The incoming Trump administration is defying long-held Republican orthodoxy on climate change, saying that humans are having an effect on the Earth’s temperatures.
But just how much of an effect, they say, is up for debate.
In confirmation hearings this week President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees for key energy and environmental posts rejected the idea that global warming is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, as Trump once claimed.
“I do not believe that climate change is a hoax,” Ryan Zinke, the choice for Interior Secretary, told a Senate committee on Tuesday. A day later, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, testified that "science tells us the climate is changing and human activity, in some manner, impacts that change." On Thursday, Energy Secretary nominee Rick Perry -- who once called global warming “hysteria” -- will tell senators the same thing.
“I believe the climate is changing,” Perry said in prepared testimony. “I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by manmade 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.”
The responses, which deviated from what they’ve said in the past, undercut accusations from environmental groups that the men are "climate deniers." But critics say the new formulation may just be another way for Republicans to avoid pursuing policies to curb the use of fossil fuels blamed for climate change. With the cause and impact still unclear, the urgency to take action -- be it switching from coal-fired power plants to solar panels or to force automobile efficiency -- diminishes.
"It’s just another way for them to try and stand in the way of progress," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. "It’s settled science that climate change is happening, and that humans are responsible, and that it is having devastating impacts."
In recent years, Republican lawmakers have gone from denying that global temperatures are rising to saying they couldn’t have a position on the issue, because, "I am not a scientist." Others have said the Earth’s climate is always changing, but humans weren’t the cause. Democratic senators have pressed Trump’s picks on climate change, forcing them to respond to the president-elect’s 2012 tweet asserting that "the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese."
Pruitt rejected that, saying humans were responsible for warming. But, he added, "The ability to measure the precision, degree and extent of the impact, and what to do about that are subject to continued debate and dialogue."
The shift in tone reflects the reality on the ground, so to speak. Last year was the hottest on the record, the third consecutive record year, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures released on Wednesday. Scientists say they aren’t debating what’s causing the increase. “It is warming because we are not reducing the amounts of greenhouse gases by the amounts we need to,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
Similarly, public opinion has shifted. Concern about global warming rose to its highest level since 2008 last year, with 64 percent of those surveyed by Gallup saying they worry about it a great deal. And a growing number of those surveyed say human activity -- not natural causes -- is the reason for the warming, the poll found.
"Their new approach to changing the conversation about climate change, by questioning the magnitude of impacts, is savvy in that it reinforces a widely held public misunderstanding," Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, said in an e-mail. "It’s wrong and it’s very dangerous, but it is savvy from a communication perspective."
As the Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt had signed on to a lawsuit that challenged the finding from the EPA that greenhouse gas emissions posed a risk to human health and welfare. And, in a National Review piece last year he took aim at other state attorneys general who were investigating Exxon Mobil Corp. over its anti-climate advocacy.
"Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind," he and Luther Strange, the Alabama attorney general, wrote then.
Perry, in his 2010 book, accused scientists of manipulating climate change data and called global warming "hysteria." "The idea that we would put Americans’ economy in jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet is nonsense," he said in debate remarks while running for president in 2011.
Zinke, a Montana Republican congressman, has completed a rare double flip. In 2010 the retired Navy SEAL and geologist signed a letter to President Barack Obama advocating for "comprehensive clean energy jobs and climate legislation," according to an article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in 2014. But he said then there was no evidence climate change is changing the weather, the newspaper reported.
"The climate is changing; that’s indisputable," Zinke told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week. But, he said, there is debate about “what that influence is, and what can we do about it.”
And it’s here that the real issue remains. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, said Wednesday that to address climate change a fundamental overhaul of the U.S. energy system was needed, and asked Pruitt if he agreed.
“I believe the EPA has a very important role at regulating the emissions of CO2,” Pruitt responded.
Pruitt said he still opposes the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the primary regulation issued to reduce carbon emissions. But he signaled he no longer opposes the agency’s endangerment finding. It’s because of that finding that the EPA is obligated to regulate greenhouse gases. Other members of Trump’s transition team have called for scrapping it.
Similarly, Rex Tillerson, the pick to be Secretary of State, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that he supports the Paris climate accord, but would leave it to Trump to decide if the U.S. will remain a part of it.
"Climate change does exist," Tillerson, a former chairman of Exxon Mobil Corp., said Jan. 11. "The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited."
The nominees are trying to "avoid the outright ‘climate denier’ label by vaguely admitting that warming is occurring and may have something do to with emissions," said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser in the Clinton administration. "This is known as a ‘non-denial denial’, a rhetorical strategy harkening back to the Watergate era, but it doesn’t seem to be fooling anyone."