This story has been updated.
Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s pick to serve as his top White House environmental official, told the Senate Wednesday that she had doubts about the link between human activity and climate change.
“I’m not a scientist, but in my personal capacity, I have many questions that remain unanswered by current climate policy,” Hartnett White, Trump’s nominee to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, told senators Wednesday at her confirmation hearing. “I think we indeed need to have more precise explanations of the human role and the natural role.”
She did acknowledge that there was probably some human contribution, “the extent to which I think is very uncertain.” That contradicts leading scientific assessments on the matter, which have pinned climate change largely on human greenhouse gas emissions.
The statement is likely to add fuel to an already contentious fight over confirmation, which Democrats strongly oppose.
Hartnett White was responding to questioning from Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland during the confirmation hearing held before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. Cardin had cited a recent federal report that pinned climate change almost entirely on human action.
Hartnett White, the former head of the Texas Council on Environmental Quality and currently a fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has long written critically about the science of climate change and about domestic and international attempts to take action on emissions.
That wasn’t her only stance that drew Democratic ire.
Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, asked Hartnett White about her views regarding fine particulate matter, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion that can cause or exacerbate deadly respiratory diseases. Booker argued such pollution is a national crisis, particularly in economically disadvantaged areas where such pollution is often concentrated.
“When the bulk of the country attains the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particulate matter, that to me is confusing if there is a crisis,” Hartnett White countered.
The hearing also focused on the confirmation of Andrew Wheeler, a former Environment and Public Works Committee staffer who later worked as a coal industry lobbyist, to serve as the deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Wheeler generally took a conciliatory stand at the hearing — “I have always believed that the career employees at the EPA are some of the most dedicated and hard-working in the federal government,” he said. Democrats questioned his background and ties to the coal industry, but trained most of their critical fire on Hartnett White.
Some Republicans, at the same time, also criticized Hartnett White for her statements criticizing the Renewable Fuels Standard, or RFS. But Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma defended her, saying, “The other side of the dais has been focusing on your writings, Ms. White, as a private citizen, and have been furthering the myth that you helped polluters get away with polluting while at the Texas commission … what I want to show them is that while you were at the Texas CEQ, the Texas air quality dramatically improved.”
Hartnett White’s history of statements challenging science and policy on climate change is extensive, and she did not substantially back away from that skepticism at the hearing. For instance, Senate Democrats highlighted an April 2016 article for The Federalist titled “Signing the Paris Agreement is the Worst Way to Celebrate Earth Day.”
“That a majority of the world’s nations would sign an agreement ‘recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat’ requiring an accelerated, ‘deep reduction’ in global greenhouse gas emissions is, indeed, an unprecedented but tragic event in mankind’s history,” she wrote in that article.
Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, asked Hartnett White some of the most detailed questions about climate change.
He brought up dying coral reefs, and asked whether Hartnett White believed that was happening. “I would need to read some statement of that science,” she said.
He brought up the loss of Arctic ice and permafrost. “I’m aware of the shrinking ice sheet in the Arctic, but the expanding ice sheet in the Antarctic,” Hartnett White replied.
The Antarctic and the Arctic both have floating sea ice as well as land based ice. It isn’t clear what type of ice Hartnett White was referring to. But in the Arctic, sea ice has been trending downward considerably, as has land-based ice in Greenland and elsewhere. As for the Antarctic, sea ice has indeed been showing a slight increase (until it set a new record low in March of this year). Meanwhile, according to NASA, the Antarctic ice sheet is currently losing 127 billion tons of ice each year.
Merkley also presented a figure from the newly released first volume of the National Climate Assessment, which was reviewed and released by the Trump administration — making it a centerpiece of the hearing and highlighting how it underscores the human role in climate change.
“I view this report really as the product of the last administration, not of this president,” Hartnett White countered.
She cited an “incredible difference of opinion” among climate scientists and said, “I think we need a more precise explanation of the human contribution.”
As chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, Hartnett White would oversee the federal implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental reviews of major government actions. During the Obama administration, the council had moved to require the consideration of climate change during this process.
Trump has said that he would speed up the process of environmental reviews, and Hartnett White testified that she is wholeheartedly in favor of cutting this “red tape.”
“This is a unique opportunity to have a bipartisan, supported by the president, major effort by the agencies to reform much of the NEPA process,” she said.
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