by Steve Collins, Staff Writer
Sun Journal news story
As the climate policy chief for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Falmouth native Joel Clement had his work cut out for him.
For almost seven years, his job required him to come up with ways to deal with fast-changing conditions that threaten everything from national parks to remote villages on the crumbling shores of the Bering Sea in Alaska.
When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, Clement, who held a career civil service post, wondered what would happen, but hoped to continue plugging away on the issues that consumed him.
After all, he told a crowd at Bates College on Tuesday night, taking action on those issues related directly to “the health and safety of Americans.”
It turned out, though, that he “was vastly wrong,” he said. The newcomers unleashed on Washington, Clement said, came in with an agenda to “shrink and hobble” government and wipe out anything done in recent years, good or bad.
“It was like being led by a gang of vindictive fifth-graders,” Clement said, adding that he might be giving them too much credit.
Since the new interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, could not just clean house of career bureaucrats whose jobs are protected by law, he wound up transferring executives in the hope of driving them to quit.
In Clement’s case, he got new marching orders to work in a government office that dispersed royalties from the oil and gas industry — in Oklahoma. Climate change was no longer a priority.
Rather than go quietly off to a new home in Tulsa, Clement got a lawyer, filed a whistleblower complaint and took to the pages of The Washington Post to denounce what he saw going on within the department. He resigned in October.
For former state lawmaker Peggy Rotundo, who works for the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates, Clement’s willingness to stand up and speak out showed the “principled courage” she saw in the long career of former U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine — a man who leaned on scientists as he pushed through the Clean Air and Clean Water acts that transformed the nation’s environment almost a half-century ago.
For Clement, climate change is something that cannot be ignored.
He said it “is real. It’s dangerous. And we’re causing it.”
Clement said the scientific consensus is clear because there is no other way to explain the rapid changes observed all over the world, especially in the quickly warming Arctic.
“It’s not something you believe,” he said. “It just is.”
That should not be a partisan issue, Clement said, but many in the Republican Party argue that it is either not happening or that it is beyond humanity’s ability to influence.
Clement said that in Maine, the issue is particularly acute because the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than the rest of the ocean. Impacts on its fishery are inevitable, he said, and dire consequences possible in many areas, including the prospect of fewer lobsters, puffins and moose — and perhaps even “some pretty serious forest die-backs.”
“Even the chickadees are moving north,” Clement said.
He said that “Maine is on the leading edge right now of climate impacts in the Lower 48” states, so it has a lot at stake as the battle over climate change plays out.
Still, it is worse in Alaska.
Clement said the native villages he sought to work with are sitting on spits of land that used to be frozen all the time, surrounded by sea ice except in the summer. Now, he said, they are on melting soil, battered by storms that whip up waves where there used to be ice.
They are on “some of the most vulnerable areas on earth,” he said. “Now, they’re on the brink of being wiped off the map.”
Clement said he could not imagine the government would give up plans to resettle the people there to safer locales. But it has, he said.
“The Trump administration has turned its back on these folks,” he said.
Clement said the saving grace of Trump’s effort to pare back regulation is that “they’re just not very good” at what they do “so they keep ending up in court,” stymied.
Clement said the solution for those who care about science is pretty straightforward.
“Everyone knows we gotta vote the suckers out,” he said. “That’s the easy one.”
He said the GOP has “become a willing host” for those who deny climate change and shill for the oil and gas industries. But, he said, there are still many in Republicans ranks who respect science and are not on board with the administration’s policies.
Clement said it is also important to demand transparency, fair budgeting that funds agencies that rely on science and the rule of law.
Finally, he said, people need to recognize that science ought to be the North Star of public policy.
He said that in the Inuit tradition, the North Star — “this unchanging beacon” that has hung over the Arctic since beyond memory — symbolizes “wisdom, leadership and guidance.”
Those are the qualities, Clement said, on which Americans need to rely as they press forward in a display of civic responsibility that demands people “engage, engage, engage” with their government.
That is what it is going to take, he said, to save ancient cultures on the shores of the sea, the lives of fellow Americans and maybe much more.