The Netflix film “Don’t Look Up” satirizes how there’s no planetary cataclysm so large that it can’t be monetized or ignored.
I use the word satire loosely for an over-the-top film that somehow could still function as a documentary. Its cinematic crisis is a metaphor for our avoidance of existential crises: the pandemic, insurrection and, most obvious of all, climate change.
Which brings us to a political nomination so wrongheaded that it could have easily fit into “Don’t Look Up”: Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s choice of a former coal industry lobbyist as a steward of Virginia’s environment. Andrew Wheeler will be Virginia’s secretary of natural resources unless state lawmakers have the good sense to reject him.
Wheeler was head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration, which took unseemly pleasure in trashing environmental protections.
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In a General Assembly that typically rubber-stamps a governor’s Cabinet picks, Wheeler’s nomination has riled up Democrats.
“I don’t recall ever receiving an email asking me to reject a governor’s appointment before, and my inbox is flooded,” said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat from Richmond.
Youngkin’s pick, she said, “shows that the environment and addressing climate change is not only not a priority, but that they’re going to roll back all the progress we wanted to make. And that’s just unacceptable.”
Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, urged Virginia’s Senate to oppose Wheeler, saying in a statement that as EPA chief, he “disregarded scientific advice, loosened emissions standards, allowed for unsafe levels of PFAS in drinking water, rolled back protections for our nation’s waterways, and undermined our global standing as a partner in the fight against climate change by rescinding the Clean Power Plan.”
Obviously, the Youngkin team has a different take.
“The Governor-Elect appointed Andrew Wheeler because of their shared commitment to protecting the Chesapeake Bay, addressing rising sea levels, solving longstanding stormwater management issues, and establishing a Coastal Virginia Resiliency Authority,” a transition aide for Youngkin said via text.
If so, Wheeler has experienced a conversion previously unwitnessed in his public life.
Virginia—and really, the nation and world—don’t have the luxury to indulge in this folly.
We’ve already endured the weird and wasteful witch hunt that Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s former attorney general, conducted against climate scientist Michael Mann. Now, the commonwealth is ushering in a new age of climate denial with Youngkin and Wheeler, a former staffer for Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has called climate change a hoax.
In December, of all months, wildfires consumed towns in Colorado and tornadoes leveled locales in Kentucky. During the first week of the new year in Virginia, a mere two days separated balmy temperatures from a snowstorm that paralyzed Interstate 95.
How many signs do we need?
Which brings us to another malady the nation refuses to address: systemic racism. Climate denial is inseparable from environmental racism. An organization called Moms Clean Air Force, whose stated mission is to protect children from air pollution and climate change, called out Wheeler during his EPA tenure with a list citing “10 Ways the EPA is Making Life Worse for Black and Brown Americans.”
In 2021, the EPA, under new management after Trump’s defeat, released a Social Vulnerability Report examining how some populations—based on income, educational attainment, race and ethnicity, and age—“may be more exposed to the highest impacts of climate change.”
According to the report, Black individuals are 40% more likely than their non-Black counterparts to live in areas with the highest projected increases in mortality rates due to climate-driven changes in extreme temperatures; their children, far more likely to experience asthma due to climate-driven air pollution.
Latino individuals are 43% more likely than non-Latino counterparts to live in areas projected to experience lost labor hours outdoors because of climate-driven high temperatures. American Indian and Alaska Native individuals are 48% more likely than their counterparts to live in areas where the highest percentage of land is projected to be inundated due to sea level rise.
Wheeler is not merely associated with the inherent racism of climate denial.
A 2018 story in the Washington Post and Huffington Post wrote that Wheeler, while head of the EPA, “liked” a blatantly racist post featuring Barack and Michelle Obama staring at a banana. Wheeler, lamely, said he did not remember liking the picture.
Partisan polarization on climate change—not unlike in the fight against COVID-19—is a self-defeating and potentially lethal hill to die on, seeded with misinformation. But the havoc of extreme weather respects neither partisan politics nor privilege.
Wheeler, in this climate, is the wrong man for this job. Youngkin needs to quit the satire and submit a serious pick.
Michael Paul Williams writes for the Richmond Times-Dispatch