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Why It Matters That Trump's Attorney General Pick Is a Climate Change Skeptic

Congressman Jeff Sessions has already raised alarm bells for comments on race, but his new role also puts him in charge of prosecuting federal environmental crimes.

by Grennan Milliken
Nov 18 2016, 11:02pm

Image: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Jeff Sessions, the ultra-conservative Republican senator from Alabama, has been a controversial political figure for decades. His early career as a US attorney was threatened by allegations of racist remarks in the 1980s, but he remained popular in his home state and managed to carve out a congressional career for himself as a staunch opponent of, among many other things, consensus climate science.

But Sessions is about to get a whole lot more influential to the lives of all Americans: President-elect Donald Trump has picked him to be the next attorney general of the United States.

In what's become a daily routine during the Trump transitionary period, the president-elect's pick of Sessions has been met with exasperated outcries. Civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are preparing for a long period of conflict under the Trump Administration, and Sessions is sure to be a part of it.

Many critiques of Sessions center on documented accusations of racism. In 1986 he became only the second nominee to be denied a federal judgeship by the Reagan administration after his coworkers testified that he regularly used the n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan. He's also vocally opposed to legalized marijuana (an "anti-marijuana zealot," in the words of one activist), which could make things awkward for the eight US states (plus D.C.) that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

While his controversial past and hardline stance on immigration reform (he even opposes some types of legal immigration), are enough to raise eyebrows over this appointment, his scientifically unsound denials of climate change have largely been glossed over, so far. The senator is a devoted climate change skeptic and has gone above and beyond to take down Obama's Clean Power Plan and sow seeds of doubt about the existence of global warming.

As US attorney general, Sessions will be tasked with leading the Justice Department and representing the federal government in legal affairs, which makes his previously reported record on racial issues cause for special concern (especially as minorities have faced historic prejudicial treatment in the US justice system).

But it would also be Sessions' job to bring cases concerning environmental laws to federal courts if needed. The US Justice Department currently regularly prosecutes individuals and companies for environmental crimes (mainly through its Environment and Natural Resources Division), such as polluting or evading regulations. Given Sessions' public stances against climate science and environmental legislation, there's an additional concern that he might ignore certain environmental issues, allowing federal environmental protections to wither.

Sessions has voted against various climate bills in Congress, including President Obama's comprehensive climate change legislation in 2010, a bill in 2011 that would allow the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases, and another in 2007 that proposed the US government factor in the costs of global warming in future federal projects.

During a Senate hearing on climate change in 2012, Sessions led the charge against climate science. As reported by the political news site ThinkProgress, Sessions was incredulous when he was informed by the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee that 98 percent of climate scientists believe anthropogenic warming was real and serious.

"Madam Chairman, I am offended by that, I'm offended by that — I didn't say anything about the scientists. I said the data shows it is not warming to the degree that a lot of people predicted, not close to that much," Sessionshe said.

In 2015, during a hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed budget for 2016, Sessions took hold of the questioning and careened it off course, turning it instead into an interrogation of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on the Clean Power Plan and its proposed emissions cuts for power plants. The senator used models of very recent weather trends, like decreased hurricane landfall and slightly increased soil moisture in the last ten years, to try and ensnare McCarthy in what the Washington Post regarded as "a series of 'gotchas.'"

Unprepared for such an attack, the EPA administrator was knocked off balance and didn't have direct answers. Sessions balked, stating: "This is a stunning development: that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who should know more than anybody else in the world, who's imposing hundreds of billions of dollars in costs to prevent this climate—temperature increase, doesn't know whether their projections have been right or wrong."

Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that Sessions, a climate change skeptic, was picked to be apart of the president-elect's team. Trump himself famously declared that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese. Mike Pence, his vice president-elect, is also on record denying climate change (although he has softened his tone in recent months).

The facts, meanwhile, say otherwise. Now, 98 percent of climate scientists do confirm that anthropogenic warming is real and dangerous. And 2016 is likely to steal the crown yet again as the hottest year on record, up from 2015 before that, and 2014 before that. But this won't likely sway Sessions or this administration's opinion. The fact that the Arctic just entered its long night of winter at a temperature 36 degrees above what it should be won't have any impact on their beliefs either.

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