Donald Trump’s transition team and growing cabinet have hardly been winning choices for climate activists, so far.
The president-elect’s “landing team” is filled with members who have denied or expressed doubt about human-caused climate change. His picks for heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department have both questioned the accepted science of global warming — and his choice for secretary of state, while not necessarily a climate skeptic, has optimistically suggested that climate change is a mere “engineering problem” which certain adaptation measures can address.
Then there are those members of the Trump team whose stances on climate change are, well, less consistent. Last week, officials confirmed that Trump’s pick for Interior secretary would be Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Montana congressman whose position on global warming appears to have
shifted markedly over the years — and may still be unclear.
And that’s important — the Interior Department makes all kinds of decisions related to climate change, including when and where coal mining and oil and gas extraction can take place on public lands, as well as how certain aspects of the industries are regulated. In November, the agency finalized a rule that would help reduce methane emissions from drilling operations on public lands, and just this week it adopted a rule that would prohibit coal mining practices that could permanently pollute streams and drinking water resources.
Signaling that emphasis, earlier this month current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell spoke to a gathering of climate scientists at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union and said she “encourage[s] people to speak up and to talk about the importance of scientific integrity, and if they see that being undermined to say something about it,” adding that “climate change is the most pressing issue of our time.”
From clean energy advocate to climate doubter?
As several environmental groups have pointed out, Zinke — whose press contact did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday — was one of 1,198 state legislators to sign a 2010 letter to President Obama and Congress calling for “comprehensive clean energy jobs and climate change legislation.”
The letter touted the economic benefits that come with the expansion of renewable energy, and also warned of the costs associated with climate change. “The costs and instabilities involve massive flooding and major hurricane damage, sustained droughts and widespread agricultural pests and diseases, and major biological disruptions affecting our water and food supply, health care, and public safety,” it stated.
Zinke was a state senator in Montana at the time, and according to some, a more moderate Republican. In 2008, when he first launched his bid for the Montana state legislature, he secured a co-endorsement from the Montana Conservation Voters and received voting scorecards from the organization of 54 percent in 2009 and 60 percent in 2011. His scorecard has since dropped to 3 percent.
“I was proud when he emerged as the Legislature’s most informed, responsible Republican on energy and climate,” wrote Steve Thompson, a former chairman of the Montana Conservation Voters, in a 2014 letter to the Flathead Beacon. “He was eager to tell me about bringing top military brass to Helena to explain that climate change is a national security issue.”
But Thompson added in the letter, Zinke “now denies the clear scientific evidence that climate change is happening and is caused by burning fossil fuels.”
In the years since the 2010 letter to Obama, Zinke has made multiple remarks to suggest he isn’t so convinced about human-cased, or anthropogenic, climate change. His hardened stance became apparent in 2014 when he faced off against Democrat John Lewis for Montana’s lone seat in the House of Representatives. In August of that year, he reportedly told the Associated Press that, while humans have had a hand in climate change, “the evidence is equally as strong that there are other factors, such as rising ocean temperatures, that have a greater influence.”
During an October 2014 debate ahead of the congressional election, Lewis pointed out the flip flop.
“Here is somebody that…sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to do something about climate change, and now all of a sudden is a denier,” he said.
When asked by the moderator to clarify his stance on global warming, Zinke replied that “it’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either.”
Last year, he expressed a similarly muddled stance in an interview with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, where he acknowledged that the climate is changing, but questioned “the degree of what that influence is.”
“The president would say Hurricane Sandy was from global warming, and that is not based on fact,” he continued. “It’s not based on fact that we’ve had 16 years of the highest temperatures.”
For the record, scientists generally would not “blame” Hurricane Sandy, or any other isolated weather event, on climate change — but many experts agree that global warming has played a role in the conditions that helped lead to such extreme weather events in recent years, and may make them more likely to occur in the future. And while it’s true we haven’t had 16 years straight of record-breaking heat, the last 10 hottest years have all occurred within the past two decades, and the years 2014, 2015 and likely 2016 have successively broken temperature records.
Zinke’s comments speak to a by-now-familiar skepticism of basic climate science. But what’s less clear is what he thinks ought to be done — or not done — about the issue.
“If we’re playing Russian roulette and…you have a one-in-six chance of that chamber being loaded with a bullet and you spin it, are you going to put it to your head and squeeze the trigger?” he said in his Bozeman Daily Chronicle interview. “Even if there’s a one-in-six chance for global warming and it’s a catastrophe, then I think you need to be prudent.”
But immediately after saying that, he added, “Given energy independence for North America and not, I think you go with energy independence for North America, all of the above.”
“All of the above”
It’s not the first time Zinke has mentioned his commitment to an “all of the above” energy independence scheme, a platform that seems to embrace the expansion of both fossil fuels and renewables without necessarily acknowledging the issue of climate change.
Zinke’s congressional website says he supports an energy policy that includes “renewables, fossil fuels and alternative energy” and adds that his commitment to American energy independence “includes building the Keystone XL Pipeline, developing clean coal and encouraging renewable energy research and development.” In previous interviews, he’s championed both the natural gas and coal industries.
And during the 2014 debate with Lewis, after suggesting that the issue of climate change doesn’t rely on “proven science,” Zinke added that “you don’t dismantle America’s power and energy on a ‘maybe.’ We need to be energy independent first.”
It’s true that a commitment to fighting climate change isn’t necessarily the only reason a legislator might support the expansion of renewables. As the costs associated with wind and solar power continue to fall, there’s a clear economic case to be made for clean energy as well.
So it’s not totally contradictory for Zinke to advocate for a diverse energy landscape while also making so many questionable comments about climate change — although it still doesn’t explain his signature on a letter to the president that called for both clean energy and climate action.
But he’d hardly be the only member of the Trump team to have taken a turn on the issue. Last week, an adviser on the Trump transition team raised eyebrows by comparing climate science to the flat earth theory — when only a few months earlier, he’d said in an interview that climate science is “pretty much irrefutable at this point.”
At the end of the day, the opinions Zinke has expressed most recently — as the new administration is preparing to take office — are the ones that we should be paying attention to. And as a person who’s been tapped to manage the country’s lands and natural resources, which may become increasingly vulnerable under the changing climate, that’s something to take seriously.