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Former Energy Secretary Says Climate Change Needs 'A Robust Response'


Back to the U.S. now where we're going to turn to another round of protests and marches this weekend. Demonstrators gathered today in many cities to demand more information from the White House about alleged links to Russia from the Trump campaign. Here in Washington, D.C., there were also dueling rallies near the White House about the president's plan to pull out of the Paris climate accord.


MARILYN OAKES: I support President Trump. I agree with his policies. Don't forget. This is one of the things he said he'd do when he was running, and he's following through with this. But this is not a big issue to the people who voted for him. This is a globalist little plaything.


DEIDRE SHELLEY: I think it's a testament to just how radical, how nutty and how dangerous Trump's announcement was, the fact that not only most Americans but also business leaders, other heads of state had a strong and outrageous reaction to his decision.

MARTIN: That was, in order, Marilyn Oakes (ph) and Deirdre Shelley (ph) from the D.C. area. Over the course of this hour, we will hear other perspectives on this, but we want to start with the man who was at the center of this issue just a few months ago. Ernest Moniz was the secretary of energy under President Obama. He's now back at MIT where he's continuing to work on policy issues like clean energy innovation and nuclear security. He wrote an opinion piece for The Boston Globe about his thoughts on the Paris decision, and he's with us now to tell us more about it. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ERNEST MONIZ: Pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me start where you started your op-ed in The Globe. You said this is serious business. The statement from President Trump said the United States will exit the agreement, and this combined with his first budget proposal effectively denies science, diminishes U.S. competitiveness in the developing multi-trillion-dollar clean energy global marketplace, abdicates U.S. leadership on an urgent issue of global concern and once again shakes the confidence of allies and friends. Those are very strong words. What was your most significant concern about this? You enumerated a number of them.

MONIZ: Well, first of all, let me make very clear. I stand by my words of a couple days ago. Again, as I said, climate change is something that there can be no doubt about the need for a robust response over these decades. And United States leadership has always been essential. We have seen already China, the European Union wanting to assert greater leadership, and I think that's important. But frankly, I think in the end, American leadership is essential to advance on issues of global concern like this.

Everybody knows there's no going back. We are heading to a low-carbon economy. We have to manage that transition because of the innovation needs to serve a multi-trillion-dollar global clean energy economy.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, coincidentally, you and I spoke almost exactly a year ago when you were on your way to a clean energy ministerial. And what you told me then was that the president can't change the process and that - you said that unless he changes the entire process of rule-making. And you said - and I quote - "I believe what President Obama has put in place will keep us on our trajectory to meeting our Paris commitments." So if that's the case, then why is this decision as significant as you say it is?

MONIZ: Well, first of all, Michel, let me just clarify that, I think what I said a year ago. You said it then. In terms of things like rules and standards, those have a process that cannot just be changed by a word being uttered. It requires an entire legal process that's quite extensive with public engagement, et cetera. So I think I'll say two things. One is, clearly if the federal government is not working in concert with the cities and states, we will still, I think - directionally we may go where we will end up for sure, but it's a bumpy road. And so things will be delayed. Certainly some of the transition from coal to gas - it will not change fundamentally in my view, but it can go more slowly over these years.

And the second point is, again, in that quote that you started out with, I note the coupling of this to the first budget proposal. That budget proposal, rather than doubling our energy innovation investments as we led 20 countries to committing to in Paris, rather it puts us to having dividing by two rather than multiplying by two. That trajectory will put us well behind both China and the European countries. This can have a significant dent in our innovation agenda, preparing us to profit, frankly, economically as well as environmentally from the low-carbon trend.

MARTIN: Could you address a point that the president made repeatedly in his remarks? I mean, his argument is that he was elected to be the leader of and to advance the interests of Pittsburgh, not Paris, as he put it. Does he have a point that if advancing U.S. interests, even if temporal ones, that's very significant to the people who elected him and perhaps more urgent to them than these global concerns? What would you say to that?

MONIZ: Well, first of all, there's a, by the way, very nice piece in The Boston Globe looking at this Pittsburgh versus Paris statement. And it points out - and I saw this very much up close because at the Department of Energy, we had many, many programs specifically with Pittsburgh, Mayor Peduto, in terms of their remarkable transformation to a knowledge-based economy. This is not the Pittsburgh with that - or rather cataclysmic vision that the president put forward in his inauguration speech. It's a whole different place. There's a study from - I think it's from Columbia University, for example - that notes that the major decrease in coal production and utilization - that the impacts of regulation accounted for maybe 3 or 4 percent of the reduction versus 50 percent from the natural gas transformation. Coal mining jobs have been going down for decades as new technology comes in.

So the issue is, these transformations happen. We have to manage them. We have to help those communities. And in fact, if you go back to what the Obama administration did, we acknowledged that, look; we're heading to a lower-carbon future. So we need two things. One is we need programs, retraining programs, et cetera, to help these communities adjust. And secondly, we need to invest in the innovation which would have, with success, the result of allowing coal use in a low-carbon world. So that's the issue. We have to look forward. We can't look back. We're not going back, and let's make the investments that lift the national economy but also with attention to the communities and regions that may have some particular challenges. And then Pittsburgh is a good example of what success looks like.

MARTIN: That was Ernest Moniz. He was the 13th secretary of energy. He was appointed by President Obama. Along with his work at MIT, he's also started a nonprofit to advance innovation in the clean energy space, and he continues to work on nuclear proliferation. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBUR in Boston. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

MONIZ: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.