Other segments from the episode on January 20, 2021
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The drama, fear and security concerns surrounding today's inauguration and the shock of the January 6 insurrection have consumed the attention of so many Americans. Meanwhile, more quietly in the background, the Trump administration went on what The Washington Post describes as a spree of environmental rollbacks of rules affecting oil and gas, drilling, mining and logging, along with energy efficiency and standards and restrictions on toxic chemicals. Trump finalized more than two dozen energy and environmental policies since he lost the election. Joe Biden has said he's planning a series of executive actions starting on Day 1 to undo Trump administration environmental policies.
Our guest, Juliet Eilperin, is a senior national affairs correspondent at The Washington Post, focusing on climate and the environment. She was part of a team at the Post that won a Pulitzer Prize last year for reporting on climate change. She's been reporting on the regulatory changes Trump enacted at the agencies that oversee the environment and public lands. Eilperin has also been following Biden's plans regarding the environment and climate change and his related staffing choices, including the new position of special presidential envoy on climate change - position to be filled by John Kerry - and a senior director for environmental justice. Juliet Eilperin is also the author of the 2006 book "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning The House Of Representatives." We recorded our interview yesterday.
Juliet Eilperin, welcome to FRESH AIR. So Trump finalized more than two dozen energy and environmental policies since he lost the election. What are a few of the most significant policy changes just since the election?
JULIET EILPERIN: One of the biggest ones was, for example, the auctioning off of drilling leases to extract oil and gas from the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That happened on January 6, the same day as the Capitol siege. And so it really didn't get that much attention from the public at that point, even though there's been a four decade-long fight over whether to protect this huge area, which is home to a host of wildlife, sacred to Indigenous people, but also a vast reservoir of oil and gas.
Then their, you know, incredibly detailed but significant rules such as energy efficiency standards for the home furnaces and water heaters that we use to stay warm during the winter - at the request of the gas industry, the Energy Department allowed less efficient appliances to stay on the market. And then there's things like the habitat for the northern spotted owl in the Pacific northwest. The Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Agency decided to cut protected habitat for this species, which is facing extinction, by 3.4 million acres recently.
GROSS: So Joe Biden has opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has pledged to permanently protect it. What can he do to undo what the Trump administration just did in expediting approval to lease more than 550,000 acres there?
EILPERIN: It's a good question, and the answer is not entirely clear right now. One of the key questions is whether the Interior Department, which has been racing to finalize these leases before noon on Inauguration Day, completes that task. And if they do grant these leases, they will surely be subject to a court challenge. So there's a question of - they'll certainly - a judge will have to weigh in on whether the leases were properly granted. But, you know, if, for example, they are finished, and they are seen as legally binding, that will present a greater challenge to the new administration than, say, some of these other last-minute decisions. Certainly, there will be a lawsuit arguing that, for example, the leasing program was rushed, that it was inappropriate.
And so, ultimately, there will be a federal judge or multiple judges that will weigh in on that question. That will be really the first test of whether that can be reversed. If, for example, the leases do stand, then the new administration can certainly impose some pretty tough restrictions on how drilling would happen in this area, and that might deter anyone from investing the time and money to make it happen.
Alternatively, one option would be that the administration - the Biden administration - could buy out these leases. That would be costly for taxpayers, and it's unclear whether the Alaska State Agency - which was really the main bidder on the roughly 550,000 acres that were leased - whether they'd be willing to sell the rights of the leases. But there is a precedent for that, that this has happened in places including Montana, where after years of wrangling, you know, the owner of rights to drill on public land has decided that it makes more sense to get some money out of the deal and give up the right to drill. So those are some of the things we'll be watching in the months and years ahead.
GROSS: So it was expected that the leases to develop the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would go for a lot of money, but that's not what happened. The leases sold for, like, a fraction of what was expected. What's the significance of that?
EILPERIN: It is really reflecting a couple of major factors that are affecting oil and gas drilling, especially in some of these relatively pristine places that matter to many Americans and people across the world. So the first factor is that there's been a public pressure campaign waged on the part of opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to convince major oil companies, banks, insurers not to invest in these kinds of controversial environmental projects. And we absolutely saw an impact. There wasn't a single major oil and gas company that bid on these leases. Half a dozen major banks in the United States and half a dozen major banks in Canada said they wouldn't finance any of these operations.
So part of what we're seeing is that environmentalists are enlisting the private sector in trying to curb oil and gas development. The second is simply the economics of fossil fuel development in an era where climate change is widely accepted as a serious risk, and oil prices are relatively low. It's expensive to drill in these remote areas.
And so what you saw is there really wasn't an appetite on the part of the private sector. So even if there is, you know, these changes in who controls the White House or Congress, what we're seeing is that it's not necessarily translating into a huge shift on the ground where people actually have to make hard business decisions. But you raise a really important point, because when Congress authorized this drilling in 2017, they said that these two leases combined would raise roughly $1.8 billion, so, you know, close to a billion dollars for each sale. And what we saw is that it only raised 14 million. In almost every case, the bid was the minimum possible amount you could bid, which is $25 dollars an acre.
GROSS: That's a huge difference - like, 14 million compared to something-billion.
EILPERIN: Yeah, 14 million to, like, say, 900 million. I mean, it's extraordinary. And what it means is that obviously the American taxpayers and, in fact, Alaskans who benefit from half the proceeds are not getting the windfall that politicians promised them when they did open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to development.
GROSS: And what's the significance of development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in terms of climate change?
EILPERIN: It has tremendous implications for a number of factors. One is, of course, for a number of the species that live there. The one that certainly draws plenty of attention are polar bears who rely on the southern Beaufort Sea most of the time. But because of shrinking sea ice, they're spending more time on land. And federal scientists have estimated that at least a third of the dens that female polar bears need, you know, over the winter and to give birth lie on the area that's been slated for development. So there's, you know, ongoing studies in terms of how the disturbance of oil and gas drilling could affect these female polar bears and their offspring. But clearly, they're already in peril. And this would complicate it.
In addition, of course, when you look at the oil and gas that's extracted from these areas - and we're talking about, you know, for example, Interior Secretary Bernhardt himself has predicted that if you got oil and gas drilling up and running, it could run for, say, half a century in this area - that will emit a huge number of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, ultimately, when you think about the oil and gas that would be taken out of the refuge and then, ultimately, burned, whether that's in cars or factories or other industrial operations.
GROSS: So - you know, in terms of the Trump administration creating all these new regulations that open things up to drilling and development in the final days of the Trump administration, and acknowledging that Trump was basically absent during the final days of the Trump administration, do you have any sense of how much Trump cares one way or another about the environment? We know he's been kind of a climate denier. He said it was a hoax. He also called himself a great environmentalist. So - I mean, who knows? But do you have a sense of, like, whether he really cares one way or another about environmental issues?
EILPERIN: The sense that my colleagues and I have gotten from covering him is he cares about some of these big-ticket items. For example, he was invested in opening up the refuge to drilling because it was something that no president had accomplished in four decades, including several Republicans. And so he took a great deal of pride in the fact that he had achieved this. And so that is something that he talked about. He also, for example, was somewhat interested in the fact that he shrunk national monuments that were established by Barack Obama. And again, when aides would tell him that a policy was done by the Obama administration, he had some interest in, for example, doing that because he felt like it was rebuking his predecessor.
And then when it came to the coal industry, President Trump has always felt like coal miners are an important part of his constituencies. And so he was open to doing things like that. But when it came to a number of these things including, you know, energy efficiency rules or, you know, a permitting decision like the highway that we discussed, those are not details that the president immersed himself in or seemed to have any deep interest in.
GROSS: I want to ask you about this. One of Trump's signature campaign promises was to bring back the coal industry. How did that turn out?
EILPERIN: So in fact, what we've seen is, despite President Trump's dogged efforts to bolster the coal industry, what's happened is that roughly 15% of the nation's coal generated capacity has gone out of business under his time in office. And so that's a faster decline in coal capacity in any single presidential term, so even faster than what happened under Barack Obama. And in addition to the plants that have already retired, there's another 73 that had indicated that they will close more coal burning units by the end of the decade.
GROSS: Did Trump ever admit that?
EILPERIN: No. He never talked about that in any detail whatsoever.
GROSS: OK. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Juliet Eilperin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning national affairs correspondent for The Washington Post, focusing on environmental policy and climate change. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "HOME")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Juliet Eilperin. She covers environmental policy and climate change for The Washington Post, where she's a national correspondent. We're talking about Trump's environmental policies, how Biden wants to undo them and what that will take.
So we've been talking about some of the last environmental changes that President Trump made. Let's talk about some of the first things that President Biden has pledged to do. Trump pulled America out of the Paris climate accord. Biden has promised to rejoin the accord on Day 1. And, in fact, because FRESH AIR is broadcast at different times during the day on different stations, it's possible that by the time you hear this, Biden will have already rejoined the climate accord. What is the significance of that?
EILPERIN: It really sends a signal to the world that the United States is going to reengage in climate diplomacy and that it will not only take more significant steps to curb its own carbon output, but it will make this a priority when negotiating with other countries. And so part of it is signaling, of course, what will happen here at home. But just as much, it will show that President Biden, you know, again, and his diplomats - including whether it's John Kerry at the White House or, you know, secretary of state nominee Blinken - that, really, the United States will be pushing major economies across the world to take more significant cuts to curb their own carbon output.
GROSS: So Biden is appointing John Kerry to a new key climate position, special presidential envoy on climate change. Kerry was key in negotiating the Paris climate accord and in convincing other countries to join it. What role does this give Kerry now, this new position?
EILPERIN: It's certainly something that we'll have to see over time because, as you mentioned, it's something new. And he will have both his own staff within the White House who will be working to elevate these issues. But, I think, more than anything else, it's both going to be a combination of him engaging in personal diplomacy - obviously, he will be traveling and meeting with counterparts across the world to try to broker new agreements - but also working with, for example, the rest of the foreign policy establishment in the government, and, for example, looking at what's happening at USAID or at other agencies to see, are we supporting with our dollars the priorities that would help other countries either adapt to the impacts of climate change or take steps to make a transition to clean energy? So I think part of what he'll be doing is also galvanizing action in terms of, you know, our outreach to other countries to help make it easier for other nations to commit to cutting carbon emissions across the world.
GROSS: On Trump's third day in office, he approved the Keystone XL pipeline. And Biden has pledged to cancel it on Day 1. And as I said before, because FRESH AIR is broadcast at different times during the day on different stations, it's possible that Biden will have already canceled the pipeline. But it might take longer than Day 1 for him to actually do it. Why is this pipeline so controversial?
EILPERIN: This pipeline has been, really, a flashpoint on the question of climate change for over a decade. The reason it's so significant is because it will transport the most carbon intense form of oil, which is called heavy bitumen, from the Boreal Forest of Alberta, Canada, all the way down to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. And during President Obama's second term, it really became a litmus test of his commitment to addressing climate change. There was a huge grassroots movement by not only conservationists, but farmers, ranchers and others who opposed this pipeline.
And even though there was considerable pressure to develop it and Obama actually approved one leg of the pipeline, he ultimately rejected the cross-border permit that Keystone XL needed to be fully operational. When Trump came in, as you mentioned, he made it one of his first acts in office to approve the pipeline and speed its construction. But it's been tied up in lawsuits. Now what we will see is that Joe Biden is delivering on a promise he made during the campaign trail to reject its permit outright.
GROSS: And Biden can just do that through an executive order?
EILPERIN: Yes. One of the, actually, really interesting things is that under the Obama administration and for years before, to get one of these cross-border permits, the State Department had to conduct a lengthy process, including an environmental review, to determine whether a cross-border permit was acceptable. President Trump, seeking to expedite pipelines carrying oil and gas, changed the process and made these pipelines and this cross-border permit only subject to presidential approval. So even as Donald Trump worked to make it easier to approve a pipeline to cross international borders, he set it up to make it easier to reject it.
GROSS: Biden has promised to end fossil fuel leasing and drilling on all public land. Can he do that? Does he have the power to do that without Congress?
EILPERIN: It will be extremely difficult both because of, as you mentioned, the issue of Congress, but even more significantly, there are legal requirements that - you know, for example, the federal government has to hold regular lease sales onshore as well as it also holds offshore leases. And this drilling is a huge source of revenue for the federal government. And so there are kind of political as well as economic and legal reasons why it won't be so easy for Joe Biden to simply stop drilling onshore and off in federal lands and waters unilaterally.
In addition, again, there's this question that, for example, the campaign was a little vague in terms of when it says stop all new drilling in federal lands and waters because one of the questions is, if you say you're going to stop all new drilling, does that mean that if there is an oil or gas company with an existing lease, they can't drill that next well even if they already have a lease with the federal government? That's something that will be subject to a court challenge. And it would be difficult for a single president to unilaterally block that.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Juliet Eilperin a senior national affairs correspondent for The Washington Post. We'll talk more about Trump and Biden's environmental policies after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "WASHINGTON POST MARCH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Juliet Eilperin, senior national affairs correspondent for The Washington Post, about Trump's environmental policies, Biden's promise to undo them and what that will take. Eilperin shared a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting at the Post on climate change. Can you explain to us what are some of the things that Biden can do just through executive order to undo Trump's executive orders, and what Biden needs Congress to change?
EILPERIN: Sure. So there are some policies that were adopted - again, whether it's, say, a memo from the interior secretary instructing researchers on how they should calculate the impacts of climate change or whether or not they have to factor in, you know, environmental impacts and certain circumstances - some of those things can be eliminated with the stroke of a pen.
In many cases, however, the Trump administration has been effective in completing rules - in other words, finalizing regulatory changes. And when they do that, that is a much higher bar when you're going to try to overturn it. So either you have to rewrite the rule altogether, which can take months and, in some cases, years, or you can turn to Congress, for example, and use something called the Congressional Review Act. That's a really interesting provision which allows Congress to rescind a regulation that's been finalized within 60 legislative days of its adoption by a majority vote if you have a president who's willing to sign that resolution.
And so this was something that was off the table for Democrats until the Georgia runoff elections. Now that Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the Senate, they would be allowed to wipe out some of the most recently adopted rules that the Trump administration has adopted. So that's another route, although if they wipe out certain rules, it would be difficult to regulate in that area again. So they would likely only use that tool for policy changes that they see as so egregious that they don't see any need to operate in that area in the near future.
GROSS: Joe Biden has called climate change an existential threat. What are some of the other things he said he will do to try to slow climate change?
EILPERIN: It's a good question. He has really talked about promoting renewable energy, and even as he's talking about curbing greenhouse gas emissions from a range of different sources in the United States, he's also discussed the importance of deploying more renewable energy and building more efficient vehicles, particularly electric vehicles. And so these are two areas where you're going to see a lot of activity on the part of the Biden administration because they see a true synergy between, for example, deploying more solar and wind power and putting more electric vehicles on the road and generating American jobs, particularly high-paying jobs. And so when Joe Biden talks about climate change, he often discusses the economic opportunities that can come with some of these policies.
GROSS: You know, it's not just Trump administration environmental regulations that Biden wants to undo. It's the whole atmosphere of information. You know, the Trump administration has been accused of basically cooking reports to downplay any evidence of climate change and to, you know, have those reports be written from the point of view of either climate denial or climate skepticism. Can you talk a little bit about climate-related information during the Trump administration and how reports reflected the climate skepticism of Trump's agencies?
EILPERIN: This has been a huge area of contested terrain under President Trump. What we've really seen is a combination of a few different factors. One is that you have political appointees who have edited reports, press releases, other ways in which federal agencies and the scientists who work for them communicate with the American public.
And there's no question it's had a chilling effect and curbed what kind of information Americans have learned when it comes to climate change and environmental issues. For example, that the U.S. Geological Survey, which is really kind of the premier scientific agency within the Interior Department - what you've seen is that the director there, James Reilly, has, in some instances, edited press releases or weighed in on scientific papers that are being published. In one case that I wrote about with my colleague, Desmond Butler, he suppressed a report about polar bears on the North Slope of Alaska for months until we wrote about it and had obtained a copy of the report.
So - and in other cases, some federal scientists have started to censor themselves because they recognize that if they, for example, put in connections to climate change in some of what they were writing, it would potentially be struck. And so we also have seen this manifest itself. There's a report that comes out every few years, the National Climate Assessment, which, again, informs everyone - from a water manager out west to, you know, your average citizen in the northeast - what's the impact of climate change?
And what we've seen there is a couple of Trump appointees who initially were at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and then switched over in the final days of the Trump administration to the White House. They have been working on selecting the researchers who are going to write this report. And obviously, as these folks have a track record of questioning the severity of climate change, they had been looking for folks who would share some of their views. And so really, we've seen across the federal government a retrenchment on making connections between climate change and its impacts. And so that will be certainly one of the issues that the incoming administration will be looking at.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Juliet Eilperin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning national affairs correspondent for The Washington Post, focusing on environmental policy and climate change. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Juliet Eilperin. She covers environmental policy and climate change for The Washington Post, where she's a senior national correspondent. We're talking about Trump's environmental policies, how Biden wants to undo them and what that will take. We recorded our interview yesterday.
Biden is appointing Deb Haaland to be the head of the Interior Department. She will be the first Native American Cabinet secretary. What is the significance of her being Native American and heading Interior, assuming she's confirmed?
EILPERIN: It really is one of the most significant appointments in terms of the symbolism, given the fact that the Interior Department has such power over the lives of tribal members across this country. There's this historic relationship which in many cases has been fraught. For example, the Interior Department has mismanaged tribal funds that it holds in trust. They have to weigh in on everything from whether there can be a casino permit to kind of Indian schools across the country and, in many instances, how they generate power on tribal lands. And there really has been, in many instances, a breakdown of trust between Native Americans, certainly in some parts of this country, and the Trump administration. And so Deb Haaland, as a member of Congress, has put those issues front and center in her time in public service and is expected to really elevate the issues involving Indian country if she is confirmed by the Senate and takes over the Interior Department.
GROSS: Biden's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency is Michael Regan. He's African American, and he will be the first Black man to head the agency. Tell us about him.
EILPERIN: He's a North Carolina environmental official, the top official under the Democratic governor, who's really worked on a number of high-profile issues, particularly involving environmental justice. This has been one of the things that's defined his tenure. He has worked on, for example, cleaning up coal ash sites where the toxic waste from power plants is stored in ponds near these facilities and can, in instances, spill and pollute waterways across the state. In addition, he's tackled issues such as hog farms and other confined animal feeding operations where, again, you have a significant accumulation of waste, which affects air pollution because ammonia is released into the air, in addition to the fact that you can have that waste that spills. And again, many of these polluting sites are located near communities of color and low-income communities. And so that's something that he certainly made a priority.
At the same time, he had served before joining the North Carolina government at the Environmental Defense Fund, which is an environmental group known for being somewhat more centrist than some of the other green groups. And in that capacity, he had forged certain compromises with business. And so one thing that I've been watching is the fact that some major trade associations here in Washington have been somewhat cautiously optimistic in their comments about the prospect of having Michael Regan head the EPA. I think part of what certainly the business community is looking at with the new administration is whether they can cut some deals on some of these long-standing environmental issues and get some certainty about what will be the rules of the road going forward.
GROSS: Biden is creating a new position, a senior director for environmental justice. What will be the job of the person in that position? Has he chosen the person yet?
EILPERIN: Joe Biden has chosen a person who will serve in that position. That's Cecilia Martinez. She's a very interesting environmental justice advocate who comes out of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. And she's been advising the Biden campaign for some time of how it can tackle the disproportionate pollution burden that Americans of color and disadvantaged Americans face. And so one of the interesting things - one of my colleagues talked to her this summer, and she talked about how any initiative the Biden administration pursues, in her words, needs to really have some teeth in it so that the different federal agencies not only develop their plans and collaborate but there is accountability. Now, Miss Martinez will be the person holding the government accountable for what it does to address the issue of environmental racism.
GROSS: I want to ask you about carbon emissions - very big issue when it comes to climate change, and even people who agree that we have to cut back on carbon emissions often disagree on what the plan should be. And then if you get into cap and trade, there's so many kind of technical details about how to do that. Do you have a sense of how Biden wants to cut back on carbon emissions?
EILPERIN: Well, certainly in many cases, the - he'll be using carrots as well as some sticks. So as we've discussed, the incoming Biden administration is really going to promote renewable energy projects and, again, more efficient vehicles and, you know, innovations in transportation as well as energy efficiency, weatherization, things like that, which, you know, in some cases, would involve, you know, federal funding. In addition, for example, they'll look at what kind of infrastructure is going to be rebuilt across the country and try to see what are ways you can put environmentally friendly infrastructure in place that will lock in some greenhouse gas emission cuts for the years to come.
While they'll certainly use the stick of federal regulation and that will be a way that, for example, they'll limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources of pollution, they won't be putting, for example, a nationwide price on greenhouse gas emissions. That's something that many experts say would be required to make the kind of deep cuts that scientists have been calling for. But that would absolutely require congressional cooperation. And right now, there just aren't the votes in Congress to establish any sort of national price on carbon.
GROSS: You're a senior national correspondent for The Washington Post. You covered Congress in the past. In 2006, you wrote a book about partisanship in Congress called "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning The House Of Representatives." A lot has happened since 2006. If it was partisan in 2006, it's really partisan, really partisan now in Congress. What are some of the biggest changes you've seen since you wrote that book?
EILPERIN: Really, as you mentioned, the polarization has just become so much more intense. It's really striking when you see how difficult it is for, for example, lawmakers of opposing parties to come together and reach compromise on some of these really fundamental issues. And so, you know, there are certainly some exceptions to it. There are rare instances, you know, where you can see Republicans and Democrats working on ways of addressing some of these policies that I write about day in and day out. But what I've really been struck by is that the polarization has become so severe and, frankly, politicians are so worried about the blowback that they'll get from their political base, particularly on the Republican side, that it's become much harder for them to work together and, frankly, produce meaningful change.
I mean, one of the things - and, you know, this really speaks to kind of what we've been talking about this whole time - is that all of the action has moved over to the executive branch. Because Congress has become so dysfunctional, it's ceded its authority. And that's one of the really interesting questions where we're faced with this situation where whoever controls the White House has a huge impact on policy, particularly in the area of the environment, which I cover, because it's just impossible for lawmakers to work with each other anymore. And so that's something that is very different from even when I was starting to write that book.
GROSS: So in 2019, you shared a Pulitzer Prize at The Washington Post for a series of articles on climate change. And you reported something that I found that's just so interesting that one of the biggest changes in climate was actually not at the North Pole. I mean, the North Pole is the biggest, but alongside of that was, like, the northeast, places like New York, New Jersey. And although living in Philly, I have noticed that the winters have seemed a little bit warmer. I was really surprised to see that that was one of the most significant areas in the winter for climate warming. Could you just, like, take a minute or two - just a minute or two - to explain why, like, New York and New Jersey are two of the biggest places for climate change right now?
EILPERIN: Sure. And this was something that surprised us, too. When we crunched the numbers, particularly my colleagues Chris Mooney and John Muyskens were looking at these different databases, and we were able to identify what was the part of the lower 48 that had warmed the fastest since the late 1800s. We discovered that, in fact, it was this sliver of the Northeast, including, as you mentioned, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island. And what it really showed is that, again, when we drilled down and we looked at individual seasons and what had happened, you know, in different months of the year, it was, as you mentioned, in some ways, the death of winter, which is just not to say that there isn't winter in the Northeast, but the warming had been pronounced in winter. And as a result, it had really had a huge effect on the region.
And I think, you know, one of the really interesting things is if you can let the science lead you to a place, then you can discover the stories behind it. And so what we ended up seeing is everything from the impact of sea level rise that's transforming Rhode Island, which is part of what I wrote about, or the fact that in Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey, this annual ice fishing contest that they have has become untenable in many years. And in fact, the algae is so pronounced during the summer that in some cases they have to shut down tourism there. And so it really was this almost - it crept up on people.
And as we went across the country and went to what we call these 2C hot spots, places which had warmed by two degrees Celsius since the late 1800s, what we found is that if you talk to people about it, they would recognize some of these changes. But again, they had been so gradual that in some cases they hadn't recognized how profound the shift had been. And I think that's something that we're all discovering with climate change right now and that it's important to take stock of what's different. Because when the baseline changes over time, you might not notice it. But then once you look at it with fresh eyes, you can really see how much has changed.
GROSS: Juliet Eilperin, thank you so much for talking with us.
EILPERIN: Thanks, Terry. It's been a real pleasure.
GROSS: Juliet Eilperin is a senior national affairs correspondent for The Washington Post. We recorded our interview yesterday. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new film "Spoor," which he says is a fiercely offbeat Polish thriller whose heroine is unlike any woman you will see on screen. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HARRY ALLEN'S "AFTER YOU'VE GONE")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the Polish thriller "Spoor," a retired engineer finds herself at odds with a hunting community that's been hit with a bunch of baffling murders. Our critic at large, John Powers, says "Spoor," directed by Agnieszka Holland, is a wild blend of mystery, fable, black comedy and social activism. It's available on demand this Friday. Here's his review.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back during the Cold War, the movies we saw from the Eastern European bloc were steeped in politics. They critiqued, more or less obliquely, life under communism. Thirty years later, the Berlin Wall is long gone. But the films from Eastern Europe haven't lost their political edge. These days, they're critical of post-communist societies that remain harsh and oppressive. This criticism takes audaciously radical form in "Spoor," a fiercely offbeat Polish thriller whose heroine is unlike any woman you will see on screen.
Based on the terrific novel "Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead" by the 2018 Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, it was directed by the celebrated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, along with her daughter, Kasia Adamik. The result is a film that's strange, darkly funny and powerful. Imagine a pulpy murder story that's also a utopian fable about feminism, social justice and ecology. Agnieszka Mandat stars as Janina Duszejko, a retired engineer who lives in the mountainous countryside of southwest Poland, along with her two dogs. Devoted to astrology and the poetry of William Blake, Janina is an instinctive defender of the weak who's especially tormented by the suffering of animals. She despises the culture that leads men to abuse women and to gleefully shoot deer, wild boar, pheasants and rabbits. When she complains about poachers killing game out of season, the police treat her like a crazy, old bat. When she complains about it to the village priest, he tells her it's blasphemy to care so much about animals.
Soon, mysterious things start happening. Janina's dogs disappear. Then she and a loner named Matoga discover the murdered body of the loathsome neighbor she calls Bigfoot. As the police investigation proceeds, Janina spends her time with a small community of outsiders, including a police cyber guy who has seizures, an innocent young woman forced to work at a brothel and a visiting Czech entomologist who's studying one of the local beetles. Meanwhile, more corpses start appearing. But there are no human footsteps surrounding the dead bodies, only animal footprints. Could these wild creatures possibly have done it? If all of this sounds a tad delirious, it is deliberately so.
Rather like "Taxi Driver," which showed us an infernal New York City that reflected Travis Bickle's psyche, "Spoor" gives us rural Poland as it feels to Janina. Working with more stylistic panache than ever before, Holland does a superb job of heightening everything - the majesty of the mist-swaddled countryside, the thrillingly magical visitation of wild animals, the spiritual corruption of those in power. And in Mandat's riveting performance, Janina dives deep into her own volcanic nature. Fueled by visions and moral rage, she lives with fearless intensity, whether teaching English to school children, yelling at the cops, flirting with the entomologist or sobbing over a wild boar that's been shot and simply left to die.
In an earlier time, her weirdness might have gotten her thought of as a witch. Her rebelliousness is clearly understood by Tokarczuk and Holland, who both know what it is to refuse to go along with those in power. Now 72, Holland left Poland 40 years ago after her films were harshly censored by the Communist Party, beginning a remarkable career in the West that includes everything from Holocaust films to Henry James adaptations to episodes of "The Wire." Despite her Nobel, Tokarczuk is hugely controversial in her home country for speaking out against the current Polish government run by the nativist, overtly authoritarian Law and Justice party.
Although "Spoor" has one foot in classic noir, it steers clear of that genre's attraction to defeat and destruction. Even as she plunges into the darkness, Janina won't let herself be trapped there. Living her politics, she risks her life to fight what she thinks is a culture of death. Building to an ending worthy of a fairy tale, "Spoor" makes you feel just how monstrous human beings can be. Yet it also suggests that fighting against cruelty can bring you back into the light.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new film "Spoor" directed by Agnieszka Holland. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, some facts and myths about exercise. Is sitting really the new smoking? Does running ruin your knees? We'll talk with Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman, who studies the biomechanics of Americans and of indigenous people living as hunter-gatherers. His new book is called "Exercised." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL - INSTRUMENTAL")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.