President Trump has stacked his administration with officials who doubt the scientific consensus behind man-made climate change, underscoring a growing divide within the Republican party.
Even as leading scientists, environmentalists and most Democrats accept research that shows climate change accelerating — and as some see it contributing to the two mammoth hurricanes that have threatened the United States this year — some in Trump’s administration have openly raised doubts.
The rise of climate change skeptics has been most pronounced in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which helped lead then-President Obama’s efforts to regulate climate change-causing pollutants.
Administrator Scott Pruitt has questioned carbon dioxide’s role as a “primary contributor” to a warming climate, something accepted by most researchers. He’s also called for a public debate over climate change science, a proposal that has caused scientists, environmentalists and former regulators to bristle.
“I think it’s going to have a chilling effect on science overall because it’s going to elevate those scientists who are in the vast minority and give them a stage that, frankly, they don’t deserve,” said Christine Whitman, President George W. Bush’s first EPA administrator, who called the proposal “shameful” in a Friday New York Times op-ed.
“It’s wasting taxpayer money and making it an even more difficult issue for the average person to wade through, which I think is part of the political agenda, to make the case that we don’t need to do anything about this issue.”
The EPA has taken other actions to minimize its use and publication of science, including removing its climate science website and putting a political appointee in charge of reviewing grants. That official is reportedly targeting grants that focus on climate change.
Pruitt has surrounded himself with like-minded officials, including his August appointment of Cathy Stepp to be a principal deputy regional administrator for the Midwest. Stepp questioned humans’ role in climate change during her tenure as a regulator in Wisconsin.
EPA officials defend their approach. Pruitt has said a “healthy debate is the lifeblood of American democracy,” and he has indicated his review could help refocus federal funding for environmental regulation.
“We are putting the science front and center, because we believe that Americans deserve a robust, open debate about the science around climate change,” said spokeswoman Liz Bowman.
But former agency officials have risen up against the strategy, suggesting climate scientists would be better off ignoring Pruitt’s climate change debate rather than give it a higher-profile platform.
“It must come from some fundamentalist perspective,” said Eric Schaeffer, the head of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former EPA enforcement official from 1997 to 2002 under Presidents Clinton and Bush. “It’s much more naked and right-wing than what we’ve seen before.”
Trump’s embrace of climate change denialism — he has referred to climate change as a “hoax” perpetuated by the Chinese to undermine the American economy — comes as fault lines emerge over the issue within the GOP.
Polling still shows skepticism among self-described Republicans about the scientific consensus on climate change, and the threat it poses to the country. While 66 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of independents told Gallup this year they were worried about climate change, only 18 percent of Republicans agreed.
But some key Republican constituencies are breaking with the party on climate. Hundreds of businesses this year came out in favor of the Paris climate deal before President Trump pulled the U.S. from the accord.
A congressional climate solutions caucus has 26 GOP members; and 53 percent of Republicans aged 18-30, surveyed last year, said they believedhuman activity had some impact on climate change.
Even so, Trump’s administration has taken a significantly more skeptical view of climate science.
It’s not confined to the EPA, either: Energy Secretary Rick Perry has parroted Pruitt’s disbelief in the role of carbon dioxide on warming. The deputy administrator of the Interior Department, David Bernhardt, told senators during his confirmation hearing that President Trump, not science, is going to dictate departmental decisions.
“We’re going to look at the science whatever it is, but policy decisions are made, this president ran, he won on a particular policy perspective,” Bernhardt said.
And lawmakers are gearing up for confirmation fights over two climate skeptics Trump has nominated to key scientific positions: Sam Clovis, to be the Agriculture Department’s chief scientist, and Rep. Jim Bridenstine(R-Okla.), to lead NASA.
“A number of senior appointments at EPA, and elsewhere — they have an ideological view that we must keep burning fossil fuels. It’s much more of a luddite or backwards thinking view,” said Terry Yosie, the president of the World Environment Center and an EPA science adviser under President Reagan.
“Overall, the Trump administration’s view is driven by an outdated ideology and ties to special interests,” Yosie said.
Environmentalists and former Republican officials say the approach is a clear break from even past GOP administrations.
Yosie noted that Reagan — whose first EPA administrator sought to weaken the agency — eventually helped negotiate the Montreal Protocol, a major climate-related treaty.
Whitman said Trump has taken an aggressive effort to dissuade science not seen under the last Republican administration.
“It didn’t recognize the issue as being a major one,” she said of the Bush White House. “But they didn’t consciously go after undermining climate science. They were skeptical of accepting it wholeheartedly, but they allowed the discussion to go on.”
Under George W. Bush, Schaeffer said, “you had that pressure from [Vice President Dick] Cheney, which EPA had to buckle to.” But, “the agency was continuing to run the science, and try to invest in voluntary programs — energy efficiency — even under Bush, and I don’t see that from this guy.”
Trump’s approach to climate change research has emboldened those who have waged years-long campaigns against the scientific consensus.
“People who were fighting it for a long time, they saw in Trump, for the first time in a long time, a real ally,” said Sterling Burnett, a researcher at the Heartland Institute, a think tank that questions climate science.
The group was an early backer of the “red team, blue team” exercise Pruitt has pitched for climate science. Burnett said he hopes such a review leads Trump to target other climate-related activities, including the U.S.’s involvement in international climate treaties and the federal finding that greenhouse gases harm public health and need to be regulated.
Trump, he said, focuses on “what he called ‘Make America Great Again:’ building jobs, energy dominance … and he recognizes you can’t do that if you’re doing what Obama did on climate change.”