The United States of Climate Change Denial
A guide to the men on Trump's cabinet who have vowed to reverse climate change progress.
Donald Trump has promised to unleash an energy revolution by extracting billions of dollars in untapped fossil fuels and gutting incentives to invest in renewable energy. With the nominations of Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, and Rick Perry to his Cabinet, the President-elect is poised to do more damage to America's environmental legacy—and future—than any other leader in recent memory.
Despite Trump's untraditional approach to choosing Cabinet officials, nothing about their nomination is accidental. Each of them offers a range of qualifications and connections that, together, form a unified front against climate progress, human health, and energy security.
Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State
With Trump's earlier nomination of Pruitt, a fossil fuel-friendly politician, Trump decided to quit with the subtlety and nominated a literal oil magnate, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to serve as Secretary of State. While much of the early opposition to Tillerson's nomination has focused on his close ties to Russia—Tillerson received the Russian "Order of Friendship" from Vladimir Putin—Tillerson's potential to do lasting damage to global climate progress cannot be taken lightly.
Several former State Department officials I spoke with say the department's role in climate progress worldwide—and the role that climate change negotiations have played in ensuring general global stability—cannot be understated.
In her first year as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton created a new department within the State Department called the Special Envoy for Climate Change; this department was critical in negotiating the Paris Climate Agreement and the US-China agreement that preceded it.
"This is not first and foremost about saving the environment for its own sake," Paul Bodnar, former counselor to the envoy and now a senior fellow at the Rocky Mountain Institute, told me. "It's about protecting our economic and security interests around the world. If you support food security, global health, poverty eradication, you should be very concerned about how climate change works to counteract those goals."
Lucky for us, it's impossible to completely separate Tillerson's Russian connections from his potential to do harm to the environment at the State Department. This fact may allow Republicans who feel uneasy about his ties to Putin to find common ground with Democrats hoping to salvage climate deals signed under the Obama administration by opposing Tillerson.
For instance: In 2011, ExxonMobil struck a deal with the Russian government-owned oil company Rosneft to exploit three new oil frontiers in the Black Sea, Siberia, and the Arctic. But sanctions stemming from Russia's invasion of Crimea scuttled that deal, which cost Exxon $1 billion. With Tillerson as Secretary of State, a Trump administration could repeal these sanctions, which could put that deal back on the table, and more importantly could hasten drilling in the Arctic, which is perhaps the most threatened region on Earth.
But Tillerson's potential to do damage to climate progress extends far beyond possible new drilling projects in Russia, which should be considered little more than a sideshow compared to what's at stake in the rest of the world.
"The focus on climate at the international level has completely changed and transformed over the last decade, particularly the role the US has had in terms of diplomatic leadership," Jessica Brown, former Foreign Affairs Officer and lead climate finance negotiator at the State Department, told me. "There has been a lot of trust built between the US and other countries because of the progress we've made on climate agreements."
While the science of climate change and whether we should do anything about it has been very much politicized in the United States, there is widespread global consensus that climate change is a top-tier issue, and progress must move forward. If the US starts ignoring treaties or stops leading the way on climate issues, America could quite quickly find itself diplomatically ostracized.
"Frankly, the concern is that if the Trump administration does a u-turn on climate change in terms of its commitment to Paris Agreement and its commitment to move in lockstep with the 190 countries in addressing this challenge, it would have a negative effect on ability too right climate change but would affect its abilities to advance other interests in the world," Bodnar said.
This, too is an important point. The Paris Agreement must be considered one of the more impressive feats of global diplomacy, and there have been undeniable side benefits from that cooperation.
"We saw positive knock-on effects from our leadership on climate on other areas," he said.
Those knock-on effects have been particularly important in our frequently fraught relationship with China; climate cooperation has kept diplomatic doors open there. Again, these international agreements are negotiated by the State Department, and so having an oil-friendly Secretary of State could very well do more damage to climate progress than perhaps even Scott Pruitt could at the EPA.
"To forfeit areas of mutual benefit with China unilaterally and voluntarily seems like the wrong thing for the Secretary of State to be doing at this time," Pete Ogden, who studies climate policy at the Center for American Progress and formerly worked at the State Department and in the White House, told me.
This brings us to the hugely important question of what kind of Secretary of State Tillerson might be. While those desperate looking for a bright spot for the environment in Trump's cabinet have pointed out that Tillerman and ExxonMobil have both acknowledged climate change in recent years, the fact remains that the company, and by extension, Tillerman, have historically been some of the worst climate actors.
In an excellent New Yorker piece, Elizabeth Kolbert points out that those hoping for Tillerson to be progressive on climate are quite possibly delusional.
"Tillerson is smart enough to have positioned himself, and repositioned his company, so that there's now at least confusion about where he stands," she wrote. "But you have to be pretty desperate—and at this point many people are—to take this as cause for optimism."
Under Tillerson's leadership, ExxonMobil has moved away from overt climate denial and has started engaging in what Kolbert calls more "insidious" forms of denial. A report by MIT and Harvard researchers released earlier this year noted that ExxonMobil still "financially supports more than 100 climate-denying members of Congress and continues to generate its own misinformative comments about climate science." That means while the company have publicly changed its tune about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, Tillerson cannot simply be given the benefit of the doubt or be deemed the most enlightened of Trump's cabinet picks.
"While ExxonMobil does today acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change in its public statements, it also continues to support and perpetuate climate science misinformation through a variety of increasingly veiled initiatives," the report found. Within the last three years, Tillerson has publicly questioned the validity of climate models, temperature records, and has called into question the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Hoping against hope that Tillerson will stand up as the lone supporter of global climate progress in a cabinet that is loaded with deniers is an act of desperation. But if we must muscle up some climate optimism in the Trump administration, perhaps the best we can hope that Trump's interests align with our broader environmental ones.
"Climate is central to issues that do seem to be important to Trump, like security and the refugee crisis in Syria," Brown said. "Thinking about the Syrian crisis, several reports note the link between it and climate change-related droughts. If security and refugee issues are important to Trump, it would make sense for them to continue the progress that's been made."
Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency
While Tillerson could wreak havoc on America's foreign climate obligations, no one is better positioned to dismantle climate change policies domestically than Scott Pruitt.
If confirmed by the Senate to run the EPA, the Oklahoma attorney general will have leeway to chip away at important regulations that ensure clean land, air, and water. And centered in his crosshairs is the proposed Clean Power Plan, a climate change and human health policy that's immensely popular in many states, but is reviled by Republicans for mandating emissions limits on power plants.
Pruitt is best known for being a key architect of the 28-state lawsuit in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia against President Obama's climate rules. Here, he's waged a legal battle against the Clean Power Plan—an emissions-limiting policy that will be crucial to America's Paris Agreement pledge—calling it an unconstitutional power-grab on behalf of the EPA. If Pruitt, at the urging of President-elect Trump, allows the United States to default on the Paris Agreement, this could burden individual states with finding new ways to meet the nation's emissions goals.
"Pruitt opposes the mission of the agency he's been asked to lead. He rejects the science the EPA has developed, and is essentially unwilling to uphold the laws that Congress has given it to enforce. It's enormously troubling that he's in a position to subvert standards and protections already in place, and to do it under the mantle of the agency intended to protect the public from environmental threats," Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, told me.
Unlike other nominees, there's little need to infer Pruitt's allegiance to oil, gas, and coal interests based on things like political funding. (For the record, however, during election years, he received $314,996 from the fossil fuel industry since 2002.) Pruitt's longstanding friendship with energy companies was revealed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the New York Times from 2014, which shed an unforgiving light on the mutualistic dealings between state lawmakers and utility giants.
The expose, based on emails obtained through an open-records request, uncovered an alliance between energy companies and Republican attorneys general that had been forged, in part, by Pruitt. In exchange for fighting federal regulations, these companies would generously donate to the campaign coffers of their sponsors. Pruitt's interactions with Oklahoma's Devon Energy, a utility based out of his home-state, were especially conniving.
A collection of emails dating back to 2011 proved that Devon Energy's legal staff had written several letters sent from Pruitt to the EPA, Obama Administration, and Department of the Interior, lobbying on behalf of the company's interests. "Outstanding!" wrote a Devon Energy representative to the attorney general's office, regarding an email sent to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson about methane emissions.
It's this kind of thinking that Trump almost certainly values in Pruitt. While many of the lawmaker's attempts to thwart environmental rules have failed, he's exhibited a willingness to go to bat for the fossil fuel industry. Now, emboldened by a like-minded administration, and empowered with authority, Pruitt may never have as good an opportunity to expand his pro-drilling agenda nationwide, and possibly with less "job-killing" regulation.
"What Pruitt and his lawyers have been trying to do is make it much more difficult for administrations in the future to regulate carbon emissions. Pruitt will likely be part of a team of lawyers charged with rolling back the legal underpinnings of how we've been forced to regulate carbon. We're going to feel the consequences of that in lives," Jamie Henn, communications director and co-founder of 350.org, told me.
Shortly after Pruitt's candidacy was announced, the attorney general stated his intentions for the EPA, stoking the fears of environmentalists that he would betray the agency's core mission.
Considering Trump's vocal contempt for EPA oversight, as well as his promise to "unleash an energy revolution," it's not unlikely that Pruitt will use his position to benefit fossil fuel companies while simultaneously unraveling climate action.
"The American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations, and I intend to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses," Pruitt said in a press release last week.
A few Democrats have already challenged Pruitt's nomination, such as Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, who called the lawmaker a "professional climate change denier," and urged fellow party-members to block his confirmation. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who initiated a volley of probes into ExxonMobil's climate deception last year, also vowed to "use the full power" of his office to compel Pruitt's enforcement of EPA rules.
Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Department of the Interior
Ryan Zinke, on the other hand, who was chosen this week as Secretary of the Interior (following the fizzled chances of Cathy McMorris Rodgers), could be the weakest link in Trump's anti-environment blockade, partly because he is a walking contradiction. While the Republican congressman from Montana shares many qualities with the likes of Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt, he strays the course on a few interesting issues.
Zinke, a geologist, reneged his acknowledgment of global warming in recent years, but before that, the congressman was advocating for climate action. In 2010, he signed onto a letter from the Coalition of Legislators for Energy Action Now that called climate change "a threat multiplier for instability in the most volatile regions of the world," and asked the Obama Administration to pass a suit of clean energy and climate change laws.
Since then, Zinke has backed down on his initial beliefs, calling the actual science of climate change into question, and eventually refuting it as a man-made phenomenon. Because of this, his qualifications for Secretary of the Interior, which would give him jurisdiction over 20 percent of America's public lands—including those vulnerable to climate change—are worth questioning, but not without hope for science-based reasoning.
Still, over the course of his career, Zinke has received $345,136 in campaign funding from the oil and gas industry. Environmental groups told me that Zinke's personal views on climate change are of little consequence, since denial is the Trump Administration's guiding philosophy, and was the price of entry for joining his Cabinet.
According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, Donald Trump Jr. was intimately involved in Zinke's selection, even attending interviews with prospective candidates. Sources close to the transition team said Trump's eldest son—a passionate hunter—ultimately preferred Zinke for his position on public lands as they relate to hunting access.
"The younger Mr. Trump has a longtime interest in preserving wilderness areas for hunting and fishing, and Mr. Zinke's own opposition to selling off federal lands stems from his concern that it would mean less access to public lands for outdoor sports," wrote Amy Harder for the Wall Street Journal. "This dynamic helps explain why the president-elect settled on a relatively little-known figure for his interior pick, unlike his choices for most other high-profile posts."
The congressman has rustled a modicum of goodwill from environmentalists for supporting the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which allocates some oil and gas royalties to conservation projects, and for occasionally splitting with his party to defend public access to federal lands.
However, Zinke was given a 3 percent score by the League of Conservation Voters, and his nomination was taken with a generous dose of skepticism by organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity, who noted that despite his modest record on public lands, Zinke "consistently votes for the interests of oil and gas companies, which is not surprising since Oasis Petroleum is his largest campaign contributor and the oil and gas industry is his third-largest sector contributor."
Indeed, Zinke has voted in support of numerous fossil fuel development bills, and opposed President Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would funnel 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Canada's oil sands to Texas. And while Zinke is in favor of an "all of the above" energy mix, which President Obama has also endorsed, the congressman's voting record shows that he would do away with many Interior regulations for fossil fuel projects.
At first glance, Zinke is the slightly less predictable wildcard in Trump's cohort of oil barons. He's been known to champion ideals that even the greenest groups would applaud, but almost always with the caveat of benefiting his Montana's sportsmen, indigenous groups, and conservation community—constituents with whom he'd need to curry favor. However, his consistent pursuit of fossil fuel interests is likely to carry over into the Trump Administration.
"A coal mine isn't a good place for duck hunting. Fracking wells tend to get in the way of a good time out with your kid," Henn said. "We agree that public lands should be for public access. The distinction is that they should be protected, not leased out to the fossil fuel industry for a cent per acre."
If confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, Zinke, who once called himself "a Teddy Roosevelt guy" will decide the fate of Roosevelt's conservation legacy by overseeing America's national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges. His commitment to public lands will be evidenced by how he intends to use them.
Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy
While the others on this list have cynically used climate denial to earn their companies record profits or systematically dismantle and attack regulations, Rick Perry is uncomplicated, a caricature of standard Republican climate skepticism and denial. During his 2011 run for president, Trump's new Energy Secretary was called a "straightforward climate science skeptic" by The New Republic.
While other potential cabinet members we've profiled here have made careers playing a Machiavellian game of climate denial chess, Perry is playing a much simpler game, perhaps climate denial Speak-N-Say, with each pull of the string leading him to say and do things that make him unfit to serve in any position of authority.
During his failed presidential run, Perry vowed to abolish the Department of Energy, then forgot he'd made the promise. In April 2011, Perry officially proclaimed a statewide "Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas" in response to wildfires and drought that were ravaging the state in April 2011. The drought worsened for four months, and in September of that year, Perry and the conservative Texas legislature cut funding for the agency tasked with battling the forest fires.
Perry's public statements on climate change are offensive and demonstrably false; in 2011, he said he believes that "there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects," and in his 2010 book he noted that Earth is going through a "cooling" trend. He has, at times, turned this rhetoric into action. While he was Texas governor, Perry's administration censored scientific research by deleting references to sea level rise and climate change from a paper it commissioned about environmental changes in Galveston Bay.
Unsurprisingly, Perry also has close ties to the fossil fuel industry. Perry is board director of Energy Transfer Partners LP and Sunoco Logistics Partners LP, which are jointly trying to build the North Dakota Access Pipeline amid widespread protests from local Native American populations.
There is one incredibly important upshot here: The Department of Energy really has very little to do with fighting climate change and up until George W. Bush's presidency, had been run by run-of-the-mill politicians and bureaucrats, as opposed to scientists. This doesn't make Perry a good pick, but unless Trump significantly changes the general purview of the department, Perry's relationship with the oil industry is less concerning, than Tillerman's or Pruitt's.
The Department of Energy's main concern is managing and securing the country's stockpile of nuclear weapons and, to a lesser degree, managing the nation's nuclear power plants and cleaning up nuclear waste. Fun fact: The department does this with its National Nuclear Security Administration—the NNSA, not to be confused with the NSA.
The DOE is also in charge of the country's 17 national laboratories, which perform a whole host of important basic and applied physics and energy research. Of particular note and fame are Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Fermilab. The labs work on lasers, nuclear and fusion energy, new types of renewable energy, particle accelerator-type research, and the like. Also, one scientist as Fermilab is trying to determine if reality is actually a 2D hologram (do not tell Donald Trump we are spending money on this). So far, 115 scientists working at or associated with the national labs have won Nobel Prizes.
The DOE's laboratories are highly respected on both sides of the aisle—much of its research finds its way into military technology, which Republicans like. It is possible that under an anti-science, anti-progress Trump administration, some labs shift focus to research clean coal and building a better oil rig in lieu of making sustainable energy advances or find themselves newly targeted as an area to be cut, but if it comes to that, we will certainly have bigger problems on our hands.
All four men still need approval from the Senate to assume their respective roles. Environmental groups and progressive Democrats are planning their opposition strategy with hopes of blocking their confirmations. The reality of the situation, though, is that presidential nominations are often confirmed. It will require a concerted effort to block any one of these four nominations, and blocking all of them is unlikely.
This of course is part of the plan—if any one of these nominations are rejected, there's nothing to suggest that any subsequent one would be any better. With his team of anti-environment, oil friendly advisors, Trump will have wide latitude to destroy much of the climate progress made under Obama.
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