Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 25 in Oxon Hill, Md. (The Washington Post)

President Trump’s announcement that he would appoint Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency set off alarm bells among those who track climate science. Pruitt had repeatedly sued the EPA in his role as attorney general, defending the fossil fuel extraction industry that is critical in his state. Moving to the national level can have a moderating effect on people, though, once the scale of their responsibilities expands from just one state to the United States as a whole.

That moderation has apparently not affected Pruitt.

In a truly remarkable exchange on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Thursday, Pruitt rejected the established scientific connection between carbon dioxide emissions and the warming climate — a connection that, even as he spoke, was accurately described on the EPA’s “Climate Change: Basic Information” page.

(EPA website)

“In recent years, critics would say the EPA has been too focused on CO2″ — carbon dioxide — “and maybe things like hazardous waste sites, particulate pollution, strip mining, what’s happening to the oceans — there are so many things that the EPA could do productively that maybe have been diverted from this single-minded focus on CO2,” host Joe Kernen asked. “Are you consciously changing the direction of the EPA to emphasize CO2 emissions less and emphasize these other things more?”

We should take a step back in amazement at the question itself, by the way. “What’s happening with the oceans” is that they are rising, warming and growing more acidic — thanks to global climate change. Oceans rise as Arctic and Antarctic ice melts, and the water itself warms and expands; more carbon dioxide dissolved in water makes it more acidic. Don’t believe me? Here’s EPA analysis of the connection between those things.

Pruitt answers: “I think that’s a fair criticism, Joe, because you’ve seen water programs particularly take less of an importance,” he replied. In other words, the EPA’s focus on the long-term effects of climate change is why the Flint, Mich., water crisis happened. This is a political argument, not one rooted in Pruitt’s assessment of what happened. He’s using Flint as a club to bash the agency’s work on climate science.

Kernen later pressed the issue: “Do you believe that it’s been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob for climate?”

“No,” Pruitt replied. “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact,” Pruitt said, “so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet. … We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.”

“That’s the whole point of science. You keep asking questions,” Kernen replied.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer downplayed EPA head Scott Pruitt's comments on March 9 that carbon dioxide isn't a primary contributor to global warming. (The Washington Post)

Well, sure. But the point of science is also to accept the answers to those questions once determined. And in the scientific community, the answer to the question of the link between greenhouse gases and warming has been determined.

You can go right to the EPA’s website and explore all of the ways in which science has demonstrated that link. Burning fossil fuels, among other things, releases carbon dioxide. More carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere acts like a blanket, preventing heat from escaping into space. The Earth slowly warms. There’s a clear correlation between CO2 emissions and planetary temperatures. Here, Pruitt, read this handout the EPA created for high school students which presents the evidence.

(EPA website)

Or, if he wants something more visual, this Bloomberg interactive makes the point nicely.

This argument has nothing to do with the actual science. The fossil-fuel industry that Pruitt has defended faces economic risks from a push to reduce the combustion of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s not complicated. Pruitt’s comments to CNBC included his saying that “this idea that if you’re pro-environment you’re anti-energy is something that we’ve got to change.” Environmentalists would note that this is a false choice, and that renewable sources of energy — wind, solar — are embraced as alternatives to emission-heavy energy sources, such as oil and coal. But Pruitt’s not actually talking about energy broadly. He’s talking about Oklahoma-style energy and saying that the focus of environmental activism should be on clean water and air and not climate change — which would be a boon to the fossil-fuel industry which sees the climate change fight as an existential threat.

Again, all of this is on Pruitt’s agency’s website for anyone to review — as the scientists have reviewed and accepted it. That’s the real risk, here, that a Pruitt-led EPA will bury accurate information about the link between carbon dioxide emissions and warming for the benefit of the American fossil fuel industry. That the choice will not be between being pro-environment or being pro-energy, but between being in favor of the energy industry or being in favor of accurate information.

Right now, Pruitt appears to be on the opposite side of the EPA on that fight.