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Climate change not top environment priority, says Trump official – Financial Times

Clean drinking water is a higher priority for the Trump administration than climate change, according to Andrew Wheeler, the top US environment regulator, who called for scientific debate about the models used to assess global warming.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Wheeler expressed concern that the focus on climate change and the need to limit warming were detrimental to other big environmental challenges, such as potable water and affordable electricity.

“We cannot lose sight of the other environmental issues facing the world,” said Mr Wheeler, confirmed in March as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. “Water issues are the number one environment crisis.”

Mr Wheeler, whose agency regulates US carbon dioxide emissions, said climate change was a “big priority” for the agency, and that the US should cut its CO2 emissions. A former coal lobbyist and prominent critic of green legislation, Mr Wheeler is trying to restore order at the EPA following a turbulent period under his predecessor Scott Pruitt, who was dogged by a series of ethics controversies.

“We need to be decreasing our CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “But we are not going to focus on that to the detriment of other environmental indicators.”

He continued: “Is there climate change? Yes. Does CO2 contribute to climate change? Yes. Does man contribute to CO2? Yes. What’s going to happen 50 years from now? There’s a lot of divergent views on the models, and the inputs to the models and how we calculate them.”

The Trump administration has been criticised by Democrats and environmentalists for its approach to climate change. The president, who has said he believes climate change is not caused by humans, is set to pull the US from the Paris climate deal that aims to limit temperature rises to less than 2C from pre-industrial levels.

“For all intents and purposes, we have left the Paris climate accord,” said Mr Wheeler. “It’s not a treaty that benefits us.”

A surge of interest among Democrats and young Republicans has put climate change firmly in the spotlight. The Green New Deal, a proposal for a clean energy investment plan backed by New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has become a rallying call for the Democratic presidential candidates running for election next year.

Mr Wheeler said of the Green New Deal: “I think it would devastate our economy. I do not think it’s achievable.”

The US is the only country that plans to leave the Paris agreement, at a time when there is growing consensus about the effects and costs of climate change, including from US government scientists. A government report last year found that climate change would cost hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century, if emissions continued to rise.

US environment regulator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler (C): ‘I still question the 2C — how do we know that’s the tipping point?’

Mr Wheeler also queried the 2C figure that most scientists say is crucial for limiting the worst impacts of global warming. “I still question the 2C — how do we know that’s the tipping point?” said Mr Wheeler. “I do not question that we need to do something, but I think we need to have a healthier, open discussion around some of the scientific questions.”

Last year a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spelt out the effects of 2C of warming, which include heatwaves, food shortages and a rise in sea levels.

“The science is clear,” said Glen Peters, research director at the Oslo-based Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research. “The risks increase the higher the temperature goes, so there is a solid rationale to reduce emissions as quickly as we can.”

The Trump administration has made domestic fossil-fuel production a cornerstone of its energy policy, and is trying to loosen many Obama-era environmental regulations, such as relaxing rules on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Ahead of a meeting of G7 environment ministers this weekend in the French city of Metz, Mr Wheeler called for more focus on issues such as clean drinking water, access to electricity in the developing world, and the proliferation of plastic in the oceans.

“I’m afraid that internationally, when people think about environmental issues, they only focus on climate change. They do not look at the other issues,” he said.

Polls show climate change ranks relatively low on US voters’ list of concerns. Forty-four per cent of Americans thought climate change was a political priority, according to a Pew survey conducted this year, while 56 per cent said the environment as a whole was a priority.

The EPA will this year release a new set of car emission standards, as well as a power strategy to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

Mr Wheeler said he believed the new Affordable Clean Energy rule would lower CO2 emissions from the power sector. The plan allows states to set their own emissions targets, although environmental groups say it could increase air pollution.

He said there was a “definite possibility” that some US coal mines could be reopened, particularly for international export. Mr Trump promised to reopen coal mines during the 2016 election, which he won in part by securing votes in previously Democratic industrial areas.

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