The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

EPA staffers get talking points playing down human role in climate change

President Trump shakes hands with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in June after announcing plans to withdraw the United States from the international Paris climate change accord. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Environmental Protection Agency staffers received a list of “talking points” this week instructing them to underscore the uncertainties about how human activity contributes to climate change.

A career employee in the department’s Office of Public Affairs distributed the eight talking points to regional staffers. The list offered suggestions on ways to talk with local communities and Native American tribes about how to adapt to extreme weather, rising seas and other environmental challenges.

Employees crafted the email, first disclosed Wednesday by HuffPost, on the basis of controversial — and scientifically unsound — statements that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has made about the current state of climate research.

“Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner,” reads one of the talking points. “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.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said the EPA will open up a national debate on climate change in 2018. (Video: Reuters)

Another states that while there has been “extensive” research and numerous reports on climate change, “clear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.”

The list echoes pronouncements by Pruitt, who along with other Trump administration officials, has repeatedly highlighted uncertainty about the role humans have played in the warming of the planet. Pruitt also has pushed for a government-sponsored exercise to scrutinize climate science and has wondered whether global warming “necessarily is a bad thing.”

Such comments put Pruitt at odds not only with leaders of other countries but also the vast majority of climate scientists internationally. Even the government’s own scientists have found that  “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

Most experts agree that the burning of fossil fuels is a primary driver of climate change and that unless nations drastically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the world will increasingly face consequences in the form of sea-level rise, stronger storms and protracted droughts, longer wildfire seasons, and other environmental calamities.

“The EPA administrator should not be in the business of telling scientists what they should say publicly about basic scientific information,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The implication is that EPA wants a political filter on all scientific information emerging from the government, especially if it has to do with climate change.”

An EPA spokeswoman said in an email that “the talking points were developed by the Office of Public Affairs. The agency’s work on climate adaptation continues.”

Aside from the points that raise doubt about climate change, the list instructs regional officials to say the EPA “promotes science that helps inform states, municipalities and tribes on how to plan for and respond to extreme events and environmental emergencies.” It also says the agency “recognizes the challenges that communities face in adapting to a changing climate” and “will continue to advance its climate adaptation efforts.”

At other federal agencies, referring to climate change remains a sensitive topic.

Last week, according to an email obtained by The Washington Post, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued guidance with boldface language instructing staffers that the grant solicitations they send out “must not include any broad, generic phrases or terms that are known to be related to divisive political issues or otherwise have a political association, meaning, or inference.”

The agency did not specify what qualifies as politically divisive. But it provided a single example, substituting what would typically be a reference to climate change with a longer term, in italics: “This program will fund research activities that broaden our understanding of the impacts of changing environmental conditions, such as data collection on the frequency of severe weather events.”

Asked about the directive, Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email that Fish and Wildlife made the change “to improve the grants process and accountability.”

“The goal of the policy is for applicants to get away from submitting forms with broad topics and instead submit more specific information about what they will use taxpayer funds for,” she said.

Read more:

EPA chief pushing government-wide effort to question climate change science

On climate change, Scott Pruitt causes an uproar — and contradicts the EPA’s own website