How Trump’s climate skeptics are changing the country
President Donald Trump is filling the upper ranks of his administration with appointees who share his disbelief in the scientific evidence for climate change — giving them an opportunity to impose their views on policies ranging from disaster planning to national security to housing standards.
At the Interior Department, decisions about Pacific island territories threatened by rising seas are in the hands of an assistant secretary who has criticized “climate alarmists” for “once again predicting the end of the world as we know it.” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s top advisers include a former talk radio host who has dismissed much climate research as “junk science.” Trump’s nominee to head research and technology at the Department of Transportation claimed three years ago that global warming had “stopped” — a position at sharp odds with the findings of federal agencies like NASA.
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Trump has chosen at least 20 like-minded people to serve as agency leaders and advisers, according to a POLITICO review of his appointees’ past statements on climate science. And they are already having an impact in abandoning former President Barack Obama’s attempt to help unite the world against the threat of rising sea levels, worsening storms and spreading droughts.
Most famously, the president and his team have scrubbed mentions of climate change from government websites, kicked scientists off advisory boards, repudiated the Obama administration’s greenhouse gas regulations and made the U.S. the only nation on Earth to reject the 2015 Paris agreement on global warming.
More quietly, Trump’s White House excluded rising temperatures from the list of threats in its December national security strategy, contradicting the approach of both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Last year, just before Hurricane Harvey drowned Houston, the White House rescinded requirements that projects built with federal dollars take into account the way warming temperatures might intensify extreme weather.
People worried about the consequences of climate change say a government that denies the problem is courting danger.
“The analogy could be if somebody’s got a heart problem or high cholesterol, you take medicine that helps manage that so you can avoid a heart attack,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, the government affairs director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Trump taking that away, saying, ‘Forget it, I don’t believe I have high cholesterol,’ is setting up the country for a heart attack.”
Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, found the trend worrying as well.
Many administration officials “don’t seem to believe climate change is real, or if they believe climate change is real, there’s this sort of attitude that there’s not much to do about it or it’s not caused by human actions,” said Mathur, whose AEI colleagues also include people who question the extent of man-made climate change. As a result, she said, the U.S. is falling behind countries that are taking action on the problem.
The doubts are coming from both prominent and little-known Trump appointees, in ways both obscure and subtle.
Some have expressed doubt that the Earth is warming at all, speculated that the trend might be good for humans, or said it’s just impossible to know how much of a role humans and their pollution are playing. All these statements fly in the face of findings by the government’s own research agencies and the vast majority of climate scientists.
“There are scientists that think lots of different things about climate change,” then-Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), now Trump’s CIA director, said on C-SPAN in 2013. “There’s some who think we’re warming, there’s some who think we’re cooling, there’s some who think that the last 16 years have shown a pretty stable climate environment.” Pompeo dodged the issue in his confirmation hearing last year, saying he would “prefer today not to get into the details of the climate debate and science.”
When he was running for president, HUD Secretary Ben Carson scoffed at the idea that strong evidence for human-caused climate change even exists. “I know there are a lot of people who say ‘overwhelming science,’ but then when you ask them to show the overwhelming science they never can show it,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015.
Few have been as publicly outspoken on the issue as Trump, who more than once has dismissed human-caused climate change as a “hoax” and claimed in January that polar ice isn’t melting.
The White House sought to strike a somewhat more moderate tone in a statement to POLITICO on Monday, which said that “the climate has changed and is always changing. The Administration supports rigorous scientific analysis and debate.” The statement from principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah added that “the development of modern and efficient infrastructure … will reduce emissions and enable us to address future risks, including climate related risks.”
Some of the administration’s climate skeptics have already come and gone.
Former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who had criticized the “allegedly ‘settled science’ of global warming” as a member of Congress, resigned in September amid criticism of his expensive travels on government and private planes. Kathleen Hartnett White, Trump’s pick to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, withdrew her nomination earlier this year after she stirred criticism with a long list of controversial statements, including calling the human role in climate change “very uncertain.”
Another unsuccessful nominee, former talk radio host and political science professor Sam Clovis, had to pull out of the running to be USDA’s chief scientist after critics noted that he has no science credentials — but he remains a top adviser to Perdue. Clovis dismissed much climate research as “junk science” in a 2014 interview, adding that “a lot of this global warming … is really about income redistribution from rich nations that are industrialized to nations that are not.”
Brent Fewell, a conservative environmental lawyer who was an EPA water official under Bush, suggested that some of these officials may privately acknowledge that man-made climate change is real. But he added: “A lot of people on the political right are uninformed about the issue. For whatever reason, it’s a lot easier to simply agree with the prominent voices in the political party.”
The upshot is the same, however: a 180-degree reversal from Obama’s efforts to make the U.S. a leader in addressing the causes and consequences of a warming planet.
The EPA is leading the charge by withdrawing or weakening a host of climate regulations, including a 2015 rule that would have sped the electric power industry’s shift away from coal-fired energy. Trump has also approved tariffs for solar panel imports, which will make it harder for green energy to compete with fossil fuels. Agencies have sought to cancel rules meant to limit the oil and gas industry’s methane pollution — another major greenhouse gas source — and are reconsidering tougher standards for vehicles, too.
The Energy Department has proposed regulatory changes to prop up coal plants that can’t compete in the market, while the White House is seeking buyers for U.S. coal and gas exports.