Earth to Pruitt: At a Confirmation Hearing, Denialism Stands while Temperatures Rise
January 27, 2017
Elizabeth Kolbert / The New Yorker
Either it was a cleverly engineered plan or some kind of cosmic joke: just as the confirmation hearing for Scott Pruitt, the climate denier who is Donald Trump's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, was getting under way Wednesday, on Capitol Hill, two federal agencies -- the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- announced that 2016 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began, in 1880.
Earth to Pruitt: At a Confirmation Hearing,
Denialism Stands while Temperatures Rise
Elizabeth Kolbert / The New Yorker
(January 19, 2017) -- Either it was a cleverly engineered plan or some kind of cosmic joke: just as the confirmation hearing for Scott Pruitt, the climate denier who is Donald Trump's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, was getting under way Wednesday, on Capitol Hill, two federal agencies -- the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- announced that 2016 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began, in 1880.
It was the third year in a row to smash previous records for warmth, a trend that prompted the Times to observe that "temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat."
If Pruitt is confirmed, there will probably be no one in a better position to influence -- or, more accurately, wreak havoc on -- domestic climate policy. Central to the Obama Administration's efforts to curb global warming has been a set of EPA regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants. Pruitt, as the Attorney General of Oklahoma, made his views on these regulations known by suing to block them.
In the past six years, he filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the EPA, in many cases acting in concert with the very industries that the regulations were aimed at. Meanwhile, a super pac close to Pruitt, called Liberty 2.0, was collecting large contributions from these same industries; Murray Energy, the country's largest coal company, for instance, gave fifty thousand dollars in August.
At confirmation hearings, nominees typically try to distance themselves from the more extreme positions they've held by suggesting that these were the equivalent of youthful indiscretions. But if that's the strategy Pruitt was attempting on Wednesday, he failed.
In his opening statement, Pruitt offered the following on climate change: "Science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change. The human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be."
The statement was clearly designed to be obfuscatory, but it was just comprehensible enough to also be clearly wrong. As the Times' Coral Davenport put it on Twitter, "#Pruitt on #climate: 'Science tells us climate is changing' but says extent of human role is up for debate. False."
Later in the hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders pressed Pruitt on his views about climate change. The exchange went, in part, like this:
sanders: As you may know, some ninety-seven per cent of scientists who have written articles for peer-reviewed journals have concluded that climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, and it is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world. Do you believe that climate change is caused by carbon emissions, by human activity?
pruitt: As I indicated in my opening statement, the climate is changing and human activity contributes to that in some manner.
sanders: In some manner? Ninety-seven percent of the scientists who wrote articles in peer-reviewed journals believe that human activity is the fundamental reason we are seeing climate change. You disagree with that?
pruitt: I believe the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity's impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to that.
The exchange -- a bizarre riff on Pruitt's opening statement -- prompted Gizmodo to label the hearing " a surreal nightmare." It led Sanders to tweet: "We cannot have an EPA administrator who denies climate science. It is far too late for that."
Pruitt has come under fire from some Republicans, including, most notably, Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who headed the EPA under President George W. Bush. Last month, Whitman told Grist, "I don't recall ever having seen an appointment of someone who is so disdainful of the agency and the science behind what the agency does."
Thirteen former heads of state environmental departments, some of whom served in Republican administrations, recently urged the Senate to reject Pruitt. "We are concerned that Mr. Pruitt does not seem to appreciate this critical role that EPA plays," the group wrote. In an Op-Ed in the Times, on Wednesday, Eric Schaeffer, who directed the agency's office of civil enforcement from 1997 to 2002, made a similar point.
He noted that out of seven hundred news releases issued by the Oklahoma Attorney General's office in the last six years, he had been unable to find a single one "describing actions by Mr. Pruitt to enforce environmental laws or penalize polluters." The Senate, he wrote, should "send him back to the oil fields of Oklahoma."
What's more likely, of course, is that Pruitt will be moving to Washington, along with most of the rest of Trump's scientifically challenged Cabinet picks. And what is even more than likely -- what is certain -- is that the Earth is going to continue to warm, and that the cause is carbon emissions.
That's the awkward thing about climate change: denying it, even at the very highest levels of government, isn't going to alter the fact that it's happening.
Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999. She won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
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