Andrew Wheeler was speaking at the Cambridge Union, before travelling to Brussels and the G7.Philipp Köhler

Arriving in the press room flanked by secret service and his deputy chief of staff, Andrew Wheeler, Administrator of the US EPA, introduces himself by handshake to all in the room before relaxing into a seat at the head of the table.

The Environmental Protection Agency, of which Wheeler has been Administrator since February 2019, having been acting Administrator since July 2018, was set up by Nixon in 1970. It was created in response to growing concerns about the impact of humans on the environment. It is responsible for regulating and enforcing environmental protection standards, as well as working to reduce pollution and conduct research into environmental issues.

Wheeler begins our discussion by emphasising that he is not a climate change denier: “do humans contribute to the climate? Yes … Has the climate always changed? Yes.” He instead insists that there are more important issues for the EPA to be focussing on.

Wheeler states “no I would not say it's an emergency”

Since being appointed as the replacement to Scott Pruitt, his scandal-ridden predecessor who denied that humans were responsible for climate change, Wheeler has made clean water his priority.

Wheeler makes the case that the tools required to tackle climate change are not as available today as those tools necessary to ensure water safety. Quoting a UN statistic that 1000 children die a day from a lack of access to clean drinking water, Wheeler makes a convincing argument  that there is a need for the United States to play a greater role in ensuring the global provision of clean drinking water. However, he places this against the wider issue of climate change, which he would rate “about an 8 or 9” on “a scale of one to ten” when it comes to pressing issues.

Protesters outside the Union held up a banner referencing Wheeler's links to the coal industry.Hassan Raja

Throughout his time at the Union, Wheeler accepts that climate change “is a concern” but that it must be set against other problems. It appears strange that someone so concerned for those seeking clean water would not place climate change alongside it at the top of their list of priorities. We make little progress over the course of our interview in ascertaining why the Agency can’t go all out on tackling both.

After a rattle through his views on how all energy sources from coal to solar have a downside, including a detour onto his views on wind turbines and bird strikes, we move to the political aspects of climate discourse.

With MPs voting to declare a “climate emergency” on the day we meet Wheeler, we ask him whether he would characterise global warming in this way. Initially he instantly pivots, yet again,  to water safety: “I think a bigger emergency is water.”

However when we press him on this, Wheeler states “no I would not say it's an emergency” - a comment which evokes visible concern from his deputy chief of staff and communications adviser.

Despite Wheeler’s Union Jack socks, it is clear that views on the urgency of climate change across the pond are becoming ever more divergent from those in the UK. Michael Gove, Wheeler’s counterpart who he will meet at the G7 summit for environment ministers, this weekend, proudly proclaimed to the House of Commons yesterday that the British government “recognise that the situation is an emergency”.

Whilst not denying climate change, Wheeler simply denies it the urgency that the scientific community and those already affected demand. In this regard, his approach is more difficult to directly contradict with facts or stats, but it is clear why Trump, a man with a history of climate change denial, nominated him to his position.

Wheeler speaking to journalists with his Union Jack socks visible.Philipp Köhler

We mention the comments of Greta Thunberg, the figurehead of the new movement focused on treating climate change as an emergency, that Trump was "obviously … not listening to the science and to what [climate activists] have to say, so I wouldn't be able to change his mind." Despite not initially recognising the name, after showing him a picture on our laptop, he claims he does know who she is and that he would “absolutely” be willing to meet her, “I will meet with just about anybody”.

Much has been made in the media of Wheeler’s past as a coal lobbyist - is he a ‘wheeler and dealer’, one could ask -  something which Wheeler bemoans. He suggests that those writing pieces about his coal past ignore the fact that during his time as a lobbyist he represented a variety of different sectors across the energy industry.

Nevertheless, and despite his insistence that his years working in federal government should not be discounted, Wheeler did move straight from a eight year stint lobbying on behalf of coal companies to being in charge of regulating them. However, despite stumbling over his words, looking to his communications officer for support, he is clear he doesn’t “believe lobbying is a problem, as long as it's disclosed and it's up front.”

Campaigning in 2016, Wheeler’s current boss Donald Trump stood on a platform of ‘draining the swamp’ of self-serving lobbyists in Washington. In a slip of the tongue trying to ask Wheeler his views on this, one of us asks him whether he is part of “the swamp or the drainage”. Amid laughter in the room, Wheeler says he is neither, rather “I’m part of the solution.” The EPA administrator is keen on solutions, that’s for sure, but the issue running unresolved through our interview is an agreement on what the main problems are.

Wheeler maintains that the two main inequalities which concern him and his agency are access to electricity and clean water. Yet, as we point out, climate change has a disproportionately great impact upon developing nations, especially those in low-lying geographical areas.


Mountain View

In pictures: Trump’s environment head blockaded inside Union

Continuing to argue that inequalities in electricity and water access are more important, we raise the example of the Maldives, which is predicted to be entirely underwater by 2100. Would electricity access be a more pressing concern for the Maldives too? Accusing us of putting words into his mouth, Wheeler offers a fudged response, referencing “adaptations … that are in many instances cheaper and easier to implement than reducing CO2.”

As time runs out both for the planet and our interview, Wheeler leaves the room to enter the din of the Union chamber. The noise of Extinction Rebellion activists outside indicates that they are not impressed by the man who identifies himself as neither swamp nor drainage.

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