WASHINGTON (CN) – Downplaying the threat of climate change, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an interview Wednesday that the nation’s focus should be on a priority he believes is more pressing: potable water.
“We have 1,000 children die every day worldwide because they don’t have safe drinking water,” Wheeler said in a televised interview with CBS correspondent Major Garrett on Wednesday.
The interview comes just ahead of a new international clean water program the former coal lobbyist and current agency head will soon roll out.
According to the World Health Organization, roughly 2 billion people around the world use a drinking water source contaminated with feces, causing some 502,000 deaths each year from diarrhea, cholera, dysentery and other related illnesses.
“We know what goes into a crisis like this,” Wheeler said.
This crisis is also one that can be resolved quickly, he said, especially if the World Bank and United Nations shift their focus to clean water access instead the looming impacts of climate change.
Clean water, however, is inextricably linked to climate change, according to the United Nations.
“Water is the primary medium through which we will feel the effects of climate change. Water availability is becoming less predictable in many places and increased incidences of flooding threaten to destroy water points and sanitation facilities and contaminate water sources,” according to a report by UN Water, an offshoot of the international body.
But Wheeler said Wednesday “most of the threats” from climate change are still “50 to 75 years out.”
His statement stands in stark contrast to the real-time effects of climate change today, like the perfect storm of unusually heavy rain and massive amounts of snowmelt which flooded the frozen soil in the Midwest and parts of eastern plains last week.
Warming sea water fueled the 2017 hurricane season, which ravaged the southern United States and leveled Puerto Rico. And drier forests fueled seemingly endless wildfires that have plagued the western United States, killing 138 people over two years and causing more than $9 billion in property damage.
Wheeler said Wednesday he has “frustration with the current dialogue around environmental issues” because “water issues often take a backseat.”
But the dialogue on climate change requires urgency, according to last year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The report estimates the world has just a scant 12 years to manage the threat of climate change or it could find itself at a point of no return to slow or stop significant destruction to the land, sea and air.
Like his predecessor Scott Pruitt, Wheeler has also moved to roll back or weaken a variety of environmental regulations, including some climate change programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions launched under former President Barack Obama.
But in February, during an interview with ABC, Wheeler said the administration will roll out new regulations later this year aimed at decreasing emissions while replacing old rules. A new policy aimed at improving clean car standards is also on the horizon, he said.
The new plans, however, come after more than two years of arguable inaction on climate change and the appointment of staff at the EPA who deny climate science like John Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama who was placed on an EPA scientific advisory board.
Historically, Christy has said he believes the planet would “benefit” from greenhouse gas emissions.
President Donald Trump has also tapped controversial Princeton physics professor William Happer to lead a presidential committee on climate change. Happer once likened climate science to Nazi propaganda.
“The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews,” Happer said during a 2014 interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
Wheeler’s speculative tone on the threat of climate change Wednesday also echoes feedback President Trump received in a letter this week from dozens of think tanks, anti-climate science activists and other organizations.
Published on Monday, leaders from the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to name a few, wrote to the president citing their concern over the integrity of climate science research conducted under the auspices of the Presidential Committee on Climate Change.
“If the defenders are confident that the science contained in official reports is robust, then they should welcome a review that would finally put to rest the doubts that have been raised,” the letter stated.
In a statement on Wednesday, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune slammed Wheeler’s remarks on CBS, saying his comments were akin to “greenhouse gaslighting.”
“From his inadequate PFAS action plan to rolling back clean water and climate safeguards, Wheeler isn’t protecting our drinking water or climate. He’s leading the attack on the vital public safety protections in service of big polluters,” Brune said.