Pruitt Shows His True Colors

Still skeptical of climate science, EPA’s regulatory authority, and the Paris Agreement.

Pruitt made conciliatory noises when he arrived at EPA. I suspect the honeymoon is over. On Thursday, he was asked on CNBC whether CO2 is the main cause of climate change.  His answer? ““I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

EPA’s website says its mission is to ensure that “national efforts to reduce environmental risk are based on the best available scientific information.” Thousands of scientists all around the world have conducted an immense amount of research investigating the role of CO2, all of which has been thoroughly reviewed by the agency.

And there’s little dispute among serious scientists about the primary role of CO2.  Basically, every important scientific organization in the world has taken that view, as I documented in a December blog post:

  • The American Physical Society, on behalf of the nation’s physicists, says: “If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.”
  • The American Chemistry Society says: “comprehensive scientific assessments of our current and potential future climates clearly indicate that climate change is real, largely attributable to emissions from human activities, and potentially a very serious problem.”
  • The National Academy of Science endorses the need for action on climate change.
  • So does the UK’s Royal Society, as do the scientific organizations of Russia, China, Japan, Brazil, Italy, Germany, India, and Canada.

Pruitt didn’t stop with blowing off climate science.  He also questioned whether EPA has the ability or authority to regulate CO2 in any event: “Nowhere in the equation has Congress spoken. The legislative branch has not addressed this issue at all. It’s a very fundamental question to say, ‘Are the tools in the toolbox available to the EPA to address this issue of CO2, as the court had recognized in 2007, with it being a pollutant?’”

Not content with that, Pruitt also attacked the Paris Agreement: “It’s one thing to be talking about CO2 internationally. But when you front-load your costs, as we endeavored to do in that agreement, and then China and India back-loaded their costs for 2030 and beyond, that’s not good for America. That’s not an America first type of approach.”

These comments reinforce two points I’ve made in recent blog posts.  First, as I’ve discussed, Pruitt is likely to find himself at war with his agency.  The agency is full of people who have spent years studying carbon change and who are quite sure that CO2 causes climate change and that EPA needs to address the problem. The traditional division of authority is that the experts do the science and the political appointees make the value judgments. Pruitt wants to do both, or perhaps doesn’t know the difference.

This is part of a larger pattern of disrespect for expertise in the Trump Administration.  It doesn’t occur to Pruitt that he should be listening to what the agency’s own scientists are saying, because he considers what he has learned on Fox News about climate change is just as valid. This attitude toward expertise comes straight from the boss, who famously said that he knew more about military affairs than the generals.

Second,  Pruitt’s statement illustrates how much the GOP is out of touch with mainstream American society and even the oil industry.  Here are some factoids from the same December blog post:

  • In 2015, Shell and BP called for international cooperation to achieve the 2° F temperature target. BP actually had an internal cap-and-trade system for carbon.
  • Rex W. Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s chief executive and Trump’s Secretary of State, has “repeatedly said that he would support putting a price on carbon as long as it was ‘revenue neutral.’” (He has continued to push for the Paris Agreement since joining the Trump Administration).
  • In an open letter, hundreds of businesses urged Trump to stick with the Paris Agreement. Exxon takes that position too.
  • A year ago, two-thirds of Americans agreed that climate change is caused by humans. According to Gallup, that was  the highest number since the start of the century.

The bottom line is that Pruitt (like Trump himself) lives in a bubble where bad science and eccentric policy views have become unquestioned truths.  That’s going to make governance challenging for him and a risk to the rest of us.

 

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Reader Comments

10 Replies to “Pruitt Shows His True Colors”

  1. This is a direct consequence of academics thinking they are too superior to “take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public” as documented by Dirks and Hofstadter.

    When are you going to learn from the lessons of history that you keep teaching us about!

    Or is it already too late and you don’t want to admit that you have failed for one last time to meet the challenges of change?

  2. Dan said;
    “….there’s little dispute among serious scientists about the primary role of CO2….”

    Dear Dan,
    There are many serious scientists who know and understand that H20 plays a much bigger role in global climate than the minor trace-gas CO2. Thankfully, these scientists now have the primary role of crafting policy at the EPA.

    The great fraud and corruption of so-called “climate mitigation” scams are the root cause for failure and public rejection of the climate movement. Now is the time to put the past behind us and move on to more important issues.

    Please join us in endorsing our new EPA Chief – Scott Pruitt.
    Cheers!!!

    1. BQRQ, first Hillary and the DNC betrayed the working class and lost the election.

      Now the worst case scenario consequence is that Trump and the GOP are betraying American Democracy and the Human Race. Are you learning to speaking Russian yet?

  3. Here’s what the head of climate research at NASA said in 2010, on the matter of C02’s overall contribution to global warming:

    “With a straightforward scheme for allocating overlaps, we find that water vapor is the dominant contributor (~50% of the effect), followed by clouds (~25%) and then CO2 with ~20%.” — from the 2010 paper ‘Attribution of the present-day total greenhouse effect’ http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2010JD014287/full

    So… just “~20%” for C02. Which means that Pruitt’s statement that C02 is not the “primary contributor” to overall global warming is correct. If you have a problem with this very basic science, please take it up with the head of climate research at NASA.

    1. Umm. The greenhouse effect is what keeps Earth from being a snowball planet. Global warming is the additional trapping of heat, and currently it is primarily anthropogenic. Hope this helps; have a nice day.

    2. “….water vapor is the dominant contributor (~50% of the effect), followed by clouds (~25%) and then CO2 with ~20%…..”

      So-called “climate mitigation” only addresses CO2 while ignoring the effects of water vapor and clouds, that is why it never works.

      1. BQRQ, I want to thank you for your continuing comments.

        On the other hand it is the responsibility of environmental scientists to respond, but as Trump is now proving their greatest failure is hiding in their ivory towers and failing to join together to inform, educate and motivate the general public to demand actions by our elected representatives, that’s the way a Democracy is supposed to work.

        History has proven far too many times that intellectuals are as guilty as politicians when it comes to destroying civilizations.

        The greatest tragedy today is that we have the best educational institutions in history but academics and scientists keep proving that they still aren’t good enough to save the human race from humans.

        The worst case scenario is Berkeley’s continuing failure to produce fusion energy production plants even though the father of fusion, Berkeley professor and Livermore Lab Director Edward Teller promised us in the 60s that we could achieve this breakthrough by the end of the 20th century. But Ike gravely warned us in his Farewell Address that the power of money could prevented that achievement.

      2. Water vapor is indeed responsible for most of the greenhouse effect (which overall has made our planet habitable). But today’s changes in radiative forcing (the dynamic that is causing climate change) are not caused in any way by water vapor. Water vapor in the atmosphere is in equilibrium with water in other states, and the amount of this water vapor is controlled by the temperature. If it is hotter, more water evaporates into the atmosphere as vapor. Water vapor concentration is a function of temperature, not a cause of temperature. Increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2, by contrast, causes a forcing effect on temperature. This is known to everyone who studies climate science. Scientists are still studying the precise relationship between water vapor temperature feedback and global temperature. But climate scientists agree that it is CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and not water vapor, that is responsible for climate forcing. Here’s one version of the explanation: http://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2008/02/common-climate-misconceptions-the-water-vapor-feedback-2/

        1. Thank you Sean, we still need to “join together to inform, educate and motivate the general public to demand actions by our elected representatives.”

          Right now we are losing the battle to save the environment and time is running out much faster than we are fighting back:
          https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/september-october-2006-global-warning/can-we-adapt-time

          Our newest and all future generations require us to protect and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for our civilization and out of control climate changes we are experiencing today are overwhelming us already. Increasing millions of people dying each day due to our failures to communicate and motivate.

  4. Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, W. Collins, J. Fuglestvedt, J. Huang, D. Koch, J.-F. Lamarque, D. Lee, B. Mendoza, T. Nakajima, A. Robock, G. Stephens, T. Takemura and H. Zhang, 2013: Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

    Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing Chapter 8 pp 666-667

    Frequently Asked Questions FAQ 8.1 | How Important Is Water Vapour to Climate Change?

    As the largest contributor to the natural greenhouse effect, water vapour plays an essential role in the Earth’s climate. However, the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is controlled mostly by air temperature, rather than by emissions. For that reason, scientists consider it a feedback agent, rather than a forcing to climate change. Anthropogenic emissions of water vapour through irrigation or power plant cooling have a negligible impact on the global climate. Water vapour is the primary greenhouse gas in the Earth’s atmosphere. The contribution of water vapour to the natural greenhouse effect relative to that of carbon dioxide (CO2) depends on the accounting method, but can be considered to be approximately two to three times greater. Additional water vapour is injected into the atmosphere from anthropogenic activities, mostly through increased evaporation from irrigated crops, but also through power plant cooling, and marginally through the combustion of fossil fuel. One may therefore question why there is so much focus on CO2, and not on water vapour, as a forcing to climate change. Water vapour behaves differently from CO2 in one fundamental way: it can condense and precipitate. When air with high humidity cools, some of the vapour condenses into water droplets or ice particles and precipitates. The typical residence time of water vapour in the atmosphere is ten days. The flux of water vapour into the atmosphere from anthropogenic sources is considerably less than from ‘natural’ evaporation. Therefore, it has a negligible impact on overall concentrations, and does not contribute significantly to the long-term greenhouse effect. This is the main reason why tropospheric water vapour (typically below 10 km altitude) is not considered to be an anthropogenic gas contributing to radiative forcing. Anthropogenic emissions do have a significant impact on water vapour in the stratosphere, which is the part of the atmosphere above about 10 km. Increased concentrations of methane (CH4) due to human activities lead to an additional source of water, through oxidation, which partly explains the observed changes in that atmospheric layer. That stratospheric water change has a radiative impact, is considered a forcing, and can be evaluated. Stratospheric concentrations of water have varied significantly in past decades. The full extent of these variations is not well understood and is probably less a forcing than a feedback process added to natural variability. The contribution of stratospheric water vapour to warming, both forcing and feedback, is much smaller than from CH4 or CO2. The maximum amount of water vapour in the air is controlled by temperature. A typical column of air extending from the surface to the stratosphere in polar regions may contain only a few kilograms of water vapour per square metre, while a similar column of air in the tropics may contain up to 70 kg. With every extra degree of air temperature, the atmosphere can retain around 7% more water vapour (see upper-left insert in the FAQ 8.1, Figure 1). This increase in concentration amplifies the greenhouse effect, and therefore leads to more warming. This process, referred to as the water vapour feedback, is well understood and quantified. It occurs in all models used to estimate climate change, where its strength is consistent with observations. Although an increase in atmospheric water vapour has been observed, this change is recognized as a climate feedback (from increased atmospheric temperature) and should not be interpreted as a radiative forcing from anthropogenic emissions.

    Currently, water vapour has the largest greenhouse effect in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, other greenhouse gases, primarily CO2, are necessary to sustain the presence of water vapour in the atmosphere. Indeed, if these other gases were removed from the atmosphere, its temperature would drop sufficiently to induce a decrease of water vapour, leading to a runaway drop of the greenhouse effect that would plunge the Earth into a frozen state. So greenhouse gases other than water vapour provide the temperature structure that sustains current levels of atmospheric water vapour. Therefore, although CO2 is the main anthropogenic control knob on climate, water vapour is a strong and fast feedback that amplifies any initial forcing by a typical factor between two and three. Water vapour is not a significant initial forcing, but is nevertheless a fundamental agent of climate change.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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