Energy & Environment

Trump nominees dodge ‘climate denier’ charge

Greg Nash

President Trump’s Cabinet nominees have delivered a similar refrain on climate change that could head off criticisms of the administration on the issue.

At Senate confirmation hearings in recent days, the nominees have all said that the climate is changing, and that human activity is a factor. But they say that the extent of human influence is up for study and debate, as is the discussion of what policy prescriptions might be required. 

“Science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity, in some manner, impacts that change,” said Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which, under former President Obama, had been the main agency to implement policies limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

“The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue, and well it should be,” said Pruitt, who is now attorney general of Oklahoma. 

“I believe the climate is changing,” said Rick Perry, the pick to lead the Department of Energy.

“I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity. 

“The question is, how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy or American jobs,” he said, a contrast from his previous position that climate science was wrong.


Interior Secretary nominee Ryan Zinke and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson offered a similar message.

The new refrain makes it difficult for environmentalists and Democrats to label Trump’s staffers “climate deniers,” a term they’ve used to attack politicians skeptical of climate science. 

It also leaves the Trump administration with plenty of room to maneuver. None of the nominees have endorsed any specific climate policies, and Trump is still expected to reverse most of Obama’s climate agenda.

“I think it’s extremely smart, and it denies the ‘denier’ label,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign. 

“It’s very hard for the left to mount opposition to certain policies if you continue to say, ‘we don’t think it’s a hoax,’ ” he continued. 

“It comes off as well-thought-out, because it takes some of the momentum out of the climate change folks, but also, it doesn’t lock you into any specific position as an administration.” 

Many saw the statements from the Cabinet nominees as breaking from Trump’s famous tweet years ago that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese to hobble U.S. manufacturing.

Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus said in late November on Fox News that Trump still believes that “most” of climate change science “is a bunch of bunk.” 

But Democrats and greens didn’t buy it. Democrats tried to get Trump’s nominees to say they do not agree with the scientific consensus that human activity is the chief contributor to climate change. 

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked Zinke whether he believes human activity is the main cause of global warming, to which Zinke responded, “I’m not an expert in this field.”

“That, to me, is a cop-out,” Franken responded. “I’m not a doctor, but I have to make healthcare decisions.” 

When Pruitt told Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that his personal view on human contribution to climate change is “immaterial,” Sanders asked, “you are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feelings about whether climate change is caused by human activity and carbon emissions is immaterial?”

During Pruitt’s hearing, federal scientists announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record worldwide for the third year in a row. The scientists said that human activity is, far and away, the main cause of the warming pattern over recent decades.

To greens, Trump’s picks are still climate deniers.

“These statements, these attempts to obfuscate, are absurd,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, head of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

“Denial is denial,” she continued. “All of these people have records, and all have taken actions, that are absolutely at odds with being stewards of the environment and public health.”

The climate skeptic community, meanwhile, isn’t bothered by the new tune coming from the executive branch.

Marc Morano, publisher of the skeptical news site Climate Depot and a former aide to outspoken skeptic Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), said that the Trump team’s statements on climate are easily defendable.

“This is a semantic game that Trump’s Cabinet officials are playing,” Morano said. “Obviously, if you say you believe in climate change, it’s a meaningless statement.” 

Morano said it’s not controversial that the climate is changing and that humans influence it. But skeptics reject the idea that humans are the main cause, or that any policy change can control global warming. 

“The media is so easy to fall for misdirections on this issue, and the Trump nominees have mastered that this week,” he said. “You sort of just laugh at how gullible the media is.”

Morano said he was slightly disappointed that Trump’s picks weren’t “defiant skeptics going into battle to fight,” and didn’t push back forcefully at Democrats. 

But overall, the hearings did not dampen his excitement for Trump’s presidency, he said.

Tags Al Franken Bernie Sanders John McCain

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