Donald Trump's cabinet offers a glimpse into the future of the climate

A breakdown of Trump's cabinet picks suggest that the climate will be an afterthought in the new administration

Published November 30, 2016 10:30PM (EST)

FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, the Wassataquoik Stream flows through Township 3, Range 8, Maine, on land owned by environmentalist Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt's Bees. President Barack Obama in 2016 created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on 87,000 acres donated by Quimby. The backers of the new national monument in Maine don’t believe Donald Trump will undo Obama’s move. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) (AP)
FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, the Wassataquoik Stream flows through Township 3, Range 8, Maine, on land owned by environmentalist Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt's Bees. President Barack Obama in 2016 created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on 87,000 acres donated by Quimby. The backers of the new national monument in Maine don’t believe Donald Trump will undo Obama’s move. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) (AP)

This article was initially published on Climate Central

As President-elect Donald Trump continues to round out his cabinet and White House staff, his policies and priorities are coming more into focus.

All indications so far point to a bleak future for addressing climate change, or even recognizing it as one of the world’s largest challenges. A number of his cabinet nominees, political appointees and closest advisors are outright climate deniers while others have funded the denial of climate change or are lukewarm on accepting the science.

At best, climate action will likely take a backseat to other issues. At worst, there could be an all-out assault on the science, and as important, the funding that makes it possible.

To glean a clearer picture of where Trump’s administration stands and where it may be headed, we’ve created a list of his major cabinet and agency appointees as well as his senior advisors. We’ll continue to update this as appointments are made.

Steve Bannon, Senior Advisor

His views: Since 2012, Bannon has been in charge of Breitbart News, a site that espouses extremist right-wing views on a number of issues, including climate change. Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News has repeatedly referred to climate change as a hoax and denigrated everyone from scientists (“dishonest” and mostly “abject liars”) to the Pope (“a 16-year old trotting out the formulaic bilge”) who has spoken out about the need to rein in carbon pollution.

Bannon has also framed dealing with climate change and terrorism as an either/or choice (a similar theme has emerged with Trump’s national security picks as well. It’s also a false dichotomy). According to James Delingpole, a writer for Breitbart, “one of his pet peeves is the great climate-change con . . . it’s going to be a core part of his administration’s political program.”

What he could do: As senior advisor, Bannon will be in position to influence Trump’s thinking on a wide range of issues, including climate change.

Reince Priebus, Chief of Staff

His views: As chair of the Republican National Committee, Priebus oversaw the creation of the 2016 party platform that called the widely respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution.”

During the primaries, Priebus criticized Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley for saying that “the cascading effects" of climate change contributed to the rise of ISIS despite the research directly linking the climate-change fueled Syrian drought to instability in the region.

More recently, Priebus reiterated that Trump “has his default position, which most of it is a bunch of bunk” when it comes to climate science.

What he could do: As chief of staff, Priebus will also have Trump’s ear and advise him on all fronts, including climate change. Traditionally, the chief of staff also acts as a gatekeeper to the president and works with Congress to communicate and enact the president’s agenda.

Senator Jeff Sessions, nominee for Attorney General

His views: Sessions (R-Ala.) has repeatedly questioned climate change and voted against climate action. In a 2003 floor speech in opposition to the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, Sessions said, “I believe there are legitimate disputes about the validity and extent of global warming . . . Carbon dioxide does not hurt you. We have to have it in the atmosphere. It is what plants breathe. In fact, the more carbon dioxide that exists, the faster plants grow.”

Sessions repeated an oft-debunked claim that there’s been “almost no increase” in temperatures over the past 19 years during a December 2015 episode of Washington Watch, a podcast put out by the conservative think tank Family Research Council.

Sessions also signed a letter to cut U.S. contributions to the United Nations Green Climate Fund, which is designed to help poor countries adapt to climate change. He is also on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works where Republicans have attacked the U.S. commitments to the Paris Agreement and the EPA’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

What he could do: As attorney general, Sessions would be advising Trump on the legality of various climate rules and treaties, including the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement. Sessions would also be head of the Justice Department, which is currently defending the Clean Power Plan in court. As Attorney General, Sessions could tell federal government to stop arguing the case, though how that would work and what would come after is unclear according to Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Burger said there are a number of states, cities and environmental organizations that could continue the defense.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, nominee for Director of the CIA

His views: Pompeo (R-Kan.) has been an outspoken critic of factoring climate change into national security issues during his tenure in the House of Representatives. In a December 2015 statement, Pompeo said, “For President Obama to suggest that climate change is a bigger threat to the world than terrorism is ignorant, dangerous, and absolutely unbelievable.” The Pentagon doesn’t necessarily support that view nor the idea that climate and terrorism is an either/or issue (more on that below).

Pompeo has referred to the Paris Agreement — a pact forged between nearly 200 countries to voluntarily take steps to reduce their impacts on the climate beginning in 2020 — as a “radical climate change deal” and even used last year’s mass shooting in San Bernardino to claim that President Obama “continues his pursuit of misguided policies, including his radical climate change agenda.”

On C-SPAN in December 2013, Pompeo responded to a question on if he agrees that global warming is a problem by saying “Look, I think the science needs to continue to develop. I’m happy to continue to look at it. There are scientists who think lots of different things about climate change. 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.”

That statement belies the fact that the world has warmed dramatically, with temperatures increasing about 1°C since the start of the Industrial Revolution. This year will be the hottest on record, marking the third year in a row that’s happened. The 2000s were the warmest decade on record and the 2010s are easily on the path to surpass that mark.

What he could do: As the CIA’s director, Pompeo would be responsible for how the U.S. approaches national intelligence and security. The CIA shut down its climate program last year, but an agency spokesperson said “it continues to evaluate the national security implications of climate change.” Under Pompeo, it’s likely that resources focused on climate change would be further scaled back or scrapped altogether.

Lt. General Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor

His views: Similar to Pompeo, Flynn has railed against the idea that climate change should be a national security priority, a stance that would fly in the face of the Pentagon’s risk assessment and planning.

Dealing with climate change and terrorism is not a simple one-or-the-other decision. The two are linked, withnumerous studies showing climate change is tied to conflict and that climate change will only further destabilize the world. The Pentagon itself has described climate change as an “immediate” risk and major threat multiplier, one that could cause crops to fail, spark mass migrations and increase conflict for dwindling water resources (to say nothing of the threat sea level rise poses to U.S. naval bases around the world).

What he could do: As national security advisor, Flynn will be Trump’s main sounding board and trusted source on security issues. If he downplays the threat of climate change, Flynn could create a huge blind spot for the administration’s security plans.

Betsy DeVos, nominee for Education Secretary

Her views: Of all Trump’s appointees so far, DeVos, an heiress to the Amway fortune and philanthropist, has the most moderate views on climate change (though she’ll likely have little influence in that realm as head of the Department of Education). WindQuest Group, the investment management firm she operates with her husband Dick DeVos, has overseen investments in clean technology.

But that moderation is somewhat tempered. DeVos has donated to the political campaigns of a number of Republican senators and representatives who deny climate change and have voted on an array of bills that would increase offshore oil drilling, end fuel efficiency standards and bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. Of course, that’s a bit of guilt by association as over the past eight years Republicans have been steadfast in their opposition to Obama’s climate and energy policies and any donation to her party would have resulted in votes against meaningful climate action. But given Republicans will soon control the White House, Senate and House, the legislators she’s backed will likely play a role in further gridlocking climate action or actively dismantling it.

What she could do: As education secretary, DeVos would have little direct sway on climate policy as there are no national education standards. But Ann Reid, head of the National Center for Science Education, said DeVos’ interest in providing vouchers and school choice could have an indirect effect on climate education.

“It’s not at all clear these charter schools are held to the same standards as public schools with curricula,” Reid said. “Part of their point is to be creative and teach in new ways. That sounds grand but what if they don’t accept climate change? Are they going to be held to the standards of the state? That’s a big, big change.”

K.T. McFarland, Deputy National Security Advisor

Her views: Like Bannon, Pompeo and Flynn, McFarland views climate change and terrorism as mutually exclusive. McFarland worked in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations on national security and is currently a commentator on Fox News. It’s in the latter position where she’s espoused views that terrorism is a greater threat than climate change. Speaking about President Obama attending the 2015 climate conference in Paris in the wake of the terrorist attacks that killed 130, she told Fox host Neil Cavuto:

“Well, because President Obama thinks that climate change is the greatest strategic and geological and existential threat to our future. You know, here we are — and the irony, if it were not so tragic it would be funny — here we have ISIS, which is attacking with suicide vests and Kalashnikovs and potentially chemical weapons in the French water supply. What are we doing? We're going to fight ISIS. We're going to have windmills. We're going to have solar panels. We're going to show them. It's just really — all it does is it gives encouragement to the terrorists who feel that they have been selected and chosen by Allah to establish the caliphate and kill everybody who disagrees with them. They now look at this and they are laughing.

“This is a threat and an assault against all western civilization. We will not defeat it with windmills and solar panels.”

What she could do: As deputy national security advisor, McFarland will occupy a similar role to Flynn, and her views on climate change appear to line up with his.

Rep. Tom Price, nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary

His views: The voting pattern of Price (R-Ga.) in the House lines up with his fellow cabinet nominees Pompeo and Sessions. He has voted against having the EPA regulate greenhouse gases and voted no on subsidies for renewable energy as well voting to continue giving subsidies for oil and gas exploration.

Price also signed a pledge created by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, vowing to oppose climate legislation.

What he could do: As Health and Human Services Secretary, Price would have sway over a number of agencies and centers that do research on climate-related diseases and health issues, including the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health.

Elaine Chao, nominee for Transportation Secretary

Her views: In a 2009 blog post for the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, where she was a fellow at the time, Chao derided a proposed cap-and-trade system as a policy that “would drain trillions of dollars out of the private economy and into federal coffers.” While the economics of any cap-and-trade system are worthy of debate,  it’s clear something has to be done about climate change and Chao has shown no interest in any alternative. Letting global warming continue unabate could cause trillions in economic losses from drowned coastal cities to decreased agricultural productivity.

Chao was on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ board until January 2015. She chose to step down after the foundation decided to ramp up its “Beyond Coal” campaign. The move came shortly after her husband, Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.), won re-election during a campaign where he was attacked for accepting money from “enemies of coal,” a veiled reference to Chao’s board membership at Bloomberg.

What she could do: As Transportation Secretary, Chao would be tasked with overseeing a large chunk of Trump’s proposal to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. She would also be tasked with building out the electric vehicle charging corridors proposed by the Obama administration earlier this month, a project that is unlikely to fit with Trump’s plans that focus on the private sector.

Steven Mnuchin, nominee for Treasury Secretary

His views: It’s a mystery. Mnuchin has worked at Goldman Sachs, hedge funds and as a financier in Hollywood. Through all that, he’s said nary a word about climate change or energy-related issues.

His political donations also don’t say much about his views. He and his wife donated $5,400 to Trump, the maximum amount allowed under campaign finance law, and $309,600 to the Republican National Committee. That’s not surprising since he was Trump’s campaign finance chair. He also donated $2,000 to Kamala Harris, California’s new Senator who has been outspoken about the need to address climate change (in sharp contrast to Trump).

What he could do: As Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin would essentially help Trump set economic policies for the country. Climate change is expected to cost the U.S. — and the world — trillions if actions aren’t taken. Speaking at the Brookings Institute in 2014, current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said, “if the fiscal burden from climate change continues to rise, it will create budgetary pressures that will force hard tradeoffs, larger deficits or higher taxes.”

The Treasury has also had to loan $24 billion to the National Flood Insurance Program to cover hurricane damages from Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Sandy, underscoring that planning for a fiscal response to near- and longer-term climate shocks will be a part Mnuchin’s job.

Wilbur Ross, nominee for Commerce Secretary

His views: Ross is a billionaire who made his fortune in buying distressed companies, cutting costs and selling them for a profit. In the past, he’s invested in coal companies and has recently moved into the oil and gas industry.

Beyond those investments, Ross hasn’t said anything about his interest or understanding of climate science.

What he could do: As Commerce Secretary, he would oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s $189 million climate research budget. One of Trump’s advisors has suggested shifting some of NASA’s climate science responsibilities to NOAA, further expanding the amount of climate work Ross would be in charge of.

By Brian Kahn

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