Rick Perry once described the science of climate change as a “contrived, phony mess.” Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama asserted, wrongly, that there’s been “almost no increase” in temperatures over the last 19 years. Scott Pruitt said, “The debate is far from settled.”
That was before Donald Trump picked Perry, Sessions and Pruitt to lead, respectively, the Departments of Energy and Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, they and other nominees have taken a more moderate line on global warming. Sessions called it a “plausible” theory in his confirmation hearing and Pruitt, in his, denied it was a hoax, as Trump once called it. Perry, a former Texas governor, conceded before senators that his views on climate change had evolved.
“I believe the climate is changing,” Perry told the Senate Energy Committee. “I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity.”
Has the Trump team done a 180 on global warming? Hardly. None of Trump’s nominees characterized climate change as an urgent threat requiring a coordinated governmental response, as many scientists contend. And all of Trump’s nominees appear to support his call to repeal former President Barack Obama’s actions to reduce greenhouse gases, without a replacement alternative.
“When you look at EPA, there’s going to be substantial change in that agency,” Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, said on a radio show prior to his being nominated to lead the agency. “There’s going to be a regulatory rollback.”
Upon Trump’s taking office, one of the most noticeable change was the elimination from the White House website of references to climate change. Trump’s next target, as soon as Monday, is likely to be the Clean Power Plan, a centerpiece of Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.
Trump is expected to ask a federal court for a “voluntary remand” on a lawsuit filed against the Clean Power Plan by industries and states, said William Yeatman, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank with close ties to the Trump administration.
Such a remand would delay the possibility of a court ruling upholding the regulations and give the Trump administration time to revise them. “I’d expect that to happen immediately . . . at least in the next few days,” said Yeatman, whose organization includes Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic Trump appointed to lead his environmental transition team.
The Trump administration also is expected to delay or revise other Obama initiatives, including restrictions on methane releases from oil and gas wells.
Less clear is whether the administration will withdraw from the Paris agreement, a United Nations pact involving China, the United States and more than 190 other countries to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Trump initially said he wanted to cancel the Paris agreement but more recently he said he was keeping an “open mind” about it.
At her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, Nikki Haley, Trump’s pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, hedged on questions about the Paris pact. Haley, the governor of South Carolina, said climate change would always be “on the table” but warned against placing industries “at peril” by imposing new regulations.
According to NASA and other scientific agencies, human industrial emissions are a leading cause of the buildup of greenhouses that is warming the planet. On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA declared 2016 to be the warmest year on record.
The federal government’s efforts to study and respond to global climate change are spread across numerous agencies, and several of Trump’s Cabinet picks could influence what roles they have in the future:
▪ Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick to serve as commerce secretary, is a billionaire who previously invested in coal companies. The Department of Commerce includes NOAA, which has a $189 million annual budget for research into climate change. During his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Ross deflected questions about his views on global warming, saying only that “science is science and scientists should perform science.”
▪ U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican, has been tapped to serve as interior secretary, overseeing the federal government’s vast land holdings in the West. Zinke is a supporter of increased coal mining and oil and gas development on federal land. On climate change, Zinke told senators Tuesday that it is not a hoax but added that there is debate about the severity of the threat.
▪ Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior adviser, is a founder and former executive of Breitbart, a website that has called climate change a hoax and “the greatest-ever conspiracy against the taxpayer.” In Trump’s inner circle, Bannon will be in a position to influence a range of decisions, including leadership at NASA, an independent agency with an annual $1.9 billion climate-research budget.
Not all of Trump’s appointees are climate change deniers and doubters. Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO tapped to be secretary of state, led the oil company to officially recognize global warming and endorse the Paris agreement. Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s defense secretary, is said to be concerned about climate change, which the Pentagon treats as a potential security risk.
Yet Trump’s most consequential environmental pick, Pruitt, has filed numerous lawsuits against the EPA while helping to create political action committees and other organizations that took money from oil companies supporting those lawsuits.
At his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Pruitt refused to commit to recusing himself from EPA decisions involving the lawsuits he’d filed, including the one against the Clean Power Plan. Pruitt said such decisions would depend on rulings from the EPA’s ethics counsel.
Pruitt surprised some senators by disagreeing with Trump’s statement that climate change was a hoax. Others suspect that such comments were strategic, not sincere.
Pruitt’s testimony “was an interesting display of him trying, in some ways, to moderate his language on these issues,” said Sam Adams, a former mayor of Portland, Oregon, who heads the U.S. office of the World Resources Institute, an advocacy group that attempts to unite business and government to encourage environmentally friendly lifestyles. “But he can’t put aside history.”
At Pruitt’s confirmation hearing, GOP Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming entered into the record “a list of scientists” that had endorsed Pruitt’s nomination. As it turned out, the supportive scientists were assembled by the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a Virginia-based evangelical organization that receives funding from various sources, including foundations created by the oil billionaire Koch brothers.
The Cornwall Alliance’s website includes numerous articles debunking mainstream climate scientists and their conclusions that global warming poses an immediate threat. One of these articles criticizes Pope Francis for raising climate concerns. Another argues that NOAA has joined a U.N. climate conspiracy to redistribute the world’s wealth and “deindustrialize the West.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth