On global warming, Trump nominees try having it both ways

Cabinet candidates aren't calling climate change a 'hoax,' but they're taking on climate science by emphasizing a lack of modeling precision and disagreements among scientists.

Carlos Barria
U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT), a former Navy SEAL commander, testifies before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be Interior Secretary at Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2017.

Update: This story was updated at 10:55 a.m. to add comments from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), the pick to lead the Energy Department.

The people poised to handle the federal government’s environmental portfolio appear to be trying to have it both ways on climate change: They are denying that it’s a “hoax,” but they are questioning the ability to measure humanity’s contribution with “precision.”

At first blush, the comments appear to be a departure from President-elect Donald Trump’s comment that climate change is a China-made fiction. In that way, Mr. Trump’s picks to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, Energy Department, and the State Department have sounded more aligned with the scientific consensus that humans are driving climate change.

But they’re not actually embracing that conclusion.

Instead, they’re pointing to models that show some variation on emissions, temperature, and sea-level rise projections and amplifying those small disagreements to discredit or sow doubt about the widely held conclusion that humans are driving emissions higher and raising temperatures, largely from burning fossil fuels.

To most climate scientists, the comments are “deliberately misleading,” says Susan Joy Hassol, director of Climate Communication.  

The nominees’ statements point to Republicans’ struggle to oppose climate science without dismissing it entirely, she and others say. 

In 2014, GOP lawmakers attempted to deflect questions by saying, “I’m not a scientist.” A year later, all but one Republican senator supported a resolution that climate change was “not a hoax,” but they added that “climate has always been changing.”

This year’s congressional hearings are “a return to the George W. Bush administration,” which often delayed action on the grounds that the science was uncertain and ordered more studies on the issue, says Ms. Hassol.

“There is no disagreement among any legitimate scientist on that question,” she adds. 

Points of confusion

Scott Pruitt, the Republican Oklahoma attorney general whom Trump tapped to lead the EPA, said in his Wednesday confirmation hearing that climate change is “caused by human activity in some manner. I believe the ability to measure with precision is subject to more debate.”

That came one day after Interior nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) of Montana, told a Senate panel during his confirmation hearing that the “climate is changing, man is influencing it — I think where there is debate" is how much.

And last week, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, the top choice to lead the State Department and United States climate diplomacy, said “we cannot predict with precision” the effects of climate change and that the science behind connectivity to extreme weather events is “not conclusive.” He added, however, that “doesn’t mean that we should do nothing."

Former Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry, vying for the Energy Department's top spot, weighed in during his Thursday confirmation hearing that, “I believe the climate is changing" and that "some of it is naturally occurring, some of it is caused by man-made activity.”

Admittedly, climate models are complex and can differ on many fine points around timing and degree of changes. And since they are predicting well into the future, they are inherently imprecise.

That can give rise to confusion among the public, scientists say.

“Models can give rather different answers because they were intended for different purposes. It does mean that it takes experts to properly interpret results, and casual observers and politicians can easily be led astray,” says Kevin Trenberth, a senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., in an email.

But emphasizing those differences can be a red herring.

“This line tends to ignore the certainties that climate change is happening and it is caused by humans, and we argue about details,” says Dr. Trenberth. “It can be used as a mask to say we will do nothing.”

Scientists, Trenberth notes, often emphasize the uncertainties – like the effect climate change will have on precipitation – since that’s where more research and improved modeling is needed. But for policymakers to zero in on those uncertainties as a defense of inaction can be dangerous.

Mr. Pruitt, the EPA nominee, did commit to regulating carbon dioxide emissions if confirmed. But his questioning of how much humans contribute to a warmer planet may translate into a light regulatory touch.

Senate Democrats haven’t elicited particularly detailed views from Trump’s Cabinet picks during the hearings. What the candidates have offered feeds misinformation that hinders action, Hassol argues.

“At this point confusion may be as dangerous as contrarianism and delay as insidious as denial,” she says.

Shifts in public opinion

The hearings come at a time when the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year on record – the third year in a row that global temperatures have set a record.

Moreover, Americans are increasingly concerned about the issue, according to a survey released Wednesday.

While climate change is still a polarizing topic, the survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication shows a record number of Americans – 19 percent – say they are “very worried” about global warming. Some 61 percent are “somewhat” or “very” worried.

Seven in 10 Americans believe global warming is happening (compared with 13 percent who say it is not happening), and the proportion of Americans who are either “extremely” or “very sure” global warming is happening is 45 percent, the highest proportion since the survey began in 2008.

Says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program: The polarization around climate change “is beginning to shift.” 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to On global warming, Trump nominees try having it both ways
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today