Why Trump Officials Won’t Deny Climate Change

President Donald Trump  holds up the signed Energy Independence Executive Order, March 2017.

Most people are familiar with the fact that President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to climate change as a “hoax.” It’s in keeping with this false belief then that the top energy and environment position in the White House has been filled by Mike Catanzaro, who wrote articles such as “Glaciers, ‘Global Warming,’ and NY Times Hysteria” for a conservative website and worked for the Senate’s top climate change denier: Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). At least three other staffers from Sen. Inhofe’s office now occupy senior staff positions in Administrator Scott Pruitt’s EPA, including his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, and deputy chief of staff, Byron Brown.

What is surprising is that Trump administration officials took great pains to avoid denying climate change when they talked about the sweeping executive order focused on fossil fuel job growth. Instead, the officials discussed the need to have both job growth and a clean environment. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer answered a reporter’s question about the executive action by saying, “I think [Trump] understands—he does not believe that, as I mentioned at the outset, that there is a binary choice between job creation, economic growth and caring about the environment, and that’s what we should be focusing on.”

Then, there was the senior White House official who briefed reporters on the contents of the executive order prior to its release. Per the transcript, there were multiple times during the call that reporters questioned the official about climate change and sea level rise. The following exchange shows to what extent Trump administration officials do not want to be labeled climate deniers:

QUESTION: Can you say that people who are working on this right now in the White House, all of them believe in manmade climate change?

SENIOR WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL: I haven’t talked to everyone in the White House.

QUESTION: Do you believe in manmade climate change?

SENIOR WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL: That’s not relevant what I think.

QUESTION: I think it’s pretty relevant. You’re talking about it. I mean, can you answer the question? Do you believe in manmade climate change?

SENIOR WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL: Yes, sure, I do.

QUESTION: You’re sure?

SENIOR WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL: Yes. That doesn’t say much, does it?

QUESTION: Well, it’s pretty important if you’re talking about it. Are you convinced? You don’t sound convinced.

SENIOR WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL: The issue really is to what extent and how serious and magnitude of it. I mean, there are a lot of other questions that flow from that statement that I think, you know, are still unanswered until we know the answers.

Members of Congress that are looking at 2018 with a nervous eye are using similar language. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is best known for his aggressive investigations as former chairman of the House Oversight Committee. However, he now also has the dubious distinction of being one of 23 House Republicans that represent districts that Hillary Clinton won in the last election. Rep. Issa’s Southern California district favored Clinton over Trump by 51 percent to 43 percent. Now the congressman that once questioned the scientific consensus on climate change has joined the Climate Solutions Caucus. In his press statement, he said, “Coastal communities, like mine in Southern California, are counting on us to come up with solutions that encourage a strong and vibrant economy, while also ensuring we are taking care of our environment.” There are a few possible answers as to why vulnerable members of congress and Trump’s team will do their best to avoid a full embrace of the climate denial that continues to be espoused across Steve Bannon’s former website, Breitbart.

First, new data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and reported on by The New York Times shows that, in every congressional district across the country, the majority of adults supports limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. The research also shows that 75 percent support regulating CO2 as a pollutant. The sticking point in the data is that the majority of people do not see how climate change will impact them personally. Therefore, public opinion may have shifted to the point that it’s not politically prudent to completely deny the changes that are happening, but it’s safe to question how aggressively to tackle the problem.

Next, the numbers are undeniable. 2016 was the hottest year on record and the third record-breaking year in a row. Since 2000, 16 of the 17 hottest years ever recorded have taken place. Not only can scientists measure those temperatures, but people across the country experience them firsthand. In February 2017, one Boston news outlet, WBUR, marked a record breaking 73-degree day with pictures of a woman in a tank top sliding down the Snowzilla slide on the Boston Common. Those images and experiences linger in people’s minds, making them question decision-makers who completely deny that climate change is happening.

It is the everyday impacts from climate change, however, that are causing businesses, local leaders, and health officials to act regardless of the politics. Fishermen in New England have experienced firsthand the effects of warming waters in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the ocean. The iconic cod stock has greatly diminished and, in some cases, disappeared. Meanwhile, warm water loving lobster are thriving. In South Florida, people have had to change their daily routines to accommodate the sea level rise-fueled “king tides” that flood roads and yards for several hours at a time. And, recently, the Lyme disease epidemic spreading across the country has prompted the EPA to add it to its list of climate change indicators.

Even as previous climate deniers, such as Rep. Issa, adopt a politically popular have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach on climate change, they will have ignored the fact that President Barack Obama’s actions in office produced the same results they now seek. Under the Obama administration, the United States’ enjoyed a historic 9 percent drop in carbon emissions as the economy grew more than 10 percent. That’s because of growth in natural gas and clean renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal, which have now become a fundamental part of the economy. At the same time, the shale gas revolution drove the United States to dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil. In 2008, the imports of oil and petroleum products accounted for 57 percent of U.S. oil consumption. Yet, by 2016, that number had fallen to 25 percent. These are the facts.

It is also true that actions speak louder than words. The executive order that President Trump signed to increase energy independence and create coal industry jobs will do little to address those concerns. It will, however, give the keys to closeted, climate denying ideologues who will drive our recent successes into the ground. A new message does not disguise that, if fully implemented, the sweeping executive action will allow more carbon dioxide and methane pollution while ignoring climate impacts in decision-making. This is wasteful of taxpayer dollars and reckless with our children’s future.

Christy Goldfuss is the Vice President for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress.