Larry Schweiger has been part of some big moments in environmental history. In his 40-year career, he was president and CEO of Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation and PennFuture. Schweiger worked on successful legislation during the George H.W. Bush administration, with the late Senator John Heinz, to curb acid rain, by reaching across the aisle.
“Today, there are so many wedges being driven between the parties. I think there are intentional wedges being driven to prevent the parties from getting together, from moving the solutions forward,” Schweiger said.
He sees an even more complicated path when it comes to working on climate change solutions. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple sat down with Larry Schweiger to talk about his new book, The Climate Crisis and Corrupt Politics. Overcoming the Powerful Forces That Threaten Our Future.
LISTEN to their conversation
Kara Holsopple: You’re a longtime lover of the environment. You mention in the book that you looked out onto a very polluted Lake Erie as a teenager in the 1960s, and you decided to make the environment your life’s purpose. But you say that your generation, which started the Earth movement and worked on environmental issues in the 70s and 80s, was “ill prepared for the highly organized corporate backlash in our efforts to curb climate change.” What’s an example of that push back that you experienced in your career?
Larry Schweiger: Well, the one that really stands out to me was in 2009, we were working on a bill called Cap and Trade. It was supported by both Republicans and Democrats [in Congress] early on, but then later became partisan because the oil and gas industry and the coal industry put enormous pressure on Republicans to back away from it.
KH: This was when you were the CEO of the National Wildlife Federation?
LS: Yes, and I spent 10 years with National Wildlife as CEO. My primary goal was to pass appropriate climate legislation. Back in those days, we only needed to cut carbon emissions by about two percent a year. Today, we’re looking at seven and a half percent a year. And every year we wait, the challenge goes much deeper. So these interests have really prevented us from making real progress.
KH: Several times in the book, you criticize the media for its part in the climate crisis. What could the media have done differently over the last decades, and what should it be doing now?
LS: Well, I’ll give you one example. Currently, BP is running ads suggesting that their wind is helping to solve the [climate] problem. I served on the wind and wildlife advisory committee years ago. During that process, BP had a wind subsidiary. They had a CEO who was committed to Beyond Petroleum. If you remember, they coined that term for BP, Beyond Petroleum. Well, they were building wind turbines in those days, and moving in a different direction. Then, he was fired. They brought in a new CEO, and since that time, BP has been going back to its old tricks. They’ve actually sold off some of their wind farms. They closed down their wind operations in 2013, I believe it was, and they are no longer participating in the new energy economy. Instead they are continuing to develop oil offshore because they think that’s where their future lies.
“I don’t know a single grandparent who would knowingly destroy their grandchildren’s future. Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing if we fail to act on their behalf.”
KH: And you think the media is not doing a good job of covering this issue?
LS: Well, they let him run these ads that are false, and they should not be allowed. Exxon is again running ads that they’re working on algae to produce biofuels. You know, give me a break. They’ve had that same narrative for four decades, and they’re not changing it. They know the evidence. Exxon has actually done some of the best early research in the 60s on climate change. Yet they suppressed that evidence, and they’ve moved ahead, ignoring their own scientists.
KH: I was really fascinated by the part of your book where you talk about being on the scene of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. That was in 2010, and the largest oil spill in American history. You were with the National Wildlife Federation, and you guys were hiring boats to get journalists out into the water so they could actually see the damage that was happening.
LS: Well, I was involved earlier in the Exxon Valdez spill [in Alaska], and I watched how Exxon masterfully manipulated the media. So I got on a plane from Washington, D.C., flew down to New Orleans, and went out to went out to Venice, which is where the docks were that were headed out to the BP spill. I found the media were interviewing BP employees to find out what was going on out there.
So I started talking to some of the people in the media, and they said, “Well, we don’t have a budget for hiring boats, so we haven’t been out there.” We went out and hired five to seven watermen every day to take us out onto the water. There was media from all over the world there. So we were hauling these folks around, helping to interpret what they were seeing, and how it was impacting nature and the Gulf of Mexico.
The government really turned the entire spill site over to BP. They actually gave them enforcement powers to arrest people who might enter into this area. They controlled the skies and they controlled the water. So that would be a little bit like having a local police department turn the crime scene over to the criminal. That continued for weeks, and most of what you saw on television was filmed off our our hired boats.
It was stopped, incidentally, by Dick Cheney’s former press secretary who was hired by BP. She came on the scene and ended up buying off all the waterman–all but one–and shut down the media. The media was then back to reporting secondhand stories.
KH: You worked with senators to try to pass climate legislation, and worked on cap and trade plans with environmentalists and heads of corporations, which were carbon emitters. A lot of this didn’t go very far, and you talk a little in the book about your your own sense of failure.
You write, “Watching repeated climate denial from President Trump and Republicans in Congress, there are many days when I feel that 40 years of fighting for rational climate policies have been for naught. I don’t make excuses, and consider this to be a career low failure.” Do you feel like you’ve failed in that way?
LS: Well, I do. I feel like the movement has failed. I feel like the American public has also failed us. We have tried very hard to get the baby boomers, for example, to understand that our children’s future hangs in the balance. I have five grandsons, and I feel like their future has been gravely jeopardized by what we’re facing today.
I don’t know a single grandparent who would knowingly destroy their grandchildren’s future. Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing if we fail to act on their behalf. My generation needs to be accountable. We need to step forward, and do our part to protect our children’s future.
“I think we will have a change election if we get every young person to not only register to vote, but to organize on their campuses, in their communities, and to get others out to vote.”
KH: While President Trump and his administration are denying climate change on many levels, and are actively working on policies that benefit the oil and gas industry, the Democratic candidates for president participated in a climate debate. You know, kids all over the country and the world are protesting inaction on climate change, and a Green New Deal has been proposed, focusing on green jobs and renewable energy.
You write that you’re heartened by the bold demands of the Green New Deal and other youth driven efforts, but that you understand the uphill battle they’ll face. What do you mean by that? And are these hopeful initiatives for you?
LS: I believe that they are. I also believe that the next generation of leaders need to understand what they’re facing so that they can be more equipped to fight. You know, it’s like a football game. If you know the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents, you’re more apt to win the moment. So I wrote this book to help the next generation understand who they’re competing with, and why we’ve lost, so that they can win.
But I am heartened by it, and I’m also heartened by the idea that Senator Ed Markey and AOC [U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] have come as together two generations to find a solution. That’s really what the Green New Deal is all about. It’s about finding a solution or set of solutions that are big enough.
You know, during World War II, my mother worked for American Bridge. During that time, American Bridge shut down all of its normal operations, and focused its entire business on building the equipment and materials for the Second World War. I think the same is true today. We need to reposition our entire economy in a war-like setting. We need to stop thinking it’s business as usual, and really all of us need to focus on solving this crisis, or we’re not going to do it.
KH: Well, what’s your best advice to these new leaders in the environmental movement?
LS: I think we will have a change election if we get every young person to not only register to vote, but to organize on their campuses, in their communities, and to get others out to vote. Voting turnout is really critical. This is a voter turnout election coming up next year, and so I can be very blunt about unless we turn out large numbers of voters who care about the future, we will lose, and we will be facing a terrible future, frankly.
Schweiger says in retirement, he’s doing pretty much what he did in his career, but without the paycheck. He helped his friend former vice president Al Gore start the Climate Reality Project to train climate communicators, and he’s still working with them today in Pittsburgh.