Pruitt Squirming away from the Weight of Climate Evidence

February 8, 2018 | 4:57 pm
Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Rachel Licker
Principal Climate Scientist

Since taking office, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has shifted how he talks about climate change. You may have heard that he recently suggested that global warming might actually be a good thing. If the consequences of global warming weren’t so serious for Americans, his determination to take down one of the most studied scientific topics of our time would be silly in a Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner kind of way. However, the shifts in his tactics may signal just how difficult it is to refute such an enormous body of evidence.

The beginning

Of course, we know more than enough about how our climate is changing and the degree to which humans are causing these changes for decision makers to take action. In fact, the U.S. government’s latest assessment of the state of our climate told us that human activity likely contributed to at least 92% of the change in Earth’s average temperature observed since 1951.

Out of step with the science, at his confirmation hearing, Administrator Pruitt remarked that, “The climate is changing and human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.”

The middle

By mid-summer 2017, about six months into his tenure, Administrator Pruitt expanded on his question of the extent to which scientists can measure the effect of human activity on climate (answered above). This time, in an interview with Reuters, Administrator Pruitt shifted toward questioning the harm that climate change will cause: “It is not a question about whether the climate is warming. It is not a question about whether human activity contributes to it. It is a question about how much we contribute to it? How do we measure that with precision? And by the way, are we on an unsustainable path? And what harm… is it causing an existential threat?”

This is an interesting shift, because Administrator Pruitt seems to be trying to move the conversation away from whether humans are the primary cause of climate change (which again, science is very clear on), to a conversation about whether we are headed down a harmful path or not. Fortunately or unfortunately, the science is also very clear about this – we know that in the US, we are likely to see more frequent large wildfires in the West, category 4 and 5 hurricanes, coastal flooding, and intense heat waves in a warming world (among other impacts). All of these have real, harmful effects on people’s lives.

Where he is now

Administrator Pruitt continued his shift away from questioning whether or not humans are the primary cause of climate change, to whether or not climate change will harm Americans. Again, perhaps that is because the science on this is so difficult to refute.

Now, Administrator Pruitt is trying to shift conversations toward an idea that climate change may not be harmful, but beneficial, and is questioning what the ideal temperature of the Earth should be.

As we’ve already covered, global warming is projected to cause significant damage to American infrastructure, health, and wellbeing. We are already seeing these effects – we know, for example, that global warming increased the chances – and damaging impacts – of Hurricane Harvey.

And governments and scientists have already come together through the Paris Agreement to decide what the limit of warming should be to avoid dangerous climate change – between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times. Now, scientists are refining our understanding of the difference in how bad the impacts will be at these two levels, and what it will take to avoid the worst damages of climate change. Given the billion-dollar disasters associated with extreme weather, global emissions reductions have human health, economic, and societal benefits for the United States.

Why question climate science?

All of this begs the question – why is Administrator Pruitt (and others in this Administration) so adamant about refuting climate science findings? (While considering this, it is important to take into account his deep connections to the fossil fuel sector and how this shapes his perspective and priorities with respect to climate action.) The logic behind questioning the science seems two-fold for Administrator Pruitt:

  • Each time he questions the scientific consensus that climate is changing and humans are the primary cause, he contributes to confusion that helps stall significant action on climate change.
  • If he can find his Loch Ness Monster amidst the ocean of climate science (the Loch Ness Monster in this instance being fundamental errors in the science of climate change), Administrator Pruitt could open the door to taking down the EPA’s endangerment finding, which underpins the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

In the end, enacting policies that accept the scientific consensus on climate change might be a lose-lose for Administrator Pruitt’s agenda, but it would be a win-win for Americans.