The United States has pledged to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, but Russia’s war in Ukraine set off a bonanza for liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Today, we look at how energy companies and the Biden administration are backsliding on promises to move away from oil and gas.

In response to Europe’s need for natural gas as it lost access to Russian supplies, America’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, Cheniere Energy, is expanding its facilities in Corpus Christi, Texas. Reporter Elizabeth Shogren talks with local residents who are organizing to fight the expansion and discovers that many LNG contracts are not with Europe after all.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to end drilling for oil and gas on federal land and offshore waters. And on his first day in office, he froze new drilling leases. But the administration backtracked and instead has increased the number of leases it’s offering to oil and gas companies. Host Al Letson gets a report card on Biden’s climate policy from two experts who are tracking his environmental record.

For many years, prominent Republicans disputed the existence of climate change and fought against environmental policies. That didn’t sit well with a young conservative college student, who in 2016 tried to put climate change on his party’s agenda. Reveal reporter Jonathan Jones talks with the founder of the American Conservation Coalition and tracks how successful the group has been in getting Republican legislators to address climate change.

Republicans and Democrats may struggle to find common ground on addressing climate change. But for a tiny, predominantly Indigenous community in Alaska, it’s already too late. Reporter Emily Schwing went to Chevak to report on the damage from a recent storm and soon discovered a problem with the federal government’s response. Many residents don’t speak English as their first language, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is required to translate disaster relief notices into local languages. But FEMA bungled the translations, delaying much-needed aid and sowing distrust.

Dig Deeper

Read: Life in the Drill Zone

Listen: Emission Control

Watch: ACC President Benji Backer’s Testimony Before Congress


Reporters: Elizabeth Shogren, Jonathan Jones, Emily Schwing | Editor: Taki Telonidis | Fact checking: Nikki Frick and Kim Freda | Production manager: Steven Rascón | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production assistance: Kathryn Styer Martinez | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Elizabeth Shogren | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson 

Special thanks to Bruce Gil, Brian Rackham at Northern Arizona University, Katharine Mieszkowski, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. When Russia roared into Ukraine last winter, countries in western Europe braced themselves too. Russia’s missiles and bombs were aimed at cities in Ukraine, but other Europeans feared the war would disrupt daily life for them, especially in countries like Germany, that imported lots of Russian natural gas to run businesses and heat homes. But what was bad news for Europe was an opportunity for a U.S. company called Cheniere Energy.
Jack Fusco:We just announced today, another $7 billion expansion at our Corpus Christi facility. We’re already the largest exporter of LNG in America. We’re the second largest in the world, and we’re gaining on that.
Al Letson:Jack Fusco is the CEO of Cheniere, which is in the business of exporting LNG, liquefied natural gas. Turning natural gas into a liquid makes it possible to load it onto tankers and ship it around the world.
Jack Fusco:And we’re sending out two cargos a day and it’s going to Europe, and we’re just trying to help.
Al Letson:Before the war, his company was having a hard time lining up customers it needed to expand its business. After Russia’s invasion, investment has flowed in. And in September as Europe was getting ready for winter-
Jack Fusco:Thanks for having me on the show.
Al Letson:CNBC’s Brian Sullivan invited Fusco onto his show to talk about the LNG his company was sending to Europe.
Jack Fusco:Each cargo is enough heat for a million European people for a month.
Brian Sullivan:I’m not saying this to stroke your ego, or LNG, or your company or employees, but you guys are literally… you and others, by the way, there’s others, that are saving Europe.
Al Letson:Whether Cheniere is saving Europe is debatable, but one thing that’s not is that the natural gas export industry is booming, and it’s happening right at the same time the U.S. is pledging to move away from fossil fuels to fight climate change. Countries around the world have committed to try and limit the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists say that can’t happen unless we dramatically cut back how much oil and gas we burn. Reporter Elizabeth Shogren wanted to know what LNG’s success means for the battle against climate change and for communities near LNG operations. So she headed to the Texas Gulf Coast, home of one of Cheniere’s two LNG terminals.
Elizabeth Shogr…:I wanted to see what an LNG operation looks like. I tried for many months to get a tour from Cheniere, no dice. So I came up with another way in. On a sunny morning, I meet with Tom Daly at a waterfront neighborhood near Cheniere’s export terminal.
Tom Daley:What you really see at seven in the morning, is the life of the bay. The shrimp boats are out there. You see some fishermen going out. You see the birds, and the dolphins, and the industrial shipping and stuff like that. It’s just the pace of the bay, and it’s really beautiful.
Elizabeth Shogr…:The tide is low, so we jumped down off the dock to get into Tom’s boat.
Tom Daley:There you go. Probably the best seat’s going to be up in the front of the boat, okay? We’ll take it nice and easy and just going to cruise along there.
Elizabeth Shogr…:The flat white boat skims across the water. Tom uses it for recreation. His work, like a lot of folks around here, is in the oil industry. We motor past Tom’s neighborhood, Ingleside on the Bay. The houses are painted yellow, pink, turquoise and lime green.
Errol Summerlin:Oh, and there’s some rosette spoonbills. The pink ones over there in the marsh.
Elizabeth Shogr…:That’s Errol Summerlin, who’s also on board. He’s just spotted some large birds wading along the shore. They look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book. Then the scenery of abruptly shifts. Big industrial plants now line the shore. We approach a tanker as big as a skyscraper lying on its side. On the deck are four big white domes lined up in a row.
Errol Summerlin:There’s an LNG ship right there. Fuji LNG.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Errol’s a retired legal aid attorney and local environmental advocate. Behind the ship, we see a huge industrial complex with pipelines, storage tanks, and three big facilities called trains. That’s where the gas is purified, compressed and chilled.
Errol Summerlin:You see those massive things there. Each one of those represents a train, essentially. They bring in the natural gas and they freeze it, okay? What’s the temperature? It’s like minus 300 or something. It’s very, very cold. And that turns it into a liquid.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Liquefying natural gas shrinks it to about one 600th its original volume. Imagine shoving the contents of a five gallon gasoline can into something the size of a hotel’s shampoo bottle.
Errol Summerlin:And then they store it, and then they ship it out.
Elizabeth Shogr…:The whole process takes enormous amounts of energy. Six gas turbines power each train, each with its own exhaust stack. As we motor along, Errol points out gigantic fuel tanks emblazoned with big black letters that spell out Cheniere. There’s a network of pipes that connects those tanks with the ship.
Errol Summerlin:These are all the pipes that take the LNG to the docks here for loading.
Elizabeth Shogr…:This whole operation runs 24 seven, and they’ve already broken ground on that expansion Cheniere’s Jack Fusco was talking about. Europe needs fuel now, but this infrastructure is so big and complex, Cheniere expects it will take three years before the first shipments go out. It won’t be heating European homes this winter, next winter or the winter after that, which makes some people wonder if the remedy fits the problem it’s supposed to fix.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Errol raised his kids in a suburb of Corpus Christi called Portland, then moved away for work. He returned a few years ago to retire, and couldn’t believe how industrial his town was becoming. Nowadays, no matter where you are in Portland, at night you can see a gigantic tower with a flame on top.
Errol Summerlin:And when Cheniere first started, just before they started the flare, they went to the city council in Portland and said, “We’re going to start flaring. We don’t want anybody to be alarmed, but it could get a hundred, 150 foot high.” And we all just looked at each other like, what?
Elizabeth Shogr…:In 2015, when Cheniere started construction in Texas, it didn’t face much local resistance. Barely anyone had heard of LNG or Cheniere. But Errol says as more fossil fuel complexes started to overwhelm their picturesque bay front, he and others started objecting. They gathered about two dozen neighborhood and environmental groups, and created the Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment. On a rainy day, I meet a leader of one of those groups,
Elida Castillo:Elida Castillo, I’m the program director for Chispa Texas.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Chispa Texas is a new branch of the League of Conservation Voters, a national environmental group. I’m with Elida taking shelter under a small pavilion in a playground in Gregory. It’s a small Latino neighborhood right next to Cheniere.
Elida Castillo:Gregory is, I would say like the epicenter, like ground zero of the industrial buildout.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Elida is trying to raise awareness about the environmental risks from Cheniere and other fossil fuel companies. When the rain lets up, an older woman comes to walk laps. Elida catches up to her.
Elida Castillo:Cheniere, [Spanish].
Elizabeth Shogr…:She tells her Cheniere plans to expand and increase its air pollution.
Elida Castillo:[Spanish].
Elizabeth Shogr…:She explains that the local school board is considering giving Cheniere steep discounts on taxes for an expansion it’s planning decades from now. That would be on top of more than a billion dollars in breaks it’s already getting. Cheniere and its local supporters say despite the discounts, the company has put more than $300 million into local schools.
Elida Castillo:[Spanish].
Elizabeth Shogr…:She says, “You have the power as the people, the power to change how things are.” But in December, the school board approved 140 million in new tax breaks for Cheniere.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Tax breaks aren’t the only incentive Cheniere is getting. It’s getting pollution breaks too from the federal government and the State of Texas. Both see LNG as an economic engine in terms of jobs and leveling the U.S. trade imbalance with other countries. Harmful air pollution comes from Cheniere’s flares and a lot of its other equipment. That bothers Errol Summerlin, who brought it up when we were on the boat.
Errol Summerlin:They have sought amendments to increase their air emissions over the years since they started up, and they’ve been routinely granted. Okay?
Elizabeth Shogr…:Last year, Cheniere again asked for a big increase in how much carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and other pollution the state allows it to release.
Errol Summerlin:Right now in their latest request, we’re challenging it. Okay? We finally said enough is enough.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Cheniere refused to talk with me. But in an email, a spokesperson said the company’s requesting to increase its pollution limits because its operation pollutes more than Cheniere expected it would. The spokesperson stressed that even with the extra pollution, air quality still meets federal standards. The way Errol sees it, as Cheniere expands, its growing air pollution threatens local people’s health. And it’s a climate change disaster.
Errol Summerlin:What’s wrong with the expansion? Well, right now they’re emitting approximately over four million metric tons of greenhouse gases.
Elizabeth Shogr…:That projection from Cheniere for its 2022 emissions, is almost as much as comes from a million cars in a year.
Errol Summerlin:Okay, they’re going to double their capacity, right? Double the emissions as well.
Elizabeth Shogr…:And Cheniere’s here for the long term. LNG infrastructure is so expensive, companies like Cheniere need to lock in purchase agreements with customers for decades into the future. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth the investment.
Errol Summerlin:I like to tell folks that what we do here affects the not only us locally, but affects the world. It affects the planet.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Scientists agree. Recent studies find the long-term buildup of LNG infrastructure incompatible with a rapid transition to renewable energy. We need to wean off fossil fuels to avoid extreme climate change that would bring more severe heat waves, droughts and wildfires, deadlier storms, and flooding in coastal cities. This also worries Elida. During my visit, she wanted to show me something that used to make her feel like her community was part of the climate change solution. We drive to a parking lot and sit in her car. In front of us are dozens of large wind turbines.
Elida Castillo:When we started seeing the wind farms, it was hope of we are going to divest from fossil fuels and we’re going to start investing in renewables.
Elizabeth Shogr…:I see your eyes fill with tears. What’s driving that?
Elida Castillo:Anger. Just this feeling of how did it get this way? This hasn’t been in our community. Unfortunately, what we hear from people is like, “If you don’t like it, move.” And it’s like, I’m sorry, we were here first. And so, we should have a say in what gets built around us. We should have a say in what’s going to affect our health. This is our home, my parents are buried here now. We demand better. And to feel like you’re being taken advantage of, which we are, this is what drives me.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Elida thinks the way to slow down Cheniere is to organize the people in this area to say no, but it’s difficult.
Elida Castillo:They feel like they don’t have power. The lady we spoke with earlier, she’s like, “What can we do? They’re going to do what they want. What can we really do?” And it’s that work that we’re trying to do, to show them you can do a lot.
Elizabeth Shogr…:She’s got her work cut out for her. Their community is next to a port that’s quickly becoming the nation’s biggest funnel for fossil fuel exports. About a fifth of the natural gas produced in the U.S. is exported. More than half of it, LNG.
Arvind Ravikuma…:And if you look at the companies that are exporting, there are not more than a handful.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Arvind Ravikumar is an associate professor at The University of Texas, Austin. He researches the industry with some funding from Cheniere.
Arvind Ravikuma…:And Cheniere, for example, is buying natural gas from U.S. producers that is larger than the combined production of ExxonMobil, Chevron and a few other companies.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Cheniere is buying more gas than all those companies produce together?
Arvind Ravikuma…:Yes.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Wow.
Arvind Ravikuma…:Because they are the largest exporter of LNG in the U.S.
Elizabeth Shogr…:We’re talking about a company and a U.S. industry that didn’t exist until a few years ago. For decades, America didn’t want to export its fossil fuels, because it was trying to become energy independent. Fracking technology made it possible to pull much more oil and gas out of the ground, enough that the Obama administration lifted barriers to LNG exports.
Arvind Ravikuma…:Much of the permits for the LNG operations were given by the Obama administration.
Elizabeth Shogr…:President Barack Obama thought you could have a natural gas boom and address climate change. Cheniere says LNG helps reduce greenhouse gases, by providing an alternative to burning coal, which is dirtier. But there’s a hitch. If natural gas escapes into the air before being burned, it’s much worse for global warming. Natural gas is mostly methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. For the first 20 years, it traps nearly 90 times more heat than carbon dioxide does. In our previous reporting, we showed that lots of methane leaks during drilling, processing and transport. Arvind says a company that buys as much gas as Cheniere can use its leverage to make its supply chain clean up.
Arvind Ravikuma…:And what that does, is it gives them market power to tell these companies, “You need to reduce your emission or I’m going to switch the company that I’m buying gas from.”
Elizabeth Shogr…:The Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on methane. It’s part of how the Biden administration justifies supporting LNG despite its climate impacts. They also think it’s good foreign policy.
Jennifer Granho…:American LNG is an important way to help our allies.
Elizabeth Shogr…:That’s energy secretary Jennifer Granholm, speaking with Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan at a hearing last year.
Jennifer Granho…:We at the Department of Energy have permitted an additional four LNG terminals for export to the EU, and Japan is really interested in forming a relationship on LNG in a stronger way. We are supportive of that.
Dan Sullivan:So buying American LNG would be a good thing, not a bad thing?
Jennifer Granho…:Yes.
Dan Sullivan:Thank you.
Speaker 34:Thank you, Senator Sullivan.
Elizabeth Shogr…:When Elida Castillo hears people talking about LNG helping U.S. allies, it stings.
Elida Castillo:They didn’t talk about how our communities, which are mostly Black and Brown communities, how it’s harming our health.
Elizabeth Shogr…:Alita wants policymakers around the world to know the cost for communities like hers, so she’s taking her message on the road. She’s been to Germany twice, and in November she traveled to Egypt for the United Nations Climate Summit. Alita wanted to meet State Department officials who were holding a meeting with communities hurt by fossil fuel production.
Elida Castillo:And guess who’s not in the room, and guess who’s in that room?
Elizabeth Shogr…:She live streamed being turned away at the door.
Elida Castillo:We’re still trying to get in the room. They’re still not letting us in. Our lives are on the line.
Elida Castillo:Even the Biden administration, which has said that they’re going to do everything to listen to the concerns of environmental justice communities, allowed facilities like Cheniere to increase its exports. So even an administration that does care about climate change, is still not looking at the big picture long-term impacts of this on our environment.
Elizabeth Shogr…:A big irony with LNG is that despite Western Europe’s urgent need for natural gas, Germany and other countries have been reluctant to sign long-term contracts, the kind Cheniere says it needs to justify its expansions. Instead, another country is stepping in and buying up LNG left and right. Not a European ally, but America’s chief economic and geopolitical rival, China. Chinese companies have been quietly locking in LNG shipments from Cheniere that will go on for decades. A recent contract extends into the 2050s. There’s a big problem with that. By then, scientists say we need to have nearly eliminated fossil fuels if we don’t want to see climate related disasters on a much larger scale.
Al Letson:In August, Cheniere filed another request to expand its Texas facility. Those units would not start exporting until 2031 at the earliest. Our story was from reporter Elizabeth Sjogren. When we come back, an environmental report card on President Joe Biden.
Taylor McKinnon:This is not the bold climate action we were promised that got the president elected in the first place, and that the crisis deserves.
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Before natural gas can be turned into LNG, it first needs to be pulled out of the ground. More than 10% of gas and about 24% of oil come from land and offshore waters owned by the federal government. The Trump administration increased drilling leases on federal land, something Joe Biden campaigned against in 2020.
Joe Biden:No more drilling on federal lands, no more drilling, including offshore. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill. Period. Ends.
Al Letson:On his inauguration day, Biden put a freeze on new leases, but this past spring-
Newsclip:The Biden administration set to restart the sale of onshore leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands, 144,000 acres of public lands…
Al Letson:This made us wonder. What is the Biden administration’s record when it comes to drilling on public lands? So in December, we talked to Taylor McKinnon, senior Public Lands Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental organization.
Taylor McKinnon:We have tracked Biden’s federal fossil fuel policies since day one. In fact, before day one.
Al Letson:Let’s dive in a little bit. So about a year ago you crunched some numbers regarding permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands. What did you find?
Taylor McKinnon:I found that the Biden administration in its first year, had approved 34% more oil and gas drilling permits than the Trump administration. Trump in year one, issued 2,658 permits. The Biden administration in year one issued 3,557 permits.
Al Letson:Wow. And so fast forwarding a little bit, how does 2022 compare to 2021? I know we asked you to crunch the Biden administration’s latest numbers.
Taylor McKinnon:We’re not done yet with ’22, but in the first 22 months, the Biden administration has issued 6,121 permits to drill. And the Trump administration at the same time had issued 5,702. So the Biden administration continues after 22 months in office, to outpace the Trump administration in terms of oil and gas drilling permits issued.
Al Letson:And given what Biden has said before he became president about drilling, that’s just shocking.
Taylor McKinnon:It’s shocking. It’s the opposite of what he promised on the campaign trail, it’s the opposite of what one would expect, where the climate president, the purported climate President Biden is outpacing the energy dominance President Trump.
Al Letson:Why did he reverse course?
Taylor McKinnon:Obviously politics had a lot to do with this. Gasoline prices caused a lot of political pressure on the administration. The composition of the Senate, where the Senate Democrats have been beholden to Senator Manchin’s agenda, which is very much pro-fossil fuel. But at the end of the day, physics doesn’t care.
Al Letson:What should Biden do when it comes to drilling? What do you want to see him do?
Taylor McKinnon:Well, one thing he needs to do now, he should have done when he first took office, is issue a climate emergency and unlock legal powers to really confront the situation. And the second is we need the president to phase out federal fossil fuel production, in a way that is compatible with the declines in climate pollution that avoiding 1.5 C of warming requires.
Al Letson:Over the summer, Biden succeeded in getting the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress, and it’s been called the biggest climate change bill in American history. I’m curious what your opinion of it is.
Taylor McKinnon:I think it’s a mixed bag. The bill certainly includes a massive investment in renewable energy and efficiency. That’s good. But it’s also reliant on a lot of speculative technology like carbon capture. And worst of all, the bill includes a tethering provision whereby the BLM, the BLM being the Bureau of Land Management, cannot issue new renewable energy rights of way unless it has first offered industry millions and millions of acres, two million acres on public lands and 60 million acres offshore, on an annual basis to industry.
Al Letson:That just sounds like a self-defeating provision. I don’t quite understand that.
Taylor McKinnon:You’re exactly right. This tethering provision is self-defeating. And it’s very much in line with the Democrat’s approach to energy, which is an all of the above energy strategy that supports renewables and oil and gas. And that’s not where we need to be going right now.
Al Letson:Taylor McKinnon is a senior public lands advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. And while he thinks the Inflation Reduction Act gives too many concessions to the oil and gas industry, not all environmentalists agree.
Samantha Gross:I think the act overall is a huge step forward for climate in the United States.
Al Letson:Samantha Gross runs the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
Samantha Gross:It includes about $370 billion for spending on various things that will reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. There are definitely some concessions to fossil fuels in there, but I think they are vastly outweighed by the good parts of the act.
Al Letson:Let’s talk about leases for oil and gas drilling. The bill requires the federal government to offer leases on millions of acres to oil and gas before offering it to renewables. Won’t that lock us into a future of more drilling and burning of oil and gas?
Samantha Gross:Let’s back up for a second and talk about what the act mostly does. And that is, it is focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels, with everything from encouraging green electricity development to encouraging electric vehicles and other technologies. So the act is really focused primarily on the demand side. It does require that some acres be offered for oil and gas drilling, but because it’s so focused on reducing demand, it may be true that those acres might not be taken up and leased by operators. It might also be true that if operators lease that acreage, that they won’t drill it. What they do in the future depends on demand for fossil fuels, whereas the bill is actually really focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels.
Al Letson:Where is the consumer demand for fossil fuels headed right now in the US?
Samantha Gross:The most important sector for greenhouse gas emissions in the US is transportation. And so, that’s really our oil demand. And so the big question for me going forward is how quickly will we uptake electric vehicles, and how quickly will that bring our oil demand down? But the problem is that we can’t change our energy sector overnight, and that’s going to take time. It’ll take time to turn over the vehicle fleet from gasoline and diesel powered to mostly electric. It will take time to turn over our electricity generation, and we’re going to need fossil fuels in the meantime.
Al Letson:You say all of that is going to take time, and I hear you on that. I guess the question that comes to mind for me is do we have that time? Yes, this is a big ship that takes time to turn. But on the flip side, the ship is flooding.
Samantha Gross:Yeah, the best time to really work hard on this would’ve been a good 10 years ago, but the next best time is right now. And I feel like the administration is doing the right things, and pushing hard on the right levers to make things change. But you can’t change a multi-trillion dollar industry overnight. You just can’t.
Al Letson:Samantha Gross runs the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution. We wanted to talk to the Biden administration about its energy and climate policy, but they turned down our request for an interview. With Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, many Democrats assume that new legislation aimed at combating climate change is basically a non-starter. Recently, many Republicans have begun to acknowledge climate change as an issue. But for years, leaders in the party dismissed it. From Florida Senator Marco Rubio-
Marco Rubio:One of the reasons why the climate is changing is because the climate has always been changing.
Al Letson:To Senator Mitch McConnell.
Mitch McConnell:The job of a United States senator from Kentucky is to fight for coal jobs in our state.
Al Letson:To Former President Donald Trump, who mocked the science on climate change.
Donald Trump:I hear a lot of extreme weather. How can you miss with extreme weather, right? If it’s cold, it’s okay. If it’s hot, it’s okay. If it’s windy, if it’s hot, everything’s extreme. So now they use extreme weather, it is a disgrace what’s going on.
Al Letson:In 2016, Democrats and environmentalists were up in arms at Trump’s comments. And they also didn’t sit well with Benji Backer, a young conservative who felt his party needed to take climate change more seriously. A few months after the 2016 election, Benji founded the American Conservation Coalition. Reveal’s Jonathan Jones looks at how this movement has influenced Republicans ‘thinking on climate, and what we can realistically expect in terms of combating climate change from the new Congress.
Jonathan Jones:On November 21st, 2016, Benji Backer was an 18 year old college student at the University of Washington in Seattle. He sent out a tweet that he was going to start a conservative environmental organization, and asked anyone interested to hit him up.
Benji Backer:Yeah, ACC came together really from what I would think of as an entrepreneur, as a market demand, which is that young people around this country, regardless of their political identity, want action on climate change, want environmental protection to be a top priority. That’s been the case really since millennials started voting and has continued to be the case with Gen Z voting now.
Jonathan Jones:Benji had two goals: get conservatives more engaged in climate change issues, and provide an alternative vision to what he saw as a doom and gloom narrative from the Left. But even getting meetings with Republican legislators was difficult.
Benji Backer:We are young, conservative leaning climate activists. Young, conservative leaning, and climate activists. All three of those pose challenges. Conservatives working on climate change, are you kidding me? We’re basically starting at the ground zero, maybe even starting below ground zero. I’m not going to sugarcoat it.
Jonathan Jones:Benji started writing op-eds and speaking at college campuses where he courted climate conscious conservatives to start their own chapters.
Rep. Bill Keati…:I’d like to thank our witnesses. Extraordinary young leaders fortified with-
Jonathan Jones:In 2019, Benji was asked to testify at a joint hearing on the Hill, addressing the climate crisis. Along with other young environmental activists.
Benji Backer:To Congress: on climate change, it’s not about Republicans or Democrats, it’s about those who are taking effective action and those who are not. To President Trump, climate science is real. It’s not a hoax. It’s accepted that humans are having a negative impact on our climate. As a proud American, as a lifelong conservative, and as a young person, I urge you to accept climate change for the reality it is and respond accordingly.
Jonathan Jones:The group bought ads on Fox News, touting a transition to clean energy as a job creator. Then in June, 2021, came what Benji calls a historic moment for the Republican Party.
Rep. John Curti…:Ladies and gentlemen, today I’m proud to launch with my Republican colleagues, the Conservative Climate Caucus.
Jonathan Jones:Utah representative John Curtis announced the formation of a caucus of Republicans supporting policies related to climate. Nearly a fourth of house GOP lawmakers signed on.
Rep. John Curti…:Republicans do care about this earth deeply. We too, want to leave this earth better than we found it.
Jonathan Jones:Today, Benji’s organization has grown to include offices across the United States. It also endorses political candidates. And in October ahead of the midterms, the ACC organized campaign events with congressional candidates including Nancy Mace, a Republican representative from Charleston, South Carolina. Mace, the daughter of a retired army General, says her interest in environmental conservation began when she was a young girl.
Nancy Mace:We were stationed in Alaska when the Exxon Valdez happened. And I have vivid memories about what the impact of that oil spill had on the environment, on the water and waterways, the wildlife, and that is my very first, earliest but most vivid memory about the impact that the environment has on us and our way of life.
Jonathan Jones:I just want to talk a little bit about what you believe when it comes to climate change. You are a member of the Conservative Climate Caucus, but I came across a Politifact article from 2020 that quoted you saying climate change is not clear cut, and that it might be part of the natural cycle of the earth. Do you still believe that?
Nancy Mace:I’m called a climate denier, and I’m not. But if you look over the course of the history of the earth, there have been over 130 climate changes on earth. And science is always evolving, the science is not settled. But part of what’s happening is manmade, and then some of it may or may not be natural occurrences, and so I think you have to take all of it together.
Jonathan Jones:So you don’t believe the science is settled when it comes to climate change?
Nancy Mace:I don’t think science is entirely always settled. I think we’re still learning about a lot of different issues, environment included.
Jonathan Jones:With science and climate change, of course you’re never going to have complete unanimity, but over decades we’ve had this body of research, and we’re seeing the Colorado River run dry. We’re seeing more major storms out here in California. We’re seeing longer wildfire seasons. And in South Carolina, you’re seeing all this extreme heat. Do you believe we are in dire straits in terms of the climate? Are you worried about the Earth’s temperature warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius?
Nancy Mace:Oh, absolutely. I don’t think we’re going to all die in 12 years though.
Jonathan Jones:And it’s answers like that, that make some environmentalists question the commitment of the Conservative Climate Caucus to address climate change, and worry they might actually block meaningful climate solutions. Representative Mace says she’s had to deal with pushback from her party on environmental issues, like when she opposed offshore oil drilling.
Nancy Mace:Those conversations can be awkward sometimes. When leadership comes to you and says, “Hey, you made the wrong vote. You need to change your vote,” and then you don’t, that really puts a marker out there.
Jonathan Jones:Benji Backer says that slim majorities in the house and Senate will require both Democrats and Republicans to look for bipartisan solutions to climate change.
Benji Backer:There are Republicans and Democrats who want to work together. Now the problem with them is actually not that they’re not in leadership, because technically they’re in political leadership. They are not the Lauren Boeberts, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and the Donald Trumps of the world. They are the quieter, hardworking, morally equipped members, who actually do have power when it comes to running the relevant committees on these issues in Congress. We will make climate progress in the next two years in Congress if we do this right.
Jonathan Jones:He says polls show that the vast majority of Americans want real solutions to climate change, particularly ones that protect the environment and bolster the economy. He points to a new farm bill as one example where legislators could work together to help farmers reduce their carbon emissions.
Benji Backer:We have an opportunity to make that a sustainable policy this year. And I think if we push legislators to incorporate climate and sustainability into it, it would make a huge difference. Those sorts of solutions can actually tackle a decent chunk of the problem.
Jonathan Jones:Representative Mace takes the same approach. In her case, she thinks a lot of progress can be made to reduce the carbon footprint of the airline industry. The trick will be how far is her party really willing to go?
Jonathan Jones:What’s realistic considering all of the political dynamics at play?
Nancy Mace:We’re definitely not going to be able to ban drilling. We can start right there. And it’s also got to be a blend of utilizing the direction of industry. So looking at ways that our regulations, our statutes, and our laws can support the continuing of making industries across the board greener.
Jonathan Jones:She believes her party cannot afford to do nothing.
Nancy Mace:We have to put forth policy while Republicans are in the majority, and move that policy through the committee process, and pass bills out of the House. And that’s going to take us coming up with ideas that leadership will get behind. We can draft any bill we want, we can file any bill we want, but if leadership isn’t on board, then it’ll never get out for a vote.
Al Letson:Our story was from Reveal’s Jonathan Jones. When we come back, a reminder from a tiny community in Alaska of why climate change needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
Rick Thoman:We are utterly certain that there will be more big coastal flooding producing storms in the Bering sea.
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. The politics of climate change may be moving slowly, but the pace of disasters caused by climate change is picking up. Back in September, climatologist Rick Thoman was tracking a storm that was headed towards the west coast of Alaska and growing in size.
Rick Thoman:The storm force winds extended about a hundred miles to the southeast of the center, when it was a tropical storm. By the time it got into the central Bering Sea, the storm force winds extended 300 miles, so three times as big an area.
Al Letson:The storm was what remained of Typhoon Merbok, which a couple days earlier, hit Japan. When it arrived on Alaska’s west coast, it was one of the most ferocious storms the state has seen in 50 years. It’s the kind of weather experts believe will persist as the climate continues to warm.
Rick Thoman:We don’t know when, we don’t know exactly where, but we are utterly certain that there will be more big coastal flooding producing storms in the Bering Sea.
Al Letson:Days after the storm, reporter Emily Schwing traveled to one of the hardest hit communities, Chevak, to report on disaster recovery, where she also discovered a communication fiasco at the federal level.
Emily Schwing:Chevak is one of at least two dozen Alaskan native villages that saw damage from Typhoon Merbok. Small, colorful houses most raised up on pilings, sit high on a bluff above the Ninglikfak River. The storm surge tossed boats like bath toys, and it left behind an environmental disaster.
Stella Lake:You can smell fuel and oil. One boat was filled with water, and there was a iridescent sheen over top of the water. There are fishing nets tangled up in pieces of lumber.
Emily Schwing:Days later, Stella Lake is in the tribal office where she works reviewing photos she’d taken of the damage.
Emily Schwing:Oh, and your boat’s just filled with debris.
Stella Lake:It’s upside down.
Emily Schwing:Oh, it’s upside down. And covered in debris.
Stella Lake:Covered in debris. I cleaned that up by myself. My motor’s… I just bought this 200 horsepower and that’s like 20 plus thousand dollars.
Emily Schwing:Stella says she paid off the boat motor this summer, and this isn’t a boat for recreation. For thousands of people in western Alaska, subsistence is a way of life. Store bought food is expensive and the selection is limited. So Stella takes her boat out fishing in the summer, and she uses it to go up river to hunt moose in the fall before the river freezes. This boat means survival in a place like Chevak, and so does her freezer where she stores food for the winter.
Stella Lake:Oh yeah. We had no lights for the duration of the storm, until the lineman came, and the top part of our freezer are melted.
Emily Schwing:Tell me what you lost.
Stella Lake:Food.
Emily Schwing:What kinds of food?
Stella Lake:Store bought food, moose meat, berries, the seal oil. That’s what I lost.
Emily Schwing:Many residents in Chevak lost their food, and of the 100 or so boats, 90 were severely damaged. To recover, it was clear the community would need some help.
Tom Kempton:Some of the changes that FEMA’s made particular for this disaster is the inclusion of subsistence items. That’s something I’ve never seen before in any other disaster.
Emily Schwing:Tom Kempton is a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. He says this is one of the first times the agency has offered recovery funds for things like damaged boats, lost fishing and hunting equipment, and even spoiled food.
Tom Kempton:It was their whole lifestyle and ability to feed themselves had been lost.
Emily Schwing:The trick for FEMA was getting the word out to people who don’t all speak English about disaster recovery funds and how to apply for them. At least half the population in Western Alaska speaks an Indigenous language, and in some villages, children learn it first before English. The predominant language in the hardest hit communities is Yugtun, also referred to as Yup’ik. Federal Law says FEMA has to make things like federal disaster assistance accessible to people who aren’t fluent in English.
Tom Kempton:They made every attempt right from the beginning here, to establish translation services.
Emily Schwing:Soon after the storm, Tom says FEMA used a federal contractor to translate announcements for disaster relief. And in early October, he emailed me a translated news release with instructions on how to apply for assistance from both the State of Alaska and FEMA. I showed it to two Yup’ik speakers I know, Julia Jimmie, and Sam Berlin. They both work at local public Radio Station KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.
Julia Jimmie:This is not Yup’ik. There’s a few words I can pick out, but I’m not understanding a sentence in there. Any sentence.
Sam Berlin:Where did you get that?
Emily Schwing:Julia suggested it might be another Indigenous language in Alaska, so I sent the press release to practically everyone I know who speaks the local languages here, including Tara Sweeney, the former US Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs under the Trump Administration. She had a gut reaction.
Tara Sweeney:I don’t know. Shocked.
Emily Schwing:Tara’s Iñupiaq, from Alaska’s farthest north community. And she says her great-grandfather created the written alphabet for their language.
Tara Sweeney:We don’t have those characters in the Iñupiaq Achagat, which is the Inupiaq alphabet.
Emily Schwing:I couldn’t find anyone in Alaska who could easily identify this language.
Gary Holton:Okay. I am Gary Holton. I am a linguist currently based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I worked for the past 20 years or so with documenting Alaska native languages. What’s interesting about this translation is that the words are real.
Emily Schwing:He says they’re from a Russian dialect that was documented in a book of folklore in the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
Gary Holton:So I maybe like the term word salad, in the sense that it’s taking real words and just throwing them out. As if you just scramble the order and grab odd terms and put them together.
Emily Schwing:So where there’s supposed to be a line relating to information about the small business administration, Gary says it actually reads something like, “That one said I should draw a line on the ice when he gets close.”
Gary Holton:And it makes me wonder how much more might be out there.
Emily Schwing:Federal agencies spend millions of dollars annually on translation services in multiple languages, and for thousands of pages of documents. It’s all to meet the anti-discrimination requirement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But there’s no official checks and balances system when it comes to translation services contracted to federal agencies.
Gary Holton:Yeah, it’s a really entangled mess.
Julia Jimmie:They probably think there are no Yup’ik speakers.
Emily Schwing:Both Julia Jimmie and Sam Berlin say they’ve come across a lot of bad translations. And that’s why Sam says he won’t even consider submitting applications for federal assistance, not just for disaster relief, but also for other social services. There have even been translation issues with mail-in voter registration forms and voter information at polling places. For Sam, mistranslations only add to his mistrust of the federal government.
Sam Berlin:It hurts. It hurts to see something like this. When a disaster occurs and someone comes along and makes it worse for help, it hurts me.
Julia Jimmie:What first came into my mind was that person must have been desperate for money. They think they won’t get caught, or they must think we’re dumb.
Emily Schwing:As a former federal employee, Tara Sweeney says, this is a waste of federal funding. And worse than that, it’s a painful reminder of the federal government’s legacy of banning Alaska Natives and American Indians from speaking their languages.
Tara Sweeney:There’s a lot of that historical trauma of being beaten in schools, because they were speaking their Indigenous language. Which is why there’s a generation of us in Alaska that struggle with fluency. We can read and write it, but conversationally, we weren’t exposed to it in the home regularly because our parents were beaten.
Emily Schwing:I took what I learned about the mistranslated announcements back to Tom Kempton at FEMA.
Tom Kempton:Oh, well see, I guess I’m as guilty as anybody else in this whole thing. Because I’m the one that sends it all out.
Emily Schwing:Tom says he suspected there was something amiss with the documents when he first saw them. They just didn’t look right. But without firsthand knowledge of the language, he wasn’t able to identify the root of the problem.
Tom Kempton:I can’t read it or understand. I’m guessing that the new translation service is getting it correctly, so I didn’t realize how bad the service was that we presently have. So I will push that right back immediately back on leadership here, and see what they can do.
Emily Schwing:After realizing its mistake, FEMA removed the mistranslated documents from its website and hired an Alaska based translation service. The agency also extended application deadlines. By the end of December, FEMA had approved more than 800 applications for disaster assistance related to damage from Typhoon Merbok.
Al Letson:That reporting comes from Emily Schwing, who’s based in Alaska. Our editor for this week’s show is Taki Telonidis. Thanks to Bruce Heil and Brian Rackham at Northern Arizona University, and Katherine Mieszkowski. Also, thanks to KYUK in Bethel, Alaska. Nikki Frick and Kim Freda are our fact Checkers. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Steven Rascón. Score and sound, designed by the dynamic duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo Arruda. Our post-production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Katherine Steyer Martinez, and Claire, C Note, Mullen. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Our theme music is by Camarado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Ford Foundation, the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

Elizabeth Shogren was a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering science. As part of a new initiative, Shogren tracks the real-life effects of the anti-science mentality that has seeped into many corners of the federal government. Previously, Shogren was an on-air environment correspondent for NPR’s national and science desks. She has also covered the environment and energy for the Los Angeles Times and High Country News. While at NPR, she was a lead reporter for Poisoned Places, a data-driven series about the toxic air pollution that plagues some communities because of the failure of government to implement a decades-old federal law. The series received several honors, including a Science in Society journalism award from the National Association of Science Writers. Her High Country News investigations of the federal coal program and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s failure to adjust to climate change won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies prizes. Early in her career, as a freelance foreign correspondent, she covered the fall of communism in Eastern Europe before joining the Los Angeles Times’ Moscow bureau. Later, she joined the paper’s Washington bureau, where she covered the White House, Congress, poverty and the environment. Shogren is based in Washington, D.C.

Jonathan Jones is a reporter and producer for Reveal. In his two decades in journalism, he has produced a series of award-winning investigations on topics ranging from eminent domain to problems in the fertility industry. He has covered conflict and human rights in 10 countries, including Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. In 2013, he teamed up with A.C. Thompson of ProPublica and PBS Frontline on a yearlong investigation into abuse and neglect at the largest assisted living company in the United States. In 2015, his exposé of Firestone's operations during the Liberian Civil War for ProPublica and PBS Frontline was awarded two News & Documentary Emmy Awards for outstanding investigative journalism and outstanding research, as well as the top Investigative Reporters and Editors Award in the large multiplatform category. In 2018, Jones, along with colleagues at WNYC's Snap Judgment, won the Best Documentary Gold Award at the Third Coast International Audio Festival for "Counted: An Oakland Story," which profiled those lost to violence in Oakland, California, in 2017 and the impact on their communities.

Emily Schwing is a reporter for Reveal. She reported on how the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church used Native American communities and Alaska Native villages to hide abusive priests for decades, and she tracked those priests to a retirement home on Gonzaga University’s campus. The story won a Best of the West award and PRNDI award and made the final round of judging in the 2019 Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Previously, Schwing covered climate change, public land management and indigenous issues as a correspondent at the Northwest News Network. Before that, she spent more than a decade chasing sled dog teams and tracking down sources in some of the most remote corners of Alaska. Schwing is based in Alaska.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is the production manager for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a former production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. She's also been a senior writer for Salon and Fast Company. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Slate and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

Her coverage has won national awards, including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award two years in a row, an Online News Association Award, a Webby Award and a Society of Environmental Journalists Award. Mieszkowski has a bachelor's degree from Yale University. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Victoria Baranetsky is general counsel at The Center for Investigative Reporting, where she counsels reporters on newsgathering, libel, privacy, subpoenas, and other newsroom matters. Prior to CIR, Victoria worked at The New York Times, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Wikimedia Foundation. She also clerked on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Baranetsky holds degrees from Columbia Journalism School, Harvard Law School, and Oxford University. Currently, she teaches at Berkeley Law School as an adjunct professor and is a fellow at Columbia's Tow Center. She is barred in California, New York and New Jersey.

Nikki Frick is the associate editor for research and copy for Reveal. She previously worked as a copy editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and held internships at The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an American Copy Editors Society Aubespin scholar. Frick is based in Milwaukee.