Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt on Friday forcefully defended President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement.
Speaking at a White House press briefing, Pruitt sought to frame the debate around the global accord of nearly 200 nations as one primarily concerned with economic outcomes for the United States.
Amid tough questions from the White House press corps about Trump’s climate change beliefs and his climate agenda, Pruitt tried to stay focused on the economy.
“The president made a very courageous decision yesterday on behalf of America,” Pruitt told reporters. “He put America’s interests first with respect to environmental agreements and international discussions. I really appreciate his fortitude. I really appreciate his leadership in this matter.”
The decision to exit the Paris deal was something of a coming out party for Pruitt, who led the charge in lobbying Trump to pull the U.S. out of the pact. He helped fight off pressure from multiple fronts for Trump to stay in the pact, including from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Friday was the first time Pruitt went before a group of reporters for a Q&A session since he was confirmed by the Senate in February.
But Pruitt was put on the defensive in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.
He was pressed on at least five separate occasions to say whether Trump believes human activity contributes to climate change. Each time, he dodged the question.
Pruitt said the topic of whether Trump believes in climate change never came up during discussions regarding Paris.
“The focus remained on whether Paris put us at a disadvantage,” he said. “And, in fact, it did. It put us at an economic disadvantage.”
Pruitt also tried to defend his own stance on climate change. He’s stated that human activity impacts the climate, but the degree of that impact isn’t certain. The scientific consensus, meanwhile, is that human activity, via greenhouse gases, is far and away the primary cause of climate change.
At one point, a reporter asked Pruitt if he had his “head in the sand” on climate change science, and he replied, “Well, there’s no evidence of that.”
He even referenced a controversial New York Times column by Bret Stephens to illustrate what he called a “global debate” on climate.
“Measuring with precision, from my perspective, the degree of human contribution is very challenging, but it still begs the question, what do we do about it? Does it pose an existential threat as some say?” he said.
"People have called me a climate skeptic or a climate denier," Pruitt continued. "I don’t even know what it means to deny the climate. I would say that there are climate exaggerators."
As he left the podium, Pruitt was asked whether it was symbolic that he celebrated the move at a French restaurant in Washington. The administrator shot a grin at reporters before exiting the room.
Pruitt and White House press secretary Sean Spicer sought to defend the Paris decision from political pushback.
Several Democrats on the state and local level have pledged to continue their climate work even without Trump and the federal government on board, including the governors of Washington, California and New York, who said on Thursday they would create a coalition to pursue the goals of the Paris deal.
Spicer brushed aside a question about whether that would undermine Trump’s energy platform, which focuses on bolstering American fossil fuel production.
“If a mayor or a governor wants to enact a policy on a range of issues, they’re accountable to their own voters and that’s what they should do,” he said.
“There was a large contingent of officials at every level of government who were very pleased with the president’s decision and applauded him.”
Asked about the hundreds of companies that had urged the White House to stay in the agreement, Spicer repeated Trump’s contention that he would seek to renegotiate the deal.
European leaders have said they’re unwilling to reopen the Paris deal, and the White House has not given details on what a negotiated agreement would even look like.
“The president was very clear on the campaign trail about his position on this,” Spicer said. “The president has made it very clear that he wants to get the best deal for America, American companies and America’s workers.”