No so long ago, Rick Perry described the science behind human-caused climate change as a “contrived phony mess.” On Thursday, during his confirmation hearing to become the next head of the Energy Department, the former Texas governor expressed a markedly different view — one that has begun to sound very familiar in recent days.
“I believe the climate is changing,” he told lawmakers. “I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is caused by man-made activity. The question is how we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth.”
Almost to a person, the people whom President-elect Donald Trump has picked to run key federal agencies have echoed strikingly similar views about the warming planet and what to do, or not do, about it. Their position, which has proven maddening to many climate scientists, acknowledges three points: Yes, the climate is changing. Humans probably have some role. But it’s likely not the country’s most urgent problem.
Interior secretary nominee Ryan Zinke: “I do not believe it is a hoax. . . . I think where there’s debate on it is what [the human] influence is, what can we do about it.”
Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions: “I don’t deny that we have global warming. . . . It’s the question of how much is happening and what the reaction would be to it.”
Environmental Protection Agency administrator nominee Scott Pruitt: “Science tells us that the climate is changing, and human activity in some matter impacts that change. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue, and well it should be.”
A Trump transition official said Thursday that there had been no coordination with appointees on their message around the issue. “This is an accurate reflection of what they believe, and Cabinet nominees are encouraged to give their opinion on questions when they’re asked,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more open about internal matters.
Frank Maisano, a public affairs specialist at the law firm Bracewell, whose clients include both renewable energy companies and oil and gas firms, argued that the position staked out mirrors that of many Republicans during the George W. Bush administration.
“It’s a position that allows you to have a framework for a policy discussion. You can’t get over the hurdle and into a policy discussion if you’re where we were over the last four years,” Maisano said.
But the views of those potential Trump Cabinet members have exasperated some scientists, who fear that their comments in confirmation hearings over the past week have sown doubt about the extent of the human factor in climate change despite the empirical evidence. In the scientific community, they say, there is little question that humans are the driving force behind the trends that made 2016 the hottest year in recorded history and that climate change is one of the most consequential problems facing the United States and other countries.
“It sounds like an orchestrated campaign of head-in-the-sand,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. “The scientific consensus is clear: Most of the warming since 1950 is the result of the buildup of the human-made greenhouse gases.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body set up under the United Nations that distills the scientific consensus on the subject, has said much the same for years.
“It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” the IPCC wrote in 2013, adding that “human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes.”
As for predictions, scientists don’t have a crystal ball, and their climate change “model” projections aren’t perfect. But what they’re fundamentally doing is applying what is known about the climate system, which is that carbon dioxide warms it on a grand scale and will continue to do so in the future.
The climate views expressed by Trump’s nominees aren’t necessarily surprising, given the number of climate-science skeptics on the transition team. For instance, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who has long questioned the issue’s urgency, is leading the EPA transition.
Other transition officials include George Sugiyama, an attorney who worked for Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, perhaps the biggest climate-change doubter in Congress, and David Kreutzer, a Heritage Foundation economist and fellow who has argued at length that President Obama’s climate policies can’t be justified — in part because of the lack of a scientific consensus about climate change.
But while Trump has called climate change a hoax, his nominees have been unwilling to go there. Still, the new administration’s response could resemble what happened under Bush: The issue of climate change might be acknowledged at times but rarely treated with much urgency.
Yet even 15 years ago, said James McCarthy, a professor at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, there was already widespread agreement among climate scientists that the majority of the planet’s warming during the prior half-century was caused by the production and burning of fossil fuels.
“Since then, greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere have increased every successive year, and we have experienced nine of the 10 warmest years in recorded climate history. Sea level is rising faster, and Arctic sea ice is retreating further each year,” McCarthy noted Thursday.
The fact that the people who would lead key agencies under Trump appear to have little interest in taking aggressive counter-efforts could mean missed economic opportunities, as well, McCarthy said.
“Major economies around the globe are preparing to transition from polluting to clean fuels,” he said. “The U.S. has led many of the developments that have reduced costs of solar and wind energy to where they are now competitive with other fuels. What a pity it would be if Mr. Trump’s Cabinet secretaries let the opportunity for our nation to fully benefit from these advances slip through our fingers.”
Environmental advocates worry that a lack of urgency within the new administration will translate into efforts to slow down or halt efforts by the Obama administration to tackle the problem, which Obama called “one of the most urgent challenges of our time.” They fear a rollback of regulations aimed at reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, slashed funding for clean energy technologies and an indifference or hostility toward government climate research.
Maisano said some of those fears are unfounded, adding that even if the core debate is over, the fight over how serious a problem climate change is and what to do about it is a fair one to have.
“The question is, again, not how much are you aware, but what can we do about it that is reasonable and politically viable. And that’s a question that’s going to change depending on who is in office.”
John Wagner contributed to this report.