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.” 

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