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WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of State John Kerry charged Thursday that the Trump administration was using the coronavirus pandemic as a cover to weaken key environmental regulations that will “kill more Americans.”
“It’s a tragedy. It’s stupid. It’s absolutely counterproductive,” Kerry said during an interview on Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast when asked about the Trump administration’s controversial decision that day to loosen rules on the release of mercury and other toxic chemicals from coal and oil-fired power plants.
“George Orwell never conceived of quite such a topsy-turvy situation,” he added. “And I don’t think anybody’s ever dreamt we’d have a president who’s quite such an enemy of common sense and facts and science.”
Kerry, who recently launched a bipartisan coalition to fight climate change, made the comments during a lengthy interview in which he also lashed out at President Trump’s decision to freeze funding for the World Health Organization. Kerry called it “the last thing” the president should be doing.
Noting Trump’s criticism of the WHO for failing to adequately alert the world to the danger from the coronavirus’s spread in China, Kerry responded: “I wouldn’t say our Congress is working very effectively. There are a whole bunch of institutions here that aren’t working effectively. And so don’t be surprised that you find a hiccup here or there in some international institution.”
But, he added, the WHO should actually be “strengthened” with more funding if the United States wants to be prepared for the next pandemic. “This is the moment they need to be fully funded, and even plussed up in terms of their budget,” Kerry said. “And when the president pulls out support for the WHO, he’s not just hurting them immediately in terms of their budget. … He is hurting us, because the World Health Organization is critical to managing the health crises of the world. And if you don’t want the next pandemic to hurt us, the last thing you ought to do is be defunding the World Health Organization.”
Kerry, who served as President Barack Obama’s chief diplomat and is now a strong backer of Joe Biden, founded his new bipartisan coalition, World War Zero, last fall in an effort to galvanize public support for programs to combat climate change, portraying it as both a national security and a public health crisis that poses an existential threat to the planet. He had recruited a wide variety of former public officials and celebrities to join the effort, including Democratic former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and Republican former Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and John Kasich of Ohio with the call of holding town halls and other events around the country aimed at mobilizing public action.
Kerry readily acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic “has cut off our ability to be able to do significant people events” and forced his group to plan “virtual” events, including some planned for next week on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
He also acknowledged that the worldwide lockdowns to combat the virus have led to a recent drop in carbon emissions that could be helpful in the battle against climate change. “People can see blue sky for the first time in years,” he said. But, he added that these were only temporary moves that in no way negate the need for a similar wartime mobilization to achieve his group’s goal of “net zero” carbon emissions in the United States by 2050.
But Kerry reserved his strongest criticism for the Trump administration’s moves to loosen environmental rules, as most recently displayed in the weakening of regulations governing mercury emissions.
The EPA announced the proposed new rules on Thursday, saying that they were designed to recalculate the costs and benefits of curbing mercury pollution. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler insisted the new rules would not result in any increase in mercury emissions. But environmental lawyers said they would shift the way the benefits from curbing emissions are tallied, making it far easier to roll back regulations on emissions in ways that have been strongly advocated by coal industry executives.
“There are reasons that those rules were put in place — because mercury kills people, because these pollutants kill people,” Kerry said.
“The insidiousness of the Trump administration using the coronavirus moment as cover — where people are highly preoccupied with health and safety and their lives — and they’re attacking these rules,” he said.
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