President Donald Trump is filling the upper ranks of his administration with appointees who share his disbelief in the scientific evidence for climate change — giving them an opportunity to impose their views on policies ranging from disaster planning to national security to housing standards.
At the Interior Department, decisions about Pacific island territories threatened by rising seas are in the hands of an assistant secretary who has criticized “climate alarmists” for “once again predicting the end of the world as we know it.” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s top advisers include a former talk radio host who has dismissed much climate research as “junk science.” Trump’s nominee to head research and technology at the Department of Transportation claimed three years ago that global warming had “stopped” — a position at sharp odds with the findings of federal agencies like NASA.
Trump has chosen at least 20 like-minded people to serve as agency leaders and advisers, according to a POLITICO review of his appointees’ past statements on climate science. And they are already having an impact in abandoning former President Barack Obama’s attempt to help unite the world against the threat of rising sea levels, worsening storms and spreading droughts.
Most famously, the president and his team have scrubbed mentions of climate change from government websites, kicked scientists off advisory boards, repudiated the Obama administration’s greenhouse gas regulations and made the U.S. the only nation on Earth to reject the 2015 Paris agreement on global warming.
More quietly, Trump’s White House excluded rising temperatures from the list of threats in its December national security strategy, contradicting the approach of both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Last year, just before Hurricane Harvey drowned Houston, the White House rescinded requirements that projects built with federal dollars take into account the way warming temperatures might intensify extreme weather.
People worried about the consequences of climate change say a government that denies the problem is courting danger.
“The analogy could be if somebody’s got a heart problem or high cholesterol, you take medicine that helps manage that so you can avoid a heart attack,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, the government affairs director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Trump taking that away, saying, ‘Forget it, I don’t believe I have high cholesterol,’ is setting up the country for a heart attack.”
Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, found the trend worrying as well.
Many administration officials “don’t seem to believe climate change is real, or if they believe climate change is real, there’s this sort of attitude that there’s not much to do about it or it’s not caused by human actions,” said Mathur, whose AEI colleagues also include people who question the extent of man-made climate change. As a result, she said, the U.S. is falling behind countries that are taking action on the problem.
The doubts are coming from both prominent and little-known Trump appointees, in ways both obscure and subtle.
Some have expressed doubt that the Earth is warming at all, speculated that the trend might be good for humans, or said it’s just impossible to know how much of a role humans and their pollution are playing. All these statements fly in the face of findings by the government’s own research agencies and the vast majority of climate scientists.
“There are scientists that think lots of different things about climate change,” then-Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), now Trump’s CIA director, said on C-SPAN in 2013. “There’s some who think we’re warming, there’s some who think we’re cooling, there’s some who think that the last 16 years have shown a pretty stable climate environment.” Pompeo dodged the issue in his confirmation hearing last year, saying he would “prefer today not to get into the details of the climate debate and science.”
When he was running for president, HUD Secretary Ben Carson scoffed at the idea that strong evidence for human-caused climate change even exists. “I know there are a lot of people who say ‘overwhelming science,’ but then when you ask them to show the overwhelming science they never can show it,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015.
Few have been as publicly outspoken on the issue as Trump, who more than once has dismissed human-caused climate change as a “hoax” and claimed in January that polar ice isn’t melting.
The White House sought to strike a somewhat more moderate tone in a statement to POLITICO on Monday, which said that “the climate has changed and is always changing. The Administration supports rigorous scientific analysis and debate.” The statement from principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah added that “the development of modern and efficient infrastructure … will reduce emissions and enable us to address future risks, including climate related risks.”
Some of the administration’s climate skeptics have already come and gone.
Former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who had criticized the “allegedly ‘settled science’ of global warming” as a member of Congress, resigned in September amid criticism of his expensive travels on government and private planes. Kathleen Hartnett White, Trump’s pick to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, withdrew her nomination earlier this year after she stirred criticism with a long list of controversial statements, including calling the human role in climate change “very uncertain.”
Another unsuccessful nominee, former talk radio host and political science professor Sam Clovis, had to pull out of the running to be USDA’s chief scientist after critics noted that he has no science credentials — but he remains a top adviser to Perdue. Clovis dismissed much climate research as “junk science” in a 2014 interview, adding that “a lot of this global warming … is really about income redistribution from rich nations that are industrialized to nations that are not.”
Brent Fewell, a conservative environmental lawyer who was an EPA water official under Bush, suggested that some of these officials may privately acknowledge that man-made climate change is real. But he added: “A lot of people on the political right are uninformed about the issue. For whatever reason, it’s a lot easier to simply agree with the prominent voices in the political party.”
The upshot is the same, however: a 180-degree reversal from Obama’s efforts to make the U.S. a leader in addressing the causes and consequences of a warming planet.
The EPA is leading the charge by withdrawing or weakening a host of climate regulations, including a 2015 rule that would have sped the electric power industry’s shift away from coal-fired energy. Trump has also approved tariffs for solar panel imports, which will make it harder for green energy to compete with fossil fuels. Agencies have sought to cancel rules meant to limit the oil and gas industry’s methane pollution — another major greenhouse gas source — and are reconsidering tougher standards for vehicles, too.
The Energy Department has proposed regulatory changes to prop up coal plants that can’t compete in the market, while the White House is seeking buyers for U.S. coal and gas exports.
When Trump’s critics seek to challenge these actions in court, the government’s defense will be run by the Justice Department — an agency whose leader, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said during a 2015 Senate hearing that carbon dioxide is “really not a pollutant.”
“It’s a plant food, and it doesn’t harm anybody except that it might include temperature increases,” Sessions said.
Some agencies are still continuing to study climate change and factor their findings into their policy decisions. But even there, career staffers may not talk about their work as openly as they once did, and the agencies seldom showcase it the way they did during the Obama years.
Much of the alarm among Trump’s critics focuses on EPA, which has replaced dozens of scientists on its key advisory boards with industry or state representatives, and has found other ways to keep researchers from contradicting the administration’s message. Last fall, the agency canceled an appearance by three EPA scientists scheduled to speak about climate change at a Narragansett Bay conference. Both EPA and the Energy Department have given extra scrutiny to grant proposals with the words “climate change,” and in the case of EPA, it has put a political appointee in charge of signing off on them, The Washington Post has reported.
All this is in line with the public statements of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has suggested that global warming might be a good thing and has spoken about holding a public debate on whether climate change is real.
“Right out of the gate … the administration took any and all mention of climate change off of the White House website,” said Jacob Carter, a research scientist who has been tracking the administration’s treatment of science for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It seems like the administration is really trying to undo a lot of the scientific process as a whole and get experts out of the way.”
The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, which has studied the purging and rewording of climate-related documents on government websites, reported at the end of 2017 that it had found a “significant loss of public access to information about climate change.”
The State Department’s website took down links related to the Paris climate agreement, EPA removed a student’s guide to climate change, and the Energy Department got rid of the words “clean energy” on a page with information for investors and businesses looking for projects with national laboratories.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which oversees energy development on federal land, cut text about the effects of climate change. Some of the resources are still technically available in archives or in new locations, but they are harder to find because the government sites don’t directly link to them, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative says.
“It’s not alarming the public because it’s very hard to see each incremental thing,” said Andrew Bergman, a co-author of the report.
Some Trump appointees have downplayed the idea that agency leaders’ personal views about climate change are critical to making policy, suggesting they can still respond to global warming’s effects without addressing why it’s happening.
“We continue to take seriously climate change — not the cause of it, but the things that we observe,” Tom Bossert, the president’s homeland security adviser, told reporters after last year’s spree of catastrophic hurricanes that ravaged Houston, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Sarah Hunt, who works in energy policy at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, said that “policymaker views on climate science needn’t have any bearing on their support for conservative clean energy policies that spur the innovation we need to reduce emissions and promote environmental stewardship while we grow our economy.”
But Trump’s actions have reflected his views on the science. For example, one of his early executive orders in March 2017 eliminated a number of ways agencies had been required to consider climate change, including in environmental reviews for infrastructure projects.
Still, some agencies have continued to issue major reports that warn that climate change is a real and growing problem — even as the president’s staffers push the message that the science is uncertain.
In November, the government’s 13-agency National Climate Assessment concluded that humans have pushed global temperatures to their highest level in modern times. In January, NASA published data showing that last year was the second-warmest on record, and noted that temperature rises are “driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.”
Trump’s nominee to run the space agency, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), criticized “climate change alarmists” on the House floor in 2013 and claimed that “global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago.” (In fact, they haven’t.) At his confirmation hearing last year, he acknowledged that humans are a cause of climate change but wouldn’t call them the main cause.
“That is a question that I do not have an answer to,” he said.