"Donald Trump is a climate menace, no doubt about it," asserts Greenpeace U.K. spokesperson John Sauven. "President-elect Donald Trump threatens our environment and we vow to fight him every step of the way," declares Kate Colwell from Friends of the Earth. The Union of Concerned Scientists Research Director Gretchen Goldman warns, "It is hard to imagine a Trump administration where science won't be politicized."
It is the case that in a 2014 tweet Trump notoriously asked, "Is our country still spending money on the GLOBAL WARMING HOAX?" In 2012, Trump tweeted that the concept of global warming had been created by the Chinese to make American manufacturing noncompetitive. During the presidential campaign, he vowed that he would "cancel" the Paris Agreement on climate change. Being his usual consistently inconsistent self, Trump claimed during a Fox News interview last year that the Chinese tweet was a "joke," and he told The New York Times after the election that he would keep an "open mind" about the Paris Agreement.
Yet none of Trump's cabinet picks seem to agree that man-made climate change is hoax.
In the hearings for various cabinet nominees, Democrats have sought valiantly to unmask them as "climate change deniers." So far, not one has questioned the scientific reality of man-made global warming. On the other hand, they have tended not to be as alarmed as their interlocutors, and/or have failed to endorse the climate policies that Democrats prefer.
Take Scott Pruitt. The Oklahoma attorney-general, nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency, stated flatly: "I do not believe that climate change is a hoax." He added, "Science tells us the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue."
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was particularly annoyed that Pruitt pointed to uncertainties about the future course of warming. But those uncertainties are real. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that warming will continue unless GHG emissions are curbed, but it also notes that "the projected size of those changes cannot be precisely predicted." IPCC further observed that "some underlying physical processes are not yet completely understood, making them difficult to model."
Pruitt is one of the 27 state attorneys-general that are challenging the legality of President Obama's Clean Power Plan (CPP), which would require electric utilities to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide by 30 percent below their 2005 levels by 2030. The Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the CPP last February, which indicates that Pruitt and his fellow attorneys-general have substantial legal grounds to challenge that EPA regulation. In November, the eco-modernist think tank the Breakthrough Institute released a study that suggested that the U.S. could well speed up its GHG reduction trends if the CPP was abandoned.
Other nominees asked about their views on climate change include former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson (nominated to run the State Department), Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (Interior Department); Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (Justice Department); businessman Wilbur Ross (Commerce Department); and former Texas governor Rick Perry (Energy Department). Tillerson testified, "I came to the decision a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist and the consequences could be serious enough that it warrants action." Zinke similarly declared that he does not believe climate change is "hoax."
Sessions offered, "I don't deny that we have global warming. In fact, the theory of it always struck me as plausible, and it's the question of how much is happening and what the reaction would be to it." Ross would head the department in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that just reported that 2016 was the hottest year in the instrumental record. Signaling a hands-off approach, Ross declared: "I believe that science is science, and scientists should perform science." In his opening remarks at his hearing, Perry states, "I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity. The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn't compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs."
Tillerson, unlike Trump, does not appear to be in favor of "cancelling" the Paris Agreement on climate change, testifying instead that the United States should have a "seat at the table" during international discussions of the issue. On the other hand, Tillerson did say that the Paris Agreement looks to him like a "treaty," which implies that it needs to go through the constitutional process of senatorial advice and consent. It would be unlikely to fare well in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority of seats. Still, as a signatory to the already ratified United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the U.S. would continue to participate in international climate change diplomacy.
I have been reporting on the science and politics of climate change for more than 25 years. During that time it became clear to me that many pro-market policy makers have refused to acknowledge that man-made climate change might become a significant problem because they oddly accepted the plainly ideological claim by progressives that a vast collectivist reorganization of the world's economy is the only solution. Let's be clear: The existence of man-made warming does not mandate any particular policies. Trump's cabinet nominees are right to the extent that they point out that the risks of climate change need to be balanced against the risks that proposed solutions pose to economic freedom and future prosperity. Tillerson is also right when he argued that climate change is largely an "engineering problem" that can be solved with human ingenuity. And nothing unleashes human ingenuity like the incentives in free markets.
In any event, simply denying what the best research says about the possible risks posed by climate change is unsound policy. Given their testimony Trump's Cabinet picks seem to understand that, even if the man who nominated them does not.