It begins badly


President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

With the nomination of a fossil-fuel executive to head the State Department—the agency that manages US participation in the United Nations climate process—and climate change deniers to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DoE), and with the call for names of DoE employees involved in international climate negotiations, it seems safe to conclude that any hope we might have had for progressive climate policies under Trump was misplaced.

Since the election, Trump has made relatively conciliatory statements about climate change, backing away from earlier characterizations of the problem as a “hoax,” but these nominations speak volumes about his true intentions.

Both Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry seem fundamentally hostile to the missions of the organizations they have been nominated to lead. Perry wanted to eliminate the DoE and two other agencies when he ran for President in 2011, but infamously could remember only the other two during a presidential debate. The DoE is responsible for difficult technical issues involving not just energy but also nuclear weapons (to which 60% of its budget is devoted). In terms of ability to grasp such matters, Perry does not stand tall in comparison to Obama’s energy secretaries, Steve Chu and Ernie Moniz, both physicists, one a Nobel Prize winner and the other a professor at MIT.

Speaking of Moniz, DoE’s refusal to hand over the names of staff involved in specific climate change activities—which Moniz must have approved—is a principled response to a disturbing request. But what will happen when Trump’s nominee takes over at DoE? If Trump really wants the names, I guess he will get them. Then what?

Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee for EPA, seems to be trying to stall climate action by encouraging “debate” about climate science:

“Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.” Actually, there’s about as much debate in the scientific community about whether human activities cause climate change as there is in the medical community about whether tobacco causes cancer. If you doubt that, here’s a list of 197 scientific societies from around the world that “hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action.” Pruitt goes on to say, “That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress. It should not be silenced with threats of prosecution. Dissent is not a crime.” This is interesting, because the only climate-related threat of prosecution I know of was directed at a climate scientist (Michael Mann, who inconveniently pointed out the human role in climate change) by another Republican attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia.

The debate we should be having is about climate policy, what are the best solutions to climate change that have the most economic benefits to Americans?

Pruitt does not seem to be on board with one key part of the Trump narrative, however: the story that the decline of coal has been driven by EPA regulation. Given that Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma produces natural gas but not coal, it is perhaps not surprising that he once told a House subcommittee that recent reductions in coal’s market share are “market-driven” (specifically, driven by the low price of natural gas, which is right) and likely to continue (also correct). This does not jibe with statements Trump has made, and it will be interesting to see if Pruitt changes his tune.

On its face the appointment of a fossil fuel executive to head the agency that manages US involvement in the United Nations climate process seems inauspicious. Nonetheless, it’s just possible that Rex Tillerson will surprise us. People who know him seem to think that he has competence and integrity. (It’s shocking that this should be noteworthy.) Under Tillerson’s leadership ExxonMobil has acknowledged the reality of human-caused climate change, which he calls “serious,” publicly supported the Paris climate agreement, and called for a national carbon tax. If this last seems particularly surprising, it may be because the company at least used to regard some sort of climate policy as inevitable, and saw a revenue neutral carbon tax as the least unpalatable option: “Of the policy options being considered by governments, we believe a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the best,” an ExxonMobil spokesperson said recently (but before the election). Still, these positions are at odds with Trump’s, and it will be interesting to see if Tillerson now abandons them.

All of these nominees have close ties to the fossil fuel industry, which reflects Trump’s tendency to look backwards rather than forwards. The nominations of Pruitt and Perry display a disdain for not only science but any kind of subject-matter expertise. These nominees promise to push policies that fly in the face of science and further enrich the industries that are degrading our environment.

It will be up to organizations like WHRC, and our supporters, not only to speak out against the arriving tidal wave of denialism and willful ignorance, but also to maintain progress in controlling climate change. We will do that by continuing to implement the Paris agreement, to work with local, regional, international, and (where possible) national policymakers, and to provide the critical scientific understanding that should and will again some day underpin climate policy.

We all have work to do, and here at WHRC we are more committed than ever to implementing science-based solutions to climate change. Thank you for standing with us.