People, planet, and the path ahead
Former Vice President Al Gore speaks to members of the media after meeting with Ivanka Trump and President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 5.
Andrew Harnik/AP/File | Caption

Gore, yes. But green groups watch who else has Trump's ear.

Al Gore's visit to Trump Tower has stirred hopes that the president-elect may be adjusting his stance on climate change. Environmentalists say Trump's cabinet picks will be telling. 

Although former vice president Al Gore walked into Trump Tower and discussed climate change with Donald Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, environmental groups are paying more attention to all the other people who have taken that same elevator to the president-elect’s office.

Mr. Trump is expected to name his picks to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, and Interior Department soon, and most of the candidates have raised alarms for climate advocates that even the world’s best-known – Mr. Gore – hasn’t been able to assuage.

“Trump's team knows his denial [on climate change] is a liability. Tough luck, he's not going to shake that label until he stops making the problem worse,” Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org, says via email, in reference to the Trump-Gore meeting. “The first test will be appointments.”

The comment is telling.

Although the Trump-Gore meeting Monday sparked a flurry of news articles speculating about a possible shift in Trump’s tack on climate change, it remains far from clear that such a shift is under way. And the cabinet appointees will send a strong signal on – and once in office will have considerable sway over – the new administration’s environmental policies.

At the same time, the mixed signals from the Trump transition are prompting some hope as well as caution among those who favor action on climate change. The meeting with Gore, after all, comes after a news report that Ivanka Trump is interested in climate action, and after the President-elect said in a New York Times interview that he sees “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change – more of an acknowledgement of the issue that he had given during his presidential campaign.

It’s not unusual for politicians to pivot once elected, softening stances taken during a campaign. And although it’s hard to tell how much of that Trump may do, it’s clear from decades of his public statements that his positions on issues have often changed over time. The question is still whether climate will be one of those issues.

“Impossible to tell,” David Goldston, director of government affairs with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the implications of the meeting between the Trumps and Mr. Gore. “I think in many ways, the President-elect is a blank slate on climate, and we're pleased that [vice president] Gore has had the chance to talk to him.”

Conservatives contend that the meeting with Mr. Gore amounted to little given the people under consideration for those cabinet posts.

“Given President-elect Trump's statements and the people he's surrounded himself with, I don't believe this meeting will have any meaningful implications for energy policy under a Trump

administration,” Chris Warren, spokesman for the conservative Institute for Energy Research, told the Monitor.

The shortlist to head the EPA includes a number of Republicans who have fought the agency on climate and air pollution regulations: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whose name appears on several lawsuits regarding EPA rules; Kathleen Hartnett White, a senior fellow at think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; and Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer and until recently lobbyist at Bracewell Law who has represented energy firms in EPA lawsuits. Holmstead also headed the agency’s air program under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Trump also is said to be considering Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, as well as North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, to head the Energy Department. All three are vocal fossil fuel advocates on Capitol Hill.

"We remain deeply troubled by President-elect Trump's climate denier comments and by the individuals with deep fossil fuel industry ties who are being floated for key cabinet positions, but of course we hope that his meeting with Vice President Gore helps convince him not to roll back either recent progress or bedrock environmental protection,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters.

Trump’s messages on climate change, even after winning the election, have been mixed.

He told The New York Times that he has an “open mind” on remaining in a United Nations climate change agreement that, while on the campaign trail, he said he’d “cancel.” While campaigning, Mr. Trump also flirted with shutting down the EPA. And, in the same interview where he acknowledged “some connectivity” between human activity and a rising temperatures (after calling climate change a “hoax” in the past), he incorrectly stated that the world’s hottest year was in “1890-something.”

Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, said that Mr. Trump believes the scientific consensus that humans drive a warming planet is “a bunch of bunk.” And while a Politico story said Ms. Trump wants to take an active role in climate discussions, there’s no real public record of

her comments on the issue.

Mr. Gore told reporters that his Monday meeting with the Trumps was “extremely interesting,” later saying on MSNBC that Ms. Trump’s interest on climate was “certainly evident.” But he and cautioned that “we’re in this wait and see period.”

That, in a nutshell, is the sentiment from environmental groups. They hope to be pleasantly surprised by whatever the eventual Trump administration decides on climate. A member of one such group said, “I really think Trump does listen” to the people he meets with.

Environmental groups are hopeful recent comments from Mr. Trump reflect a transition.

“The campaign rhetoric versus the governing reality could bring a significant difference,” says Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, told the Monitor. Mr. O’Mara noted that Gore’s experience running an investment fund might help him make a case to Mr. Trump about the potential for clean energy jobs. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the administration wouldn’t want to put 100,000 wind industry workers out of work in the Midwest.”