Energy & Environment

EPA chief’s questions about climate science draw new scrutiny

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt is getting bolder in questioning climate change.

In several recent public comments, Pruitt has sowed doubt about whether global warming is harmful to humans, and whether anyone could truly know what the Earth’s “ideal” temperature would be in 2100.

“Is it an existential threat? Is it something that is unsustainable? Or what kind of effect or harm is this going to have,” Pruitt said in an interview with Las Vegas television station KSNV.

“We know that humans have most flourished during times of, what? Warming trends. So I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing.”


Pruitt in recent months has frequently questioned if scientists know the ideal surface temperature of the earth. In making the case that governments should reduce the greenhouse gases believed to lead to global warming, scientists have discussed what the average global temperature at ground level could be in 2100.

“There are things we know and things we don’t know. I think it’s pretty arrogant for people in 2018 to say ‘you know, we know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100,’ ” he said on the New York Times podcast “The Daily” earlier in February.

Pruitt’s statements have alarmed many in the scientific community, who see a thinly-disguised denial of the science behind climate change.

“This is a standard trope of climate change denialism and it is ill-premised,” said Michael Mann, a Penn State University atmospheric science professor.

“The ideal temperature for us is of course the temperature that our entire civilization and infrastructure was built around and tailored to — i.e. the temperature range that prevailed since the dawn of civilization until we began burning fossil fuels and warming the planet at an unprecedented rate,” added Mann who is known for taking on climate skeptics.

Mann and others believe the statements are an effort by Pruitt to sow doubt about climate change policy as the EPA embarks on an historic effort to roll back Obama-era regulations intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve seen a shift in what Administrator Pruitt is focusing on. At the beginning of his tenure, the focus was a bit more on ‘can we precisely measure the impact of humans on climate change?’” said Rachel Licker, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that has opposed many of Pruitt’s policies.

“There’s been a bit of shift now into a space of whether or not climate change will harm humans and what is the ideal temperature that we should be striving for by the end of the century and even suggesting that climate change could be beneficial.”

The EPA did not respond to questions about the scientific backlash to his remarks, or about where Pruitt is getting his scientific information.

Pruitt maintains that humans do play a role in climate change, but questions the degree. His public statements also question whether changes in the climate are a net-negative to mankind.  

“No one disputes the climate changes, is changing, and we see that is a constant. We obviously contribute to it,” he told the Nevada TV station. “But I think the bigger question is … is it an existential threat? Is it something that is unsustainable? Or what kind of effect or harm is this going to have.”

On a factual basis, mainstream climate scientists fully reject the idea that climate change can be a net positive for humans, and they say the ideal change in temperature is as close to current temperatures as possible.

“This administration is doing its best to sow doubt where there is no doubt, and also to sow doubt where there isn’t a lot of understanding in the scientific community, but sow doubt in a way that encourages inaction when the opposite should be true,” said Alan Barreca, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles.

Barreca said some areas of the world will undoubtedly benefit from climate change, at least in certain respects.

Areas near the poles are likely to have longer growing seasons, and deaths from extreme cold would nearly certain drop in those places.

But on balance worldwide, warming is a net negative, says Barreca, whose studies focus on the health risks of a changing climate.

“There is no doubt that extremely hot weather kills people. There’s no doubt that extremely hot weather is bad for agriculture,” Barreca said. “There are ways that we can adapt, but those things cost a lot.”

Pruitt’s statements align closely with some of what outspoken climate skeptics have been arguing for years: the harm to humans from global warming is overstated.

“I think Administrator Pruitt’s comments show that he is getting up to speed on climate science,” said Myron Ebell, director of the energy and environment center at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“The evidence so far is that humankind is on the whole better off with the slightly warmer temperatures compared to the widespread crop failures and big storms that were prevalent during the Little Ice Age from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries,” he said. “Thus I think Administrator Pruitt is right to say that some more warming may be good.”

Marc Morano, head of the climate skeptic blog Climate Depot, was similarly pleased to hear Pruitt’s new lines of talking and is hopeful that the EPA head can go farther.

“It is refreshing to have an EPA chief who embraces science and does not parrot the United Nations’s climate claims uncritically,” he said. “Pruitt was quite measured in his remarks on climate change and he actually could have gone much further in promoting his points.”

Beyond rhetoric, Pruitt’s skepticisms may have some real policy impacts.

The EPA’s current policy, as outlined in the 2009 “Endangerment Finding,” is that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health and the environment. That scientific finding obligates the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Pruitt has said the EPA is not reviewing the finding for potential repeal, to the disappointment of some conservatives. Though he said in December that the Obama administration committed a “breach of process” and left the door open for reviewing it.

Experts say the finding is on solid scientific ground. But Pruitt’s statements are fueling speculation that he is trying to drum up scientific uncertainty, since the finding is focused squarely on the environmental and health impacts of greenhouse gases.

“If he can succeed in finding some sort of fundamental error in the science of climate change — which we know he’s not going to find — his motivation may very well be to open the door to take down the endangerment finding,” Licker said.

Ebell is also hopeful, though his focus is more on Pruitt’s longstanding promise to set up a “red team/blue team” debate process to formally challenge climate science.

“It seems to me that Administrator Pruitt’s support for a red and blue team analysis of climate science indicates that he is open to being convinced one way or the other on the endangerment finding,” Ebell said.





Tags Climate change Climate change denial Climatology Global warming Scientific opinion on climate change Scott Pruitt Scott Pruitt

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