peace that will give us a joint goal that brings us together around the aspiration of a shared prosperity and healthy planet.
We could do it in close cooperation with Bill Gates’ admirable effort to enlist his fellow billionaires in funding an R&D effort that will accelerate the substitution of clean, cheap energy for fossil fuels. Gates has called for an effort commensurate with the problem and he should be lauded and supported.
We earth dwellers are entering what we now call the Anthropocene Age, the epoch where humans are clearly the dominant force on the earth. There are 7.3 billion people on earth today. We occupy about 75% of the earth’s land surface and are having an enormous impact on the space we occupy with other living things. These other living things are utterly dependent on us for survival – as we are on them.
When I was born in 1932 there were just over 2 billion people on earth. Think of it, from the time some 200,000 years ago when Homo sapiens first stood on the planet until I was born, we accumulated more than 2 billion people. In my lifetime we have more than tripled that number. In addition we have more innovators, technology and wealth to accelerate and broaden our earthen impact.
Our effects on the space we share with other living creatures are enormous. Forget about whether we are having that impact on purpose or mindlessly. In the earth’s 4.5 billion year history there have been five major extinctions when as much as 99% of living things perished, buried in the rocks of time. Now we are pushing much of what has survived and evolved to the brink. Some scientists believe we are headed toward a sixth extinction, a first for the Anthropocene.
Whether you believe it a moral obligation to care for other living things or an intelligent instinct for self-preservation, we need collectively to constrain our conduct so we don’t wipe out other living things that are completely dependent on us for survival. This is a tall order. Let’s start by controlling our contribution to altering the climate. We’re going to have to do it soon anyway. Why not get on with it.