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Climate-conscious Republican

Michael KniggeNovember 27, 2012

Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, talks to DW about the US' and Germany's environmental records.

Christine Todd Whitman
Image: privat

DW: Germany is associated with being an environmental leader. Do you think that is an accurate description? 

Christine Todd Whitman: They certainly have been, yes. It's a country that has been very committed to those ideals.

While climate change is widely accepted in Germany and Europe, according to a recent Pew poll, only 48 percent of Republicans believe that there is solid evidence for it. That number increased from last year, but it still means that the majority of Republicans are not convinced that climate change is real. What does this tell us about your party's commitment to protect the environment?

It makes it very problematic. And I worry about it. That's the kind of statistic that bothers me greatly.

But I also have to say that I am very interested in watching how Germany deals with the fact that you have been active and long-time supporters of Kyoto and yet by walking away from all nuclear power, the power that is going to have to be used to keep the economy growing is going to be much dirtier and much more expensive. And while Germany is doing a wonderful job on its movement toward solar power, it still needs to have base power as a back up. And so, in every place you have these challenges where there's not a straight, clear and clean answer always.

But the Republican statistic bothers me. We are now getting to a point where it's pretty hard to deny climate change. Here, in the state of New Jersey, we have had two 100-year storms in four months. While no credible scientist will attribute any individual storm to climate change they certainly have said and will continue to say that what you can expect from a warming climate is that you will have an ever increasing number of severe storms.

A destroyed house on Barrier Island on New Jersey, after Hurricane Sandy (Photo: Miodrag Soric, 19.11.2012)
A number of environmental experts say the increasing number of hurricanes in the US is due to climate changeImage: DW/M.Soric

Back in 2008 President Obama vowed to make the US the leader in green technology to be able to compete with countries like Germany, but his environmental record has been mixed at best. Just this week the CIA announced it had closed its Center on Climate Change and National Security which had been criticized by Republicans. What signal does that send and how convinced are you of President Obama's commitment to protect the environment?

I have been disappointed with the lack of action. The problem is that very early on the administration overreached on climate change in particular. They tried a parliamentary approach, if you will, to getting something done in a backdoor way that scared away a lot of Republicans who would have otherwise been supportive of it. And by that overreach they undermined their ability to get things done and they paid too high a price so that slowed everything down.

But I have been disappointed that we haven't seen more action. I am hopeful that in this new Congress, the President having been re-elected, will step up and reaffirm his commitment. Because it's going to take leadership from the top to get people to really address the issue.

A major energy and environmental issue in the US is fracking, a highly controversial practice to extract oil and gas. Energy companies hail it as the path to make the US energy independent and turn it into a major energy export country, while environmental and citizen groups say it is toxic for the environment and want to ban it. The EPA is currently conducting a study on the issue. What's your stance on fracking?

Fracking is a technology that has been used for a long time in many places and done relatively safely. First, it's not as much the fracking necessarily, as what you do with the waste water that's the most problematic part of the fracking process. And second, there are places where it is appropriate to do it and places where it isn't. If you are in a position where you might endanger the water supply to literally tens of thousands of people, I wouldn't do it.

The cost of remediation, should you in fact end up somehow polluting that water, is far more important than the money and energy independence that you will get from the extraction. There are times where we can take advantage of the natural resources we have, but it needs to be done in a very careful way. 

Christine Todd Whitman served as the first female governor of New Jersey from 1994 until 2001. She then led the US Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush from 2001 until her resignation in 2003 over demands by Vice President Dick Cheney to loosen air pollution rules. Whitman, a leading voice for a more centrist Republican Party, is the author of the 2005 book "It's My Party, Too: Taking Back the Republican Party And Bringing the Country Together Again."

Interview by Michael Knigge. To read the full interview, please see the link below