With the nonstop drama regarding President Donald Trump's Russia connections hogging the headlines, it's easy to overlook the fact that Senate Republicans are still rubber-stamping the den of crooks and conspiracy theorists Trump is drawing from to stock his Cabinet.
Early nominees like Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions, who managed to sneak in before stories about secret phone calls to Russia took over the headlines, encountered some pushback and protest, and were confirmed by narrow party-line votes. But there's a real danger that Scott Pruitt will be confirmed this week to head the Environmental Protection Agency with relative quiet and ease.
This is a problem because Pruitt is just as terrible a pick as DeVos for education secretary, Sessions as attorney general or Andrew Puzder, who was a terrible choice to be labor secretary and ended up withdrawing.
Even though Pruitt, in his current position as attorney general of Oklahoma, has led an enormous, multistate lawsuit against the EPA, he hasn't received nearly the public attention and protest that he merits. At issue is the EPA's Clean Power Plan, which offends the leaders of the polluting industries (especially coal) by setting emissions standards that will reduce their profits but will also reduce emissions that degrade public health and contribute to global warming.
Pruitt's interest in pushing this case isn't purely economic. He is also ideologically opposed to the very idea that greenhouse gas emissions are a problem. In fact, his hostility toward the idea of climate change has been so strong, and so vociferously expressed, that it verges on conspiracy theory thinking.
While Pruitt managed to tamp down on his anti-science beliefs during his Senate confirmation hearings, as Natasha Geiling at Think Progress reported on Monday, over the past year he has let loose about some of his kookier ideas during repeated appearances on the Oklahoma radio show "Exploring Energy."
“I appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee, last year I believe it was, sometime earlier in the year, about the Clean Power Plan challenge that we were part of leading,” Pruitt said in an April 2016 interview on the show. “And this senator from Rhode Island [Sheldon Whitehouse] during the midst of the testimony was just — it is just a religious belief for him and for others.”
Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, said by email: "Mr. Pruitt is wrong: Climate science is nothing like a religious belief."
Religion, Maibach argued, is a matter of faith, but science is categorically different: "Scientists require proof. The world’s climate scientists don’t 'believe' that human-caused climate change is happening, they 'are convinced' it is happening — based on lots and lots of proof."
"The scientific method differs greatly from religion, in one fundamental way," wrote Paul Brown, a retired brain scientist and environmental activist, for Dissident Voice in September. "Religions claim to be based on absolute, revealed truth, which cannot be questioned, whereas science is based on observation, hypothesis formulation, testing, and rejection. Religious adherents work hard to twist observed facts to fit their doctrines; scientists modify their theories on the basis of empirical evidence."
If anything, climate change denial of the sort thatPruitt appears to embrace is closer to religion, in that it rejects empirical evidence and simply takes it on faith that climate change is not really happening or not caused by human activity.
In another interview on "Exploring Energy," Pruitt floated the claim that regulating greenhouse gas emissions falls outside the purview of the EPA.
“If you go to the Clean Air Act today and go to Section 112 of the act . . . if you go read the section in the Clean Air Act where it lists all of the hazardous air pollutants the EPA is authorized and empowered to regulate, guess what you won’t find. You won’t find carbon, you won’t find CO2," he argued.
This is one of those arguments that sound reasonable but collapses with even minimal research of the issue. While the Clean Air Act doesn't specifically mention carbon dioxide, it does define air pollution as any "substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air" and "may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare." Increased levels of carbon dioxide contribute to global warming, which would qualify under any good faith reading of the law.
This isn't a matter of conjecture. The George W. Bush administration tried to wriggle out of enforcing the Clean Air Act by pretending that carbon dioxide did not count as air pollution. In the 2007 case Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush-era EPA by a 5 to 4 decision.
Still, there's a reason that Pruitt continues to float this debunked argument. He has good cause to believe that he has a sympathetic ear on the Supreme Court.
At a speech last Saturday to the Claremont Institute, Justice Samuel Alito made roughly this same anti-scientific argument, claiming that the definition of "pollutant" should be restricted to "sulfur dioxide or particulate matter," even though the Clean Air Act clearly offers a broader and more flexible definition.
Pruitt sounded more sensible during his confirmation hearings than he did during his "Exploring Energy" appearances, but some of his comments before the Senate committee are still cause for alarm.
“Science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change," Pruitt said during the hearing, striking a reasonable-sounding tone. "The human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.”
As Maibach pointed out, with those remarks Pruitt is minimizing the impact and the effect of human activity on climate change.
"Climate science has proven that human actions are causing the majority of the warming that has been happening worldwide over the past century," Maibach wrote in his email. "The most important of those human actions are large-scale burning of fossil fuel, and clear-cutting of forests. Moreover, that warming is already causing serious 'impacts' — in the U.S. and worldwide. It is already harming the health of many Americans, for example, and it is almost certain to get worse in the decades to come if we don’t take smart actions to protect ourselves today."
Pruitt's pose of moderation during his confirmation hearings is a classic tactic of climate denialists and other conspiracy theorists. They often seek to downplay or obfuscate the nuttiness of their fringe beliefs when they know or believe they're speaking to a skeptical audience. The shift in tone between Pruitt when he's on a right-wing talk radio show and when he's before a Senate committee (a national audience) is a red flag.
Not that there's any surprise there. President Trump himself has embraced numerous conspiracy theories and has floated the notion that climate change was an "expensive hoax" that was "created by and for the Chinese." Pruitt may be able to play a more reasonable person on TV than his boss can manage but his words and behavior when he thinks liberals aren't listening tell a different story.