For half a century, Gus Speth has been at the forefront of the global environmental movement as an adviser on environment policy to two United States presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and then administrator of the United Nations Development Program, under Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan.
Speth was also a civil society leader — a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute. Turning to academic life, he was dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies from 1999 to 2009 and later joined the Vermont Law School.
Environmental organizations, as they grew, soon caught the imaginations of Americans and affected public opinion, while skittish governments often shied away from political controversy over the seriousness of threats to the environment. Now, said Speth in a phone interview with PassBlue on May 19 from his home in Vermont, not only governments but also environmental groups confront political and cultural trends that raise big new questions about where they stand and what’s next.
Speth’s latest book, “They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis,” describes years of official lethargy and political expediency. Drawing on insider experience, he recounts missed opportunities by the government to act decisively, as evidence of environmental destruction and catastrophic climate-related events accumulated.
The book, scheduled to be published on Aug. 31 by MIT Press, traces decades of American inaction from the presidency of Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) to the “disastrous Trump finale.” In the book, which he described to PassBlue as “the saddest story ever told,” he excoriates the US for “vast governmental malfeasance, surely one of the greatest derelictions of civic responsibility in the history of the Republic.”
“They Knew” is based on a now-updated expert report Speth wrote in 2018 for Our Children’s Trust, a civil society group that filed a lawsuit against the US government in 2015, charging that it had violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by actions that contributed to climate change. The case has continued through the courts. [Update: On June 8, attorneys general from 17 states have asked to join the case so they can oppose any proposed settlement and stop the youths’ case from proceeding to trial.]
The publication of the book precedes the Nov. 1-12 meeting in Glasgow of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015. The meeting, called COP26, was planned for 2020 but postponed for a year because of the pandemic.
Speth describes the Glasgow conference as a big test for John Kerry, the former US secretary of state whom President Joe Biden appointed as a special envoy for climate, with a seat on the National Security Council, a first for a climate adviser. Kerry was in France in 2015 as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, helping to negotiate the Paris Agreement. The Trump administration incurred considerable ill will internationally by disparaging the accord. Trump formally withdrew from it on Nov. 4, 2020; Biden is taking the US back.
James Gustave Speth was born in 1942 in Orangeburg, S.C., when the state was still racially segregated. In a 2014 memoir, “Angels by the River,” he recalls a classic rural boyhood in a pleasant setting where racial issues did not touch him much. That changed abruptly when he moved from his white Southern high school to Yale on a scholarship, encouraged by his mother.
“It was she who sent me up north to a Yankee school and a liberal environment,” he wrote in his memoir. There, in the early 1960s, he encountered outrage among students, who attacked him on hearing his Southern accent. He began to pay more attention to Southern politics and the region’s deepening retreat into racism.
“In my lifetime, there’s been a huge transformation from a solid Democratic South, in which . . . there were a good many progressive Southern politicians in that era — as long as they stayed clear of the race issue,” he said in the interview with PassBlue. “Segregation, the integration issue, was kind of a third rail, and if you didn’t touch it you could be fairly progressive.
“But that shifted, powerfully, first in 1948, when [Strom] Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat and split off a bunch of states,” he said. “This virulent, thinly disguised racist politics has grown. Jimmy Carter has pointed at it early on and fought against it. Others have too but it is now very powerful, and we see that having been coopted into the Trump arena.”
Trump’s racist nativists across the US have been converging with the “racist stain” in Southern politics, he said. The election of a few Democrats in the region, even progressives, may not change that trajectory, he added.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years, Speth said, about the effects of a Southern economic boom and the move of industries and migrants from the North into the region. “So there has been a lot of talk about the Americanization of the South. But now there is also talk of [the] Southernization of America. There’s the spread of the worst ideas born in the South to the rest of the country.” Trump’s followers have ridden that wave to their advantage.
“There have been improvements in the quality of life, but they’ve also come at a big cost,” Speth said. “An interesting question for the future is how these people who are moving in, in vast numbers, in Charleston, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere; are they going to change the political complexion? If more progressive people [are] moving in, will they adopt the most conservative values, or are they going to change the South in a dramatic way?”
Speth relates the emerging environmental justice movement that is challenging traditional activism to the destruction caused by the economic boom. “Pollution and runaway development sprawl have really come to the South big time,” he said.
Have minority communities been helped at all or have they been further marginalized and victimized by the rapid economic growth? The picture, he said, “is far from rosy.”
Not only in the South, where the petrochemical industry has polluted the Gulf coast in and around Louisiana, but also elsewhere in the country, Speth said, the situation has brought the environmental and minority justice and rights movements into alignment, not always without tension.
“After years and decades of these two communities going their own way,” he said in the interview, “I see a lot of the black organizations and justice organizations — Black Lives Matter and others — very concerned [and] in some cases leading in the climate arena. I think the environmental groups have recognized that. So what we have is more of a confluence than we’ve ever had before, and a lot of it is driven by the climate justice concern.”
For example, Mary Nichols, California’s widely praised state pollution regulator, was expected in 2020 to be Biden’s choice to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency after her success with a cap-and-trade program that limits carbon emissions statewide while allowing individual polluters — often rich corporations — to continue to operate by purchasing credits. Yet these effectively allow them to continue polluting, and frontline communities receive much of the toxic waste.
Nichols’s anticipated nomination by Biden for the national position raised a storm of protest from dozens of minority communities and groups supporting their objections. “I think the environmental community understood that,” Speth said.
Nichols did not get the job.
“They Knew: The US Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis,” by James Gustave Speth; 9780262542982
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.