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The Energy 202: Amy Coney Barrett says she's 'not a scientist' when asked about climate change

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with Alexandra Ellerbeck

President Trump's nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court demurred when asked broadly what she thought of climate change.

Amy Coney Barrett said late during her confirmation hearing Tuesday that while she has read up on the issue, she did not have “firm views” on global warming. 

“I'm certainly not a scientist," she said when asked by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) whether she had a personal opinion on the issue. "I mean, I've read things about climate change. I would not say I have firm views on it."

The exchange was short, but to her critics her answer was telling. 

The use of a boilerplate phrase often trotted out by Republican lawmakers – who often default to insisting they are not scientists – raised eyebrows among those concerned about how the 48-year-old judge will rule on climate cases should she get a lifetime appointment. 

Jamal Raad, campaign director of the green group Evergreen Action, called her response “disqualifying."

“It is a requirement that a Supreme Court Justice be able to review evidence to make a decision,” he said. “The scientific evidence of climate change is beyond reasonable doubt or debate, yet Amy Coney Barrett refused to acknowledge reality.”

A climate change case is already on the Supreme Court's docket next year. It will hear a case involving several oil companies, including Dutch Royal Shell, being sued by the city of Baltimore, which is seeking to hold them financially responsible for their greenhouse gas contributions. Barrett's father spent much of his own career as a lawyer for Shell. 

Even before the hearing, legal experts predicted Barrett will be a roadblock to tougher environmental regulations.

Barrett only joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 2017. But those examining her brief judicial record say the conservative judge would make it harder for environmentalists to win at the Supreme Court.

A high court with a more solid 6-3 conservative majority may help cement Trump's rollbacks of environmental regulations and even make it hard for a future Democratic administration to implement a plan to combat climate change.

Yet at least one of Trump's other Supreme Court picks has acknowledged the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet when speaking from the bench. 

“The policy is laudable,” Brett Kavanaugh, then an appellate court judge, said in 2016 when hearing a case on Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan. “The earth is warming. Humans are contributing."

This was not the only time environmental issues were raised in the hearing. 

Earlier in the day, a Democratic senator decried a network of “dark money” donors from the oil and other industries helping pick Supreme Court nominees.

Wielding posters and a Sharpie, Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings are a “puppet theater” in which donors, including fossil fuel executives, are “pulling strings.”

Their goal, according to the senator, is to kneecap the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies from issuing and enforcing strong regulations by getting judges sympathetic to corporate interests on the court.

Whitehouse cited a report from our colleagues Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Shawn Boburg describing how the Federalist Society's Leonard Leo helped nonprofit organizations raise $250 million from mostly anonymous donors in recent years to promote conservative causes.

Those organizations have, in turn, cultivated a generation of right-wing judges, including Barrett, who Trump and Senate Republicans have elevated to the federal bench.

“Something is not right around the court,” he said, using his entire 30 minutes of questioning time to talk without asking Barrett anything, “and dark money has a lot to do with it.”

“If you're a big polluter, what do you want?” he added. “You want weak regulatory agencies.”

Power plays

World's top energy agency warns drastic changes are needed to confront climate change.

The International Energy Agency’s executive director Fatih Birol warned this week that massive investment in clean energy technologies, as well as changes in driving preferences, are required to keep climate change within the limits scientists say is necessary to prevent dire changes.  

“If the world is serious," he said, "it needs to tackle climate change.”

That means “not only building new infrastructure clean, but at same time we need to tackle the existing infrastructure, which is overwhelmingly fueled by fossil fuels, including inefficient coal-fired power plants.”

When it comes to cars, every other automobile sold in 2030 would have to be an electric vehicle, he said — up from only 3 percent of global car sales today. By 2050, all new cars would have to be electric.  

The IEA also said that the coronavirus pandemic continues to weigh on the world’s energy consumption, and therefore its carbon dioxide emissions. The agency said that global energy demand is set to drop by 5 percent in 2020, and energy-related CO2 emissions by 7 percent, and energy investment by 18 percent.  

The steepest declines are coming in oil demand and coal use, while natural gas and electricity demand were down modestly.

-Steven Mufson

Trump signs an executive order backing a plan to plant a trillion trees. 

With the action Tuesday, the president created an interagency council charged with coordinating the United States’ efforts to support the international initiative aimed at repopulating the world’s trees and targeting climate change.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner will serve on the council, which will be led by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Axios reports.

Trump has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the science behind human-caused climate change. The text of the executive order states that forests and woodlands sequester atmospheric carbon, but does not directly mention climate change. 

In January, Trump announced that the United States would join the Trillion Trees Initiative:

The hydroelectric dam industry and environmental groups announced an agreement.

The agreement, announced Tuesday, to get more clean energy from hydropower while reducing environmental harm is “a sign that the threat of climate change is spurring both sides to rethink their decades-long battle over a large but contentious source of renewable power,” the New York Times reports.

Hydropower, which supplied 7 percent of U.S. electricity last year, does not emit greenhouse gases, but it can disrupt rivers and devastate fish populations. A joint statement from environmental groups and representatives of the hydropower industry said that they would work to retrofit dams to minimize their ecological impact, get rid of old dams that are no longer needed, and add facilities for hydropower generation to existing dams that are not already powered to increase renewable energy output.


Warming has killed half the coral on the Great Barrier Reef, a new study finds.

“The decline occurred in both shallow and deeper water, and across virtually all species — but especially in branching and table-shaped corals,” Terry Hughes, a professor at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Queensland and a co-author of a research paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, said.

The Great Barrier Reef is important not only to Australia's ecology, but also to its economy. 

“Before the coronavirus pandemic, more than 2 million tourists traveled to Queensland each year from all over the world to experience its color and biodiversity,” our colleague Darryl Fears reports. “Worldwide, reefs provide habitat for a quarter of marine animals and plants, coastal protection that limits flooding for 500 million residents, and fishing that provides protein and revenue.”

Around 12,600 firefighters are still combating 14 major wildfires across California.

The state is now bracing for windy weather and new blazes that could exacerbate the fires, our colleague Andrew Freedman reports.

“California’s devastating wildfire season is far from over, with yet another period of ‘elevated to critical’ wildfire conditions coming to much of the state from Wednesday to Friday,” Freedman writes. “A combination of high winds and dry air will enable any preexisting fires to spread, and new ignitions to quickly expand and exhibit extreme fire behavior, making them difficult to contain.” 

United Nations weather agency warns of more disasters each year.

“In a new report released with partners, the World Meteorological Agency says more disasters attributed to weather are taking place each year,” the Associated Press reports. “It said over 11,000 disasters have been attributed to weather, climate and phenomena like tsunamis that are related to water over the last 50 years — causing 2 million deaths and racking up $3.6 trillion worth of economic costs.”

The report says that 108 million people worldwide needed international assistance in the wake of climate disasters in 2018 and that this number could increase by 50 percent by 2030. One spot of good news: Even as the number of severe weather events and their economic toll increase, the average number of deaths from each disaster per year has declined by one-third, the Associated Press reports.

The head of the U.N. also warned about climate risks in a video message to a group of finance ministers. Secretary General António Guterres urged the ministers to end fossil fuel subsidies and told them not to bail out polluting industries.

Climate change has hurt real estate values in coastal Florida.

Starting in 2013, sales in areas at high risk from rising seas dropped significantly, according to the New York Times. A few years later home prices also began to trend downward, according to a working paper published on Monday by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

The paper found that by 2018 home sales in high-risk areas trailed 16 to 20 percent behind areas less exposed to sea level rise, the New York Times writes.

Oil check

Researchers found higher levels of radiation near fracking sites.

A new study published in the journal Nature on Tuesday finds that radiation levels downwind of fracking sites are on average 7 percent above normal background radiation, Reuters reports.

The radiation probably comes from naturally occurring radioactive material brought up to the surface during fracking. The study’s lead author, Petros Koutrakis of Harvard, told Reuters that the higher level of radiation found downwind of fracking sites is “not extremely dangerous, but could raise certain health risks to people living nearby.”