Andrew Wheeler and the Water-Climate Nexus

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Andrew Wheeler has served as acting EPA Administrator since July of 2018, when things just got too scummy, forcing former administrator Scott Pruitt out of office. Wheeler was confirmed last month, formally replacing Pruitt as EPA Administrator - to the delight of ardent pro-deregulation Republicans and ire of almost everyone else.

Acting to the fears expressed by many climate scientists, economists, and policy experts, Wheeler took a direct swipe against action to address climate change. That alone is only to be expected. The corrosive twist upon which Wheeler spun his commentary was juxtaposing drinking water with climate change. Who can resist that psychology? Yes, climate change exposes us to an unacceptable risk of the end of the world as we know it. Right now I need a drink of water, so…

It is a false equivalence, at least as Wheeler presents it to the public in his role of EPA Administrator. If not surprising, it should be alarming for anyone interested in transparent, responsible, and accountable government.

Whether caused by natural or manmade drivers, climate change clearly has significant impact on freshwater sources and distribution. Always has, always will.

Pitting the urgency of one against the other makes no logical sense, the two are inextricably entwined, but it pushes our emotional buttons.

Global water, national responsibility

Wheeler spoke of access to drinking water as the world’s “biggest environmental threat” in an interview with CBS on Wednesday. Later that day, according to reporting by CNN’s Ellie Kaufman, while speaking later that day at the Wilson Institute, Wheeler spoke of his frustration over the "current dialogue around environmental issues". Complaining that water issues often "take a back seat," he cited the stark statistics illustrating the real global water crisis:

"Up to 2.5 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water and, as a result, proper sanitation,” Wheeler said at the Wilson Center. “This fact leads to anywhere from 1 to 3 million deaths every year."

Administrator Wheeler is spot on to identify safe access to drinking water as a primary global challenge (though he never mentions the “safe” part). In his comments earlier this week, Wheeler focused on America’s role to help solve the global water crisis, citing the federal government’s first Global Water Strategy report, published in 2017, to show that the Trump administration is “elevating the issue” like never before.

In fact, the global community elevated the issue many years ago. In 2010 the United Nations declared clean drinking water and sanitation a human right and “essential to the realization of all human rights”. The nascent efforts from Trump administration commendable on the face of it, but appear framed as a red herring in their contrast to climate policy.

As the Sierra Club's deputy legislative director, Dalal Aboulhosn, told CNN,

"Administrator Wheeler is not even getting his own house in order to protect people in the US"

Wheeler’s responsibility as EPA administrator is to the United States, where he has worked to roll back clean water regulations.

Back in the USA

Whether from willful or actual ignorance, Wheeler fails to understand the clear connection between climate change and water, and the implications for human well-being. Instead, he appears to imply that pushing for immediate action on climate change somehow impedes efforts to alleviate the global water crisis.

Despite Wheeler’s concern that the issue takes a “back seat” to other environmental issues (read “climate change,” there is a sustained global effort addressing access, even if largely ignored by mainstream American culture (at least until Flint happened).

It is not only failed local governance and aging infrastructure adversely impacting drinking water in the United States, but climate change as well. Climate impacts on water supply are much more complex, systemic and long term. Two leading examples of the climate/water nexus in the U.S. are the Colorado River and the Oguala Aquifer, upon which tens of millions of people depend.

Causes and impacts

It’s not clear which impacts of climate change Wheeler refers to are “50 to 75 years out”. Whatever those impacts may be, their causes are with us today. In a society focused on short-term results and a shrinking attention spans, the idea that anything we do or don’t do now will make any difference half a century hence makes our minds explode, but it’s the bargain we’ve made.

Wheeler is an ex-coal lobbyist, at least theoretically. If he is most comfortable using a lobbyist approach to leadership, we must demand he lobbies for the mission of the EPA and not what is antithetical to it.

If Andrew Wheeler is serious about working to solve the water crisis, he must also be serious about solving the climate crisis. Pitting one issue against the other as a means of promoting the political agenda of a clearly anti-environmental administration is unacceptable.

Image credit: Tim J Keegan, courtesy Flickr

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