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Trump just put a climate science doubter in charge of the department that leads international climate talks

Rep. Michael Pompeo (R-Kan.), center, is flanked by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), left, and former senator Bob Dole, right, at the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing to consider Pompeo for CIA director on Jan. 12, 2017, in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Mike Pompeo’s coming elevation to secretary of state would put an official who has expressed doubts about climate science in charge of the department tasked with representing the United State at a crucial upcoming international climate summit.

President Trump on Tuesday announced Pompeo would replace the outgoing Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO who supported the Paris climate agreement and agreed that greenhouse gases warm the planet and cause climate change. Tillerson called climate change an “engineering problem.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Pompeo would lead the department as it participates in a key international climate meeting in Katowice, Poland, in December.

In contrast to Tillerson, Pompeo said on C-SPAN in 2013 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.”

That statement contradicts the scientific consensus on climate change, which has converged on the view that a strong ongoing warming trend is being caused by human greenhouse gas emissions. As a congressman, Pompeo also criticized the Paris climate agreement.

In his 2017 Senate confirmation testimony, however, Pompeo took a somewhat more moderate stand, saying that when it comes to the relationship between a changing climate and national security, the job of the CIA 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 added: “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.”

Environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters have already begun to criticize the Pompeo appointment because of its climate-change implications.

“As climate realists like Tillerson depart, and ideologues like Pompeo replace them, the voices of flat out climate change denial are now completely ascendant at the top levels of the Trump administration,” said Paul Bledsoe, who advised the Clinton White House on climate change, in a statement on the development. “The President simply will not be hearing the facts from anyone.”

Pompeo’s climate views matter because, at State, he would lead the agency as it participates in the international climate meeting in Katowice in December. A key focus of the meeting will be the “Talanoa Dialogue,” in which countries will hold a non-judgmental discussion of where the world is in its plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, what more needs to be done, and how to achieve that. The goal is advancing progress on achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

The Trump administration has said that it would drop out of the Paris climate agreement, meaning that how the United States participates in Poland will be watched very closely indeed. The United States is not the only country failing to live up to its climate-change promises, but it is certainly the most prominent, thanks to Trump’s withdrawal.

There’s also the contrast with Tillerson, who was on the losing side of an internal Trump administration debate over whether to abandon the Paris agreement — Tillerson wanted to stay in.

“I think Pompeo’s views are fairly negative about the Paris agreement and climate action, particularly compared to Secretary Tillerson,” said Sue Biniaz, an attorney who previously served as a top State Department negotiator on climate change in multiple administrations. “But I think it all depends on whether this becomes an area of focus, and whether people are brought in to change the policy.”

Biniaz highlighted the fact that the administration has still not nominated anyone to serve as assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs, a division that would normally take the lead on climate change. The Senate-confirmed position is currently held by a career official serving in an acting capacity.

If there’s a nominee, that could change the department’s trajectory significantly. “It could depend on whether someone’s appointed to deal with climate issues,” Biniaz said.

The State Department is also late on filing a required report to the United Nations on how the United States is addressing climate change. The Climate Action Report was due Jan. 1. The State Department, after being pressed, said last month it was planning to file the report..

An environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, announced Tuesday that it has sued the State Department to try to force the release of records relating to the report.