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Trump appointees on climate change: Not a hoax, but not a big deal either

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), center, is flanked by Sen. Pat Roberts (R.-Kan.), left, and former senator Bob Dole, before the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing Jan. 12 to consider Pompeo for CIA director. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

As we watch President-elect Donald Trump’s national security appointees seek Senate confirmation this week, a hint of a pattern seems to be emerging in how some of them discuss the global environment and its leading problem, the unambiguous warming trend.

We’re not seeing any outright denial on this front. What we are seeing, though, is a tendency to either avoid full engagement with the issue or to minimize it.

It started with Rex Tillerson’s hearing Wednesday. The former Exxon Mobil chief knows the subject of climate change very well, and as secretary of state, he would head up U.S. international negotiations on the matter under the Paris climate agreement (assuming this country continues to participate in that accord, something that Tillerson left pretty ambiguous).

Yet Tillerson stated that while humans are changing the climate, “our ability to predict that effect is very limited” — a dubious assertion, when it is clear that more emissions equal more warming, and when scientists can now directly connect the volume of emissions with particular temperature ranges for the planet.

But for Tillerson, it was really more about the minimization of the problem than its rejection. Later in his testimony, he went said of the changing climate, “I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat that perhaps others do.”

The pattern continued Thursday when Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan), Trump’s pick to head the CIA, was asked about climate change by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) — and seemed to suggest he didn’t think the subject very relevant to the job.

Pompeo is on record as raising doubts about the very fundamental climate trend itself. Speaking on C-SPAN in 2013, he said that “there are scientists that think lots of different things about climate change. 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.” Actually, it’s clear that the planet is warming, and scientists have in fact said that is “unequivocal.”

In this context, Harris asked Pompeo about what role the issue plays in national security, noting that John Brennan, the current CIA director, has flagged climatic changes as a potentially destabilizing force. Brennan said in November 2015:

Extreme weather, along with public policies affecting food and water supplies, can worsen or create humanitarian crises. Of most immediate concern, sharply reduced crop yields in multiple places simultaneously could trigger a shock in food prices with devastating effect, especially in already fragile regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Compromised access to food and water greatly increases the prospect for famine and deadly epidemics.

Pompeo didn’t deny the science, and he admited that the CIA’s role is to “understand threats to the world … to the extent that changes in climatic activity are part of that foreign intelligence collection task, we will deliver that information to you all and to the president.” But he nonetheless seemed to minimize the importance of a changing climate to a national security risk assessment, remarking that “I frankly, as the director of CIA, would prefer today not to get into the details of climate debate and science, it just, it seems my role is going to be so different and unique from that, it is going to be to work alongside warriors keeping America safe. I stand by the things that I have said previously with respect to that issue.”

Nobody is saying that a changing climate is the only thing one should focus on in foreign policy or national security — it’s hardly the only danger. But it’s clearly relevant.

First, large volumes of research have now documented a close relationship between natural resource exploitation, environmental degradation, and conflicts. As we reported here, summarizing United Nations Environment Program research on the matter:

Exploitation of natural resources can help start or revive conflicts in a variety of ways. Competition for land and water resources, for instance, can be a big source of tension between human communities, and environmental degradation — for example, deforestation, pollution or the redirecting of water resources — can increase this competition. Damaged or degraded environments also leave human populations more vulnerable to natural disasters, disease, food shortages and other crises, which can increase the odds of civil unrest or even force people to migrate to other areas.

It’s easy to see how a changing climate could compound these kinds of problems. Indeed, recent research on the link between climate-related disasters and violent conflicts has reached a nuanced conclusion. As a study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put it:

We find evidence in global datasets that risk of armed-conflict outbreak is enhanced by climate-related disaster occurrence in ethnically fractionalized countries. Although we find no indications that environmental disasters directly trigger armed conflicts, our results imply that disasters might act as a threat multiplier in several of the world’s most conflict-prone regions.

So you don’t have to place a changing climate at the center of your security thinking in order to include it in a worldview that takes into account all changing sources of risk.

Maybe we’re getting a taste, though, of what Trump’s more environmentally focused picks — Ryan Zinke for interior secretary, Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency, Rick Perry for energy secretary — will say next week. These appointees, despite their own histories of doubt-raising comments on climate change, probably won’t want to get into a science fight with their Senate interlocutors either. So they may not deny, but they too will probably continue to minimize.

On one level, this is progress. While Trump himself has often suggested climate change is a hoax, his appointees, in serious Senate confirmation discussions, aren’t going there. On another, it could mean that in practice, as the Trump administration governs, we will see something like what happened under George W. Bush: The issue may be acknowledged at times, but not treated with a lot of urgency.