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Judging Climate Claims: Prove It, Pruitt

— June 11, 2018

EPA head Scott Pruitt’s on-air climate claims will soon have to be backed up with science, or he’ll have some ‘splainin’ to do, rules a federal judge.

In March 2017, Scott Pruitt appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” morning news and talk show. When asked about carbon dioxide and climate change, he opined, “I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” He also said that there was a “tremendous disagreement” about the impact human activity has on the Earth’s climate. The next day, the nonprofit group PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking Pruitt’s EPA to share any and all studies that backed up Pruitt’s on-air climate claims. Since Pruitt’s statements fly in the face of the overwhelming consensus regarding climate change (and, frankly, against some rather basic science), surely he must be sitting on some revolutionary information that would change everything (if true).

PEER’s broad FOIA filing requested “EPA documents that support the conclusion that human activity is not the largest factor driving global climate change.” The EPA, an agency once tasked with protecting the environment, fought back, refusing to comply with the request. Prior to Pruitt’s tenure at the agency, the EPA released many reports outlining the overwhelming effects of human activity on our destabilizing climate; now, apparently, it’s all essentially unknowable, and the details are just too hard to dig up. The EPA couldn’t, or wouldn’t, support Pruitt’s climate claims. PEER decided to sue the agency, adding one more lawsuit to the EPA’s impressive and growing pile of litigation.

Last week, Judge Beryl A. Howell, an Obama nominee serving as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled that the EPA would have to comply with the FOIA request by producing the documentation to back up the climate claims by July 2, 2018. If they are unable to do so, they will have some explaining to do by July 11th.

While it’s certainly satisfying to make Scott Pruitt and his agency squirm, asking Pruitt and the EPA to produce the evidence behind the climate claims shows a misunderstanding, perhaps deliberately so, surrounding the EPA’s new role under the Trump administration. While Steve Bannon was banished from the Trump inner circle last August (centuries ago, in Trump news cycles), his plan to deconstruct the administrative state lives on in Trump’s picks to head federal agencies. Scott Pruitt, in particular, was previously known for repeatedly challenging EPA regulations during his tenure as Oklahoma’s attorney general. The point is to reduce that which should be the guardian of the public interest into a tiny, remnant rubber-stamper for corporate interests.

A 2012 EPA infographic demonstrating the role of greenhouse gases in global warming.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which captures solar radiation and heats the Earth, as the EPA described in this 2012 graphic. Public domain image created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Further, asking for the studies behind Pruitt’s outlandish climate claims assumes that scientific support, or the lack thereof, will matter to anyone but the people who already accept the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change. It does not. Neither scientific evidence, nor messaging, nor carefully crafted arguments appealing to supposedly core conservative values (such as defense or free markets) move the needle on public opinion surrounding an issue that has become as polarized as the Earth’s magnetic field itself. While it’s not unheard-of for conservatives to support action on climate change, it’s risky for politicians like Pruitt to act against the interests of the voting base, or the companies and wealthy donors that keep them afloat. Perhaps that’s why Pruitt’s actions have been less about defending the environment and more about eliminating the kinds of regulations that polluters wish didn’t exist at all.

Still, there’s at least one good reason for us to keep the current administration on the defensive. Whether or not Pruitt, the EPA, and conservative politicians and voters believe it, climate change is already happening, and it will only get harder for humans to maintain the status quo as time goes by. Just as so-called conservatives don’t worry overly much about pleasing and compromising with what passes for the political Left in the United States, perhaps it’s time for the Left to stop trying to woo and convince the Right about climate change or other key issues, and start working around them. The Democrats (and points further left) likely lack the authoritarian force needed to herd enough cats to pull it off, but hey, Obi-Wan, this fight might be our last, best hope.

Related: The Climate Change Kids Have a Real Case


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