ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Rick Perry almost skipped tonight's debate in Southern California. Texas is being ravaged by wildfires that have burned thousands of acres and destroyed more than a thousand homes. Record heat and drought have fed those fires and focused some attention on the governor's environmental record. As NPR's John Burnett reports, Perry is a strong opponent of the Environmental Protection Agency and he has expressed doubts that human activity is causing climate change.
JOHN BURNETT: Last month at a breakfast speech in Bedford, New Hampshire, when Rick Perry was asked about climate change, he gave this answer.
RICK PERRY: There are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated...
BURNETT: His statement in New Hampshire prompted blowback from Andrew Dessler, a prominent professor of atmospheric sciences at Perry's alma mater, Texas A&M University. Dessler fired off an angry editorial that appeared in papers around the country.
ANDREW DESSLER: Well, if Governor Perry wants to talk to us, we can explain to him that the science of climate change is nearly 200 years old and at this point, we have a really well validated and sophisticated understanding of how the climate system works.
BURNETT: The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the science academy of every major industrialized nation believe that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, have contributed to increased concentrations of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, which is heating the planet. Andrew Dessler says climate change is indisputably part of Texas' current calamity.
DESSLER: And what that means is it makes the heat more extreme, it increases evaporation from the soil, that makes the drought more extreme. So we can be pretty confident that we've made the hellish summer that we just have gone through and we're sort of still going through, we've made this worse than it would have been.
BURNETT: Last November, Perry made his case on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart.
PERRY: This administration came in about a year ago and said, you know, we don't really think we like the way that you guys are doing the permitting and we're gonna take it over. And I said, wait a minute. We cleaned our air up more than any other state in the nation from 2001 through 2009, with the exception of Georgia. But we did a good job. And we did it our way, with flexible permitting.
BURNETT: Texas has a flexible permitting program, which, as the name implies, gives industrial plants more flexibility in choosing how they'll reduce pollutants, which saves them money and costly pollution control upgrades. The current EPA has taken the position that the flexible permit program is too lenient and violates the Clean Air Act, a position also held by Texas' leading environmental organizations.
KEN KRAMER: There's really nothing innovative about the flexible permitting system that Texas developed a number of years ago. It's really a gift to polluters.
BURNETT: Jim Marston is regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund.
JIM MARSTON: The state of Texas claiming that the air is cleaner because of their flexible permits is a lot like the rooster who thinks that his crowing calls the sun come up.
BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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