The US Federal Government's Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis

From LBJ to the present, the federal government has knowingly continued to expand the US fossil economy, not passively but as a major active player, endangering the future of young people.

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Rob Johnson:

Welcome to Economics & Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, president of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. I’m excited today to be here with Gus Speth, who’s got, I would say more experience than the next 20 people I know, related to dealing with climate and environmental issues.

He worked in the council of environmental quality in the Executive Office of President Jimmy Carter. He’s run programs on development at the United Nations. He recently, and he will be talking about this today, worked with a legal initiative on behalf of the protection of the future for young people. And the book that he’s distilled that’s recently come out is called, They knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis.

And our friend and INET’s friend, Naomi Klein, says “Devastating, enraging and indispensable.” And so, I think, I’ve just enjoyed reading this book. And probably the word enjoyment is not the right thing. I found tremendous illumination in understanding, we’re at a time when people are terrified about not addressing climate change, and to understand this textured history, which you might call how we have to change in the Biden years and beyond is a follow on.

But Gus, thanks for being here. And thanks for blooming so much in this very important realm. But let’s just start with, why did you write this book? What’s the story, and what’s the sense of purpose that you have?

Gus Speth:

Yeah. Well, thank you, Rob, for having me. And thank you for having this show. You mentioned my long experience with the climate issue, which I guess is true, but it’s certainly not a compliment, or is it? We’ve had so much bad luck and bad results in dealing with it. But we can talk about that.

And you’re right, the book is not enjoyable. In that sense of books being a pleasure to read, is a difficult read, but it’s in a sad story. But there are some sad, difficult stories that need to be told. And I thought this was one of them. Because what I do in the book is recount the story, really from LBJ through Trump, of the federal government’s inaction and action that impacted on the climate issue.

And I got into this originally because this wonderful advocacy for children out in Oregon, Our Children’s Trust, had brought a lawsuit on behalf of 21 young people. And it was actually six years ago now that they brought this. With the idea of demanding that the federal government come forth with a truly responsive program on the climate issue. And basing that on a constitutional theory.

So it was intriguing. It’s still in the courts, unfortunately. But I was asked to do this history because part of their case is making the claim. And I think the book validates that claim, validates it very powerfully, that the federal government has knowingly continued to and perpetuated, and expanded the US fossil economy, with the result that we have knowingly put into the atmosphere, tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas. We’re the result that the federal government is a major player in endangering the future of young people. Not just a passive player, but a major active player that has brought about this endangerment of young people.

And so, part of the theory, part of the book is going through each administration, and each Congress, and looking at what they knew about the climate science, what was presented to them about climate science, what they were presented in terms of alternatives to the fossil economy, going back to Jimmy Carter.

And thirdly, what they actually did. And what every administration did during this period, unfortunately, was to sustain, expand, facilitate our tremendous reliance on fossil fuels. So it started out with 90% of our energy in the Carter years, going down to 80% today, not a precipitous drop at all. And meanwhile, our total energy use is going up.

So the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that we’re putting out today is up significantly, rather than down dramatically, like it should have been. That’s basically the arc of the book. There’s some important details along the way, but the truth is that no administration has risen to the occasion.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I want to get into the details of the different administrations that you’re illuminating the book, but I want to first ask you the question, what’s going on in our democratic process, that we are so systematically resistant to taking care of future generations? Is it on mindfulness? Is it corruption? A little of both? How would you diagnose why we’re not doing the right thing?

Gus Speth:

Well, there are a lot of wrong explanations out there, for why we haven’t dealt more effectively with the climate issue. One is, oh, the climate was so and the science was so uncertain, the theory was not proven. And you hear that a lot. And even that it’s a hoax, the whole thing from our previous president.

Rob Johnson:

The Merchants of Doubt, they call them.

Gus Speth:

The Merchants of Doubt. And there was at one point, the Exxon and others in the fossil industry launched a disinformation campaign to sow these seeds of doubt. Well, the book sort of puts that to rest, I hope forever and ever. Because what it does, is it traces throughout this whole 50 year period, what was known about climate science, and what was presented through each administration.

And the pattern that comes out is that, that basically, the science was really well understood, back in the Carter years. Was understood well enough. And we know so much more now, and so much more profoundly about the science of the climate issue. But the basic outlines of it were well understood in 1980, say, and some would argue much earlier.

But certainly, if there’s a hoax, it’s a climate denial, not the climate reality that we have today. Until you ask, well, what… The one thing that tells us in effect is that, the good science and the kind of comfortable advocacy that we’ve all had, and maybe many of us participated in, that comfortable advocacy and good science combined, is necessary, but not in any way sufficient, because it has not moved the needle very much. And so, you have to ask why. And you get into the obvious answer, really, that tremendous political power of the fossil fuel industry, which has not only affected public understanding of the issue, to the point that this understanding has largely captured one of our major parties.

But you also have a lot of scared politicians who fear what the fossil fuel industry will do with their contributions, will say in their districts. And you see that happening right now with a lot of major corporations are running hedge against the Biden reconciliation package.

So, it’s not a mystery that our politics have been tremendously affected by the power of the fossil fuel industry. But there’s also other things, I think, we are hooked on growth. And when you have an economy that’s fueled 80%, 90% by fossil fuels, people are scared to touch that, to really threaten that, because it’s perceived as a threat to growth. It may not be, but it’s perceived that way.

And thirdly, you have an ideological component. You have a powerful group in our country that has taken to heart and expanded on Reagan’s injunction, that government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem, Reagan said.

So, there’s this ideological anti-government, anti-regulation, a group that’s very powerful and opposes the government intervention, so called in the economy. And is very free market-oriented, a pro-cooperation. And so, I think those factors have combined to give this issue tremendous inertia. And we need to look for different ways to tackle the problem, I think.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I made a podcast last year with Seth Klein, Naomi Klein’s older brother, and his book called The Good War, and it was about using the analogy of Canada’s preparation for World War II. They entered the war before the United States did.

But that process, that transformation of how you organize society and propelled adjustments and transformation, he’s then deploying to how they say, address Canada, which is both a big producer and consumer of fossil fuels, and how we go through that transformation.

Other people I’ve talked to, Bob Pollin, and others have talked about the lesson that many working class people in America have, which is, when there is a profound transformation, we do not do the equivalent of trade adjustment assistance.

And so, as you mentioned, with the fossil fuel industry being a structure upon which we’re so dependent, it’s quite frightening for people to think that we’re going to go through a profound transformation, and they’re going to get left out behind the door, like they have been in some cases with automation, or global free trade vis-a-vie China and the Global South. So, there’s a lot of dread.

On the other side, there’s dread, we’re going to destroy life on earth. And how we come out of that logjam, I think is important. And I also wanted to echo what you said, which is, Reagan saying government’s part of the problem, not the solution. But I know a lot of people on the left now that don’t trust government because they think it’s captured by money in politics.

My research director at INET, Tom Ferguson, has articulated that people like Professor Gilens and Ben Page, have written about how, if you will, the top 10% view of the income distribution, matters more than the bottom 90 in many legislative initiatives.

So, I think the resistance to progress that you’re citing are very important. And I could imagine the frustration of a scientists like James Hansen, who I think worked with that lawsuit in preparing in Oregon. By the way, my sister is a veterinarian who runs a hospital in Eugene, Oregon. The first time I heard about the lawsuit, was from her.

Gus Speth:

Well, it has gotten a lot of good publicity, I think. And I think that lawsuit, which as I say, was started about six years ago now, brought by Our Children’s Trust, became kind of an entering wedge, on opening for young people to get involved in the climate issue. And so, much of the activism now is driven by young people here and abroad, symbolized by Greta. But there are many others, to say the least. And I think we give the plaintiffs here, the young plaintiffs and the attorneys a lot of credit for getting this moving.

Yeah, you mentioned the wartime mobilization, I think it’s a good model. I think we need to think about what Canada did, what we did, to mobilize ourselves to get ready to go and participate in World War II. And there are a number of organizations that have picked this up, Including a group called The Climate Mobilization, which is modeled on this idea.

And you’re also right that we have dealt poorly with marginal groups, vulnerable groups in other transitions. When we talk about a transition, this is, imagine even President Biden is saying today, is that we are going to basically get out of the fossil fuel business by mid century. So we’re talking 30 years to go from 80% plus reliance on fossil fuels in our energy system, down to effectively zero, by that time, maybe a little bit, but not much, different from that, a huge transformation.

And the reason that we have to make this huge transformation in such a relatively short period now, is that we squandered the last four decades. And the theme of the book is that, the A theme of the book is that we knew enough in the Carter administration, which I served in, to argue that there should be an upper bound on the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We even been put a number on what that upper bound ought to be, we’re off somewhat, but we were we knew that there should be a limit on what we were doing. And that that required a profound transformation in our energy system. And Carter launched a bunch of initiatives that dealt with renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements.

He did other things on the other side of the ledger. But he set us on a path that if we’d followed, we could have had four decades of effective transition and global leadership on the climate issue.

But the pattern in the book, Rob, is that we’ve had three administrations during this period, who understood that there was a climate problem, who decided that they needed to do something about it, none of them, really were doing enough. But these three knew that there was a problem and that they needed to act.

And in every case, what they did, Hulton, was undermined by the incoming new administration. So we had Carter followed by Reagan, who symbolically took the solar collectors off the White House, and meanwhile, undermined everything Carter had started in this new energy path area.

We had Clinton and Gore come in, and wanted to do a lot of employment, but found that they were stymied by the Congress, in this case, but subsequently, what they were able to start was undermined by the George Bush administration.

And then thirdly, we had Obama, who actually did more concrete things to deal with the issue than anybody, though he never saw the need to get beyond fossil fuels, and ended his administration, praising what they had accomplished in promoting fossil fuel use, including fracking and exports of us fossil fuel resources and other things.

But even though their work was far from perfect, they had been followed by the Trump administration. So you have these cycles.

And I think the question before the country now is, are we getting ready to see another one of these cycles with strong intentions and powerful goals set by the Biden administration? And we’ve seen that thwarted now. And maybe even followed by a hostile administration as this happened so often in the past.

And this brings me to a key point, of back to the litigation, because what the litigation is seeking to do, is to establish a constitutional principle, that the federal government has to protect future generations and currently young people from climate devastation. And it’s done the opposite.

And that’s a violation of their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. And once you establish that there is a constitutional issue here, that has to be acknowledged and followed, then that transcends an administration. That will be true in the next administration, regardless of who is president after the next election. And so, there’s a real benefit in moving this to a constitutional issue. And I think that’s one of the strongest arguments that the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the Juliana case have at this point.

Rob Johnson:

So, when we look at what you might call the back and forth, you talk about the attempts and then the next administration undermining it. When you look at donations from the fossil fuel sector, coal and oil, et cetera. Are they in this case, concentrated in the Republican party?

Gus Speth:

No. And it’s not just always donations. I think the fossil industry effectively spreads its contributions around, and they know who their friends are. And they’re not always Republicans, although it is true that that pattern I mentioned was one of Republican thwarting whatever the previous Democratic administration had tried to do.

When we look today at our senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call him a coal baron of sorts. I mean, he’s heavily invested in the coal industry out there. And he’s a Democrat. And he has a significant income from his coal investments.

So, I think we’ve got to face the deeper problems, than the immediate things. You mentioned your friends who are skeptical of government. Well, I think that they have… If you read this book, and it’s history of tragedy, the saddest story ever told over a 50 year period, it’s impossible to conclude that the federal government, as we know it now, is going to rise to the occasion.

And you can talk about skepticism of what the government could do. But that leads me not to despair, and I hope the readers not to despair, but to alarm and motivation to do things differently and get a different result. I guess it was Einstein who said you can’t keep doing the same thing, and expect a different result. Well, we’ve kept doing the same thing and expecting a different result, and it hasn’t worked. I’ve got some examples of that I can tell you about.

So, we need to do different things now. We need a different tack, and I’m happy to talk about that. But in the longer run, we also need to make some deeper changes in our political economy. And part of that is in our democracy.

Rob Johnson:

Well, you’ve been involved for better part of the last decade, with the Yale School of Environment, and I’m curious, as you’re writing this book, this lawsuit, you’re interacting with the students, you’re seeing the dysfunction of the federal government. How are the young people reacting? How are the people that you encounter at Yale University imagining meeting this challenge?

Gus Speth:

Well, I think not to talk so much about the people at Yale, but more generally. I think there’s certainly a mixture, right? I mean, first, there’s a deep malaise out there. There’s fear and uncertainty among young people, and all the polls and a lot of the analyses point this out. And people are genuinely worried of…

On the other hand, it has motivated young people to really take up the issue. And I think of a critical moment when the Sunrise Movement, which is a group of young people, decided to sit in on Nancy Pelosi’s office, and just stayed there basically until she got religion on the climate issue. And I think she has.

They’ve had a big effect, and they continue to be disruptive. And I think the kind of demonstrations that are peaceful and civil, legal, or maybe illegal if they’re civil. The civil disobedience is a good thing. We need a lot of it to get us through this crisis.

But young people are at the helm of that now. And I think another group is this Extinction Rebellion, which is shown in London and elsewhere, how effective it can be.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that our comfortable advocacy, which is the path that I’ve been on, is not enough. And we need a massive civil mobilization, doing a lot of different things, but all doing something dramatic at this point, because I don’t know how to, we’re literally as we speak, on the cusp of possibly losing… We’re on the verge of possibly losing the very things that President Biden has proposed to do on climate.

And if we can’t get that done, one does wonder if we’ll ever get anything done, and whether it will be enough. He’s made a decent start, and it needs every ounce of our support. But it’s just the beginning, this is going to be a long-term issue.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I look at the young people. I’m familiar with the group they call Justice Democrats, Zack Exley, and Saikat Chakrabarti, and AOC. And all of them are working towards a Green New Deal. And so, I think there are what you might call, whether it’s think tanks or legislators embedded in this system, that are on the right track, but do not necessarily have what you might might call sufficient leverage.

So that outside activism that you’re talking about, does appear to be how I say, essential to creating this momentum. And if we get set back with the Biden legislation in this next little window of time, it’s very daunting, perhaps it will trigger that bigger uprising that you seem to suggest we might need.

Gus Speth:

Yeah. Well, I definitely think we need it. I would say there are some, hopeful signs. One is that the media has decided now, or belatedly, by decades, to relate some of the tragic events that are occurring in our weather, and patterns, and storms, and droughts, and other things, to relate those to the climate issue. And for decades, they were unrelated in the media, like, oh no, that’s something else. And there was even a hostility on the part of weatherman, of the meteorological profession to dealing with the climate issue.

I think we’re beyond that now. And we’re getting much better coverage in the media of the climate issue. And we now have widespread climate victimization, and the realization that the victims are being victimized by the climate issue. And a number of cities going to court to sue the fossil giants for damages and other things, consumer fraud, and a number of cases.

And so, that’s a big change. The media is a big change, the activism of young people is a very hopeful sign. And the picking up of these issues by some very effective people in the Congress, in the Senate and the House, and sort of spearhead of that has been, as you mentioned, the Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal, I think, is a really important initiative. And is basically, I can’t get too upset about the difference between sort of Green New Deal one, and Green New Deal two, which I think of is what Bernie Sanders and the president have been pushing now.

Basically, I don’t think the president wants to call it the Green New Deal, but it is. And we need to get it through. And we need to get it through in a big way, and not have it trim down, and have it thrown on the floor as some would advocate.

So we need this massive civil mobilization, and we need judicial intervention. We need the courts to get active on this issue as they have in some European countries, and provide a bright center line for the country to go down. And if the courts are not in a position to write climate policy, but it can demand that climate policy be written and be implemented. And it can hold the federal government’s feet to the fire.

And the courts in Oregon, in the Juliana case, have mandated the federal government to sit down and try to negotiate something with the plaintiffs in this case, with the lawyers for the 21 youth plaintiffs. And so far, the Biden administration has refused to do that.

So we need to see a big change in the Biden administration. It’s one of a number of examples where the Biden Justice Department hasn’t really caught up with the Biden administration policies, and still seems to be going forward. We’ve inherited policies from that last administration that we would like to forget.

Rob Johnson:

One of the areas where I’ve seen some progress, and you mentioned the media, I refer to the phrase the Merchants of Doubt. I’ve see writers now like Naomi Oreskes, or Michael Mann at Penn State, illuminating what you might call the propaganda techniques, unmasking the sowing the seeds of doubt. And I think that with the anxiety related to episodes of the weather, and heat waves that are just unprecedented, more and more people are what you might call, inoculating themselves from the doubt by, how do I say, the illumination, Naomi Oreskes, Michael Mann and others are contributing to.

Gus Speth:


Rob Johnson:

So it’s a glacial thing. It’s not big enough, it’s not fast enough, but it is a contribution.

Gus Speth:

No, it’s a huge contribution. And I hope that my book will contribute more to that, because it leaves really no doubt about the reality of the climate sciences. I reported the sciences, it was brought forth into each administration. It would have been one thing if it had reflected flip flops, if it had reflected predictions that were wildly wrong. And of course, if there was a lot of backtracking on the science, but there hasn’t been. There’s been a consistent theme from the 70s, say forward until today, about the reality of the climate threat, and the dimensions of that threat.

I mean, you go back and look at what was written for LBJ, about the issues that were going to be affected and in terms of sea level, and in terms of storms, and heat waves, and other things, droughts, it was all predicted as a consequence of the climate issue, way back in the 70s and 80s.

And Carter did a lot, and I gave him credit for it. I guess I’m giving myself some of that credit, because I was there. But it hasn’t won over the day in any administration. And we now have a damageable situation on our hands, where it’s not going to be good. We are beyond a good result here, in terms of climate impacts. We’re beyond preventing terrible things from happening. They are going to happen, but they could be 10 times worse if we don’t act.

So, I wish there were sort of happy ending to this story, but there isn’t. There could be a solution that saves this, or multiplicity of solutions that save us from the worst consequences. And that’s what we need to do now. Otherwise, it’s really going to be a level of devastation that we’re not even beginning to imagine.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I want to explore a little bit with you, what I sense on the horizon is quite a dangerous impediment, which is, as the US China relationship becomes more and more tense, as the Trump administration kind of sought to demonize places like China and Mexico, related to employment security. And we could say our government didn’t do the adjustment assistance when Chinese manufacturing displaced a lot of manufacturing in America.

But when I look at it now, given the size and scale of China, United States, Japan, the EU, maybe rest of North America, you put those together, and that’s about 70% of the fossil fuel burning on planet Earth. America wants to lead a world system.

If we get into a military fractious with China, any hope for collaboration on climate goes down the drain. I am encouraged in the last couple days, I’ve seen that the Biden administration and Xi Jinping are going to do a virtual summit in the coming months. So, there is an attempt to keep the dialogue open, and find the cooperative or collaborative solutions that are necessary.

But I find it very haunting now, how this, what I call nationalism competition, may enter the fray and stop the international collaboration, that appears to me to be a necessary condition for meeting this challenge.

Gus Speth:

Well, we will have a testing of the water, so to speak, the where we stand internationally, coming up later this month, when the conference of the parties to the climate treaty meet at Glasgow. It starts towards the end of this month and goes into the next.

And Senator Kerry who’s been charged by the president to be our international ambassador on climate is, I think making a big efforts to organize an effective US presence at that meeting. And so, we’ll know a lot more after that meeting. And I think a number of the things that are happening between now and that meeting, could be hopeful as the one that you mentioned might be.

The reality is that, we are down in the US to about 15% a year of the global greenhouse gas emissions. And China is not twice as big, but almost twice as big, I think, as we are in terms of annual emissions.

However, we are still the largest country by far in terms of cumulative emissions. And what the environment is about, is the cumulative emissions and how much of the gases we put into the atmosphere. We’re still the big culprit there. And the second largest emitter.

And both because of that, and because of the US role in the world, our example is very important. And the ability to do things internationally is also linked to whether we have a strong base at home, or whether we have clay feet. And I think this is what Kerry is up against right now, as he moves into Glasgow, is whether he can talk about what the US is really doing on the climate issue, or whether he’ll go there, as we say naked, with very little to say for his own country.

And so, we’re at a critical moment on the international stage for those reasons. And the ones that you mentioned as well right now. And so, it’s not just the US drama, so to speak, but the international one as well.

Rob Johnson:

And I’ve seen a lot of, what you might call need for collaboration in many dimensions. For instance, when I have been talking with people like Adair Turner, who is a British man in Energy Transition Commission, he has been a fellow at INET.

He describes to me that, if you want to put solar panels in Norway, you pay an interest rate that’s about 1% real, 1% above the rate of inflation. But Norway’s dark, a significant portion of the year. If you want to put those solar panels in an equatorial region like parts of Africa, the interest rate is about 8%, above the rate of inflation.

And so, we’re in a place now, where if we just let the private credit allocation with this risk premium and so forth, play the role, at a place where solar development could be most productive, and make a very large contribution to all of our well-being, it won’t get done without multilateral assistance, without some of which are modeling all of us collectively absorbing that risk premium, and deploying those energy systems in the Global South.

So, I see the need for places like the World Bank, and UNCTAD and others, to really play a vigorous role in how we finance and deploy this energy transformation all over the world. It’s not just a national thing.

Gus Speth:

Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right. And I have to tell you, Rob, I’m impressed that about the UN Trade Organization. There are not many people who’ll go, okay. But the UN is very, very important. People don’t appreciate that the UN is the sponsor, really, of these conference climate meetings. And much else, we’re getting good leadership out of the Secretary General of the UN, and the UN can do other things on trade and intellectual property, and other issues.

So, we need to burnish our international bona fides, because we’ve let them slip so badly, and have lost some of our international presence and respect over the past several years. So we need to reclaim that.

And multilateralism is essential to dealing with this issue at this point, because as I mentioned 85% of the emissions are coming from somewhere else. And meanwhile, the people that are going to be most impacted, or those that had the least to do with causing the problem, and the developing countries in Africa, top among them, they’re going to be, it’s already too late to hold back what I think are going to be hordes of, and that’s a bad word, but lots of climate refugees, moving across borders to escape droughts, to escape floods, agricultural failures, and other things.

It’s going to get worse if we don’t act now. And so, the full dimensions of this need to be appreciated. And they’re only beginning to be. But it’s changing. And I think each academic profession has something major to contribute at this point. Including I would mention the faith communities, because there’s no sort of structure out there that can reach so many people so quickly, with a message that is inherently a moral message about care for each other, and care for the future, as the faith communities can. And so, we need to ascend to the pulpit those who can, and take this message there.

Rob Johnson:

Well, we’ve seen from the Vatican, Pope Francis has issued his last two encyclicals on environment, Laudato Si, and then the one for taking care of one another, and trying to set, which i call a moral North Star for us to aspire to as a society.

At INET we’re trying to do our part with Joe Stiglitz and Mike Spence leading a commission on Global Economic Transformation, where we talk about the disruptions associated with financialization, the technology, environment, globalization and the loss of the boundaries of, and control of the nation state. And as you mentioned, the induced disruption associated with migration when things do not cohere in various places around the planet.

And I think it’s imperative for scholars to reach with the depth of their insights in their evidence based awareness, to not only diagnosing, but seeing the pathway, the remedies that need to be implemented, and not too soon.

Gus Speth:

Well, Rob, I hope you’ll tell Stiglitz to include in his analysis, as he has done in the past, and it’s a very important book, including Mismeasure, the need to revamp our national accounts. And to state from this tyranny of GDP, as we now add it up.

GDP is such a misleading signal, and yet we worship at the altar of GDP growth. We can’t afford to have measures as flawed as that, guiding us into the future.

So we talk about these, so called non reformist reforms, changes that look like regular reforms, but have in them the seeds of much deeper change. And I think to move to a new system of indicators of progress, beyond our national accounts, and beyond GDP, it would be a major non reformist reform, because it would lead to lots of other things.

Rob Johnson:

I know Joe, and Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul, Fitoussi, and others worked very much on changing the nature of how we measure well being.

I had the good fortune of being in a conversation a couple days ago with Ann Pettifor. And she has a quote from Bobby Kennedy that I want to share with you, that echoes your perspective. Bobby Kennedy once declared talking about GDP, “It measures neither our wit, nor our courage, neither our wisdom, nor our learning, neither our compassion, nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worth living.”

Gus Speth:

And unfortunately, that was his last speech.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Gus Speth:

And his last big speech. Well, anyhow, that’s one change. But we’re moving here, at least in my thinking, and I’m sure in yours and your colleagues, there’s some deeper changes that need to be made in the economy. Because while we can do a lot now, with the current system that we have, so to speak, and we’ve got to, and I think Biden is challenging us to do that. And I hope he doesn’t abandon his own proposals and goals.

But beyond what we can do in the current system, we need to start thinking about, how do we change the system? And how do we get a real democracy flourishing? How do we escape this tyranny of GDP? How do we build a new system of business enterprises that are not so completely oriented to to profit? How do we democratize decisions about investment, and have them focus on social and environmental returns, and not just financial returns?

I mean, there’s a whole world out there of deep changes that need to be made. So, over time to deal with the climate issue, we’re going to have to introduce a lot of these changes. Right now we need to go with what we’ve got. But tomorrow we need to be moving towards deeper changes in the system.

Rob Johnson:

That’s, how would I say? Music to my ears. I’ve got four children and two grandchildren, and I’m thinking about their future, and I would say the specter of non action is very, very daunting. And then, I think it’s coming alive in the spirit of more and more people about, like you said, the kind of change in making essentially, the economy rather than a ruler, it means to the social ends that we would like to have our children experience.

Gus Speth:

Well, you’re so right. And I think the book helps make this point, because it does underscore that the system under different administrations, and different political eras, that the system has failed us.

I mean, if there’s a sort of a bottom line coming from the book, it’s one of a massive long term system failure. And it does point to the need to change the system.

Rob Johnson:

I will say, I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. So I got a little foreshadowing of profound dysfunction in transformation of the economy as a youngster. But I was haunted. I was doing a conference in Detroit in 2016, three days after the presidential election when Donald Trump had won.

And on election day, I was in Detroit, and I went out with seven of my friends from high school, all of whom have MBAs, MDs, PhDs, JDs, were a graduate degrees across the spectrum. Of the eight people there, six had voted for Donald Trump. And I said to them, “What are you expecting?” And they said, “Well, Rob you’ve you moved to the east coast, and you raise your children there, and everything’s fine. Our families have stayed in Michigan.” And Donald Trump, right after he got the nomination, came to Detroit, and he said to the Detroit Economic Club, “Shame on the executives of the Big Three, because they’re not preserving jobs in America.”

Now, Donald Trump may have seduced and abandoned people to get elected, but what he was saying was the system is rigged. The system is dysfunctional. The kinds of things that your book says. I viewed Donald Trump’s election as a symptom of that dysfunction. Unfortunately, it wasn’t accompanied by repair, it might have exacerbated that dysfunction over those four years, and this is what the challenge for Biden and his team is now.

But the thing that haunts me, Gus, and this is really the final question I want to explore with you. Is, someone like yourself, you have so much experience in the process with regard to climate, with regard to the technical and scientific issues, with regard to the people. I watch young people now, the kind of people that would read your book and nod, yes, completely lacking in faith, in leadership, governance, or expertise.

How do we reestablish faith in governance, or in institutions to meet this transformation? How do we reinvigorate belief in what expertise and science has been telling us for many years? I find that an enormous challenge, regaining trust in our society. How do we how do we approach that dimension?

Gus Speth:

Well, you’re right. And it’s a very, very difficult question as you know. We’ve been, I think so to speak, in terms of our appreciation of science for a long time. I mean, it’s had routes that go back and can be identified in the sort of half the country that doesn’t believe in evolution, for example, and other rejections of science.

This has got to be, I think the scientific community needs a large scale program of science education, but also trying to communicate better than it does.

Of course, there’s no substitute in terms of building faith in government and success by government, right? I mean, there is nothing that’s going to reclaim that lost ground better or more quickly, or more securely, than results that people can see and believe in.

And I don’t want to sound like a Biden sycophant here. But I think he’s got that. He understands that message, and he’s trying to make government work, and big government work. And it needs to, because we have huge problems that are national in scope. And really, there’s a lot that big states like California and New York and others can do, but it really is going to depend on national leadership and national responses to deal with this huge array of a dozen major problems of which climate is one.

And you can rank them any way you want, but the truth is that none of them are going to yield to half measures or partial measures, or state measures, and local measures, as important as those things are, we’re going to have to figure out a way to build a strong effective national government that inspires that confidence that you’re talking about. And reinforces it in subsequent actions.

So that’s really, I think where we are. I’d like to think there was another solution. I don’t believe the private sector is going to miraculously save us, changes, that there’s enough action at the state level that can do the jobs that need doing, although that’s important.

And I certainly don’t believe there are our individual decisions about our consumer habits and our preferences for electric cars, or whatever else. All the other important things, and all that is important. But in the end, unless these economic engines are our national and global, and they are going to have to be tamed, nationally and globally. And if there’s any hope of getting down to effectively, next to nothing in terms of fossil fuel use by mid century, it’s going to have to come from very powerful government action at the national and international level.

And we’re just going to have to get ready and be sure as best we can, that that happens. Because otherwise, it’s going to be very, very devastating for young people and future generations, and those grandchildren you mentioned.

Rob Johnson:

Well, what I can say to you is, I do see beacons of hope. And I’m going to save a copy of this podcast and show it to my grandchildren when they’re a little older, because you’re one of those beacons.

The work you do. Let’s just talk about the book you came to this show with, They Knew: Fifty-Year Role of the Federal Government Causing the Climate Crisis, and Our Children’s Trust book. MIT Press puts it out, But you built that argument for those children.

Gus Speth:

Well, thank you.

Rob Johnson:

The way you’re talking truth today, as a man who’s been respected inside and work at elite institutions, is what we need. You are an example of the kind of evolution of experts, and powerful, and well-educated. Because I mentioned the distrust. I know of people, David Brooks from the New York Times, he writes these stories about how people think that the elites, the people with higher credentials in education, and so forth, are the marketing tools to the powerful, not the representatives of the people. You’re a contradiction to that, Gus. You are a contradiction to the notion of elite marketing. You’re working for the public good. You’re an example my young scholars need to ingest when they think about their career.

Gus Speth:

Well, I can’t thank you enough for that. But it’s hard to feel very successful at this point, I hear you-

Rob Johnson:

That’s right.

Gus Speth:

… all the effort that so many of us have made, and not many of them are far more important than I am, we’re still sort of looking for a good result that hasn’t yet materialized, but maybe one day.

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. And you’re persevering. You’re still how I say, got your shoulder to the wheel, pushing it up. And so, I want to thank you for that. I want to thank you for being here today. And thank you for the example that you set.

Gus Speth:

Well, it’s a great pleasure. And it’s good to see you again. Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

Nice to see you. And we’ll come back do another chapter in a few months. So come back and have a look as the Biden administration’s policies and US, China unfold, I’m going to come back and seek your counsel again.

Gus Speth:

Thank you. And when you show this to your grandchildren, I hope they’ll be at very different situation.

Rob Johnson:

I share that hope. Thank you.

Gus Speth:

Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

And check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at ineteconomics.org.

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