Tackling Climate Change Necessary, Despite Tough Economic Times, Browner Says


Carol Browner, the former White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, gave a talk at the Law School titled "Environmental Protections and Public Health: The Challenges Facing the United States."

October 28, 2011

The United States must move forward with laws and policies that halt global climate change, President Barack Obama's former senior adviser on climate change and energy said Thursday at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Carol Browner, who was director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy from 2009-11 and was previously administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration, said she rejects the notion that the country must choose between protecting its environment and supporting its economy.

If we've learned anything over the past 40 years, it is that we don't have to choose," Browner said. I recognize that we're in difficult economic times. Obviously everyone recognizes that. But I had the opportunity to serve eight years in an administration that began with some difficult economic times, was able to reverse those and was able to set the toughest public health and environmental standards that had ever been set in the history of this country."

While climate change has its skeptics, Browner said, the scientists agree: Climate change is real.

Leading scientists around the world have formed a consensus that the phenomenon of global climate change is real, the impacts are significant and we need to take action before the results become a reality," she said. The Academy of Sciences found that 98 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real, human-caused and under way — 98 percent of the scientists."

Climate change's naysayers," as she called them, are vocal, loud, well-funded and are discounting a mountain of scientific consensus.

The full-time climate science deniers have become what some people call 'merchants of doubt,'" she said. Much like the tobacco industry when they questioned the link between cigarettes and cancer, the goal is to create enough uncertainty about the link between pollution and climate change that the political battle will revert back to whether the problem exists rather than how to solve it."

The fact that scientists are continuing to study climate change, she said, should not be construed as doubts about its existence or that actions are not needed.

Browner said the country has a moral and ethical obligation to act based on the weight of the existing evidence, much as it did 30 years ago when the federal government banned lead in gasoline.

What the scientists told us them was that exposure to lead in gasoline was lowering IQ levels in children," she said. They couldn't say how many IQ points. They couldn't tell us with absolute certainty which child or when the effects would occur. But we decided as a country, based on the available science, based on the weight of the evidence, to phase out lead in gasoline. Should we have waited another 10 years to see how the lead-affected children of the '70s fared in the '80s? If we had waited before we acted, if we had waited to know precisely how many IQ points were lost, another generation would have suffered needlessly."

Unlike the environmental challenges faced by the U.S. in the past — such as removing raw sewage and toxic chemicals from rivers and lakes — the effects of climate change are likely impossible to reverse, Browner said.

There's not an engineer in the world that would be able to reverse the sea level rise once we see the infiltration in our fresh water supplies," she said. To fail to act now is to leave to future generations not simply a river on fire or a toxic waste dump to be cleaned up, but an irreversibly changed planet. Generations after generations have left problems and challenges to those who came after them. But no generation, as of yet, has left a permanently changed planet."

The effects of climate change, she said, are already being felt today. It manifests not only as higher temperatures, but also earlier springs, longer summers, harsher winters, more powerful hurricanes and more tornadoes. For example, she noted, there were 600 tornadoes in the U.S. in April, more than doubling the previous one-month record.

It starts to sound like a Hollywood movie disaster," she said. Unfortunately, it's not a movie. It's real."

Browner is now a senior distinguished fellow with the Center for American Progress and a senior counselor for the Albright Stonebridge Group.

Her talk, Environmental Protections and Public Health: The Challenges Facing the United States," was sponsored by the Student Legal Forum.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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