Last week, president-elect Donald Trump nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency — a move that has caused a ripple of dismay among environmentalists. Pruitt, who has expressed skepticism about the science of climate change caused by human activity, has joined other state attorneys general in suing the EPA over its proposed Clean Power Plan, as well as its more recent efforts to curb methane emissions from the oil and gas industries.
But this isn’t the only news that has environmentalists on edge. Also last week, Trump added five new names to his EPA “landing team,” including some individuals who have either expressed doubt about human-caused climate change or worked to combat regulations that would address it.
All together, the growing team presents a strong indication that the climate efforts accomplished or begun in the past decade will be dismantled by the incoming administration — or at least, it will try. A case in point: Earlier this year, Kreutzer — along with three colleagues from the Heritage Foundation — published a lengthy and detailed essay that said there’s no justification for the climate policies established under the Obama administration.
The essay asserts that there’s no consensus on the science of anthropogenic climate change — caused by human activity — and argues against much of the accepted scientific evidence. It also suggests that any U.S. action would make no difference to the global climate. It’s a detailed window into the thinking that may animate Trump’s environmental policymakers.
So is any of what it says true? We consulted with a few climate scientists — here’s their take on some of the essay’s key points:
The consensus on climate change
Kreutzer and colleagues argue that the “97 percent” claim — the widely cited idea that about 97 percent of all scientists agree on the existence and science behind anthropogenic climate change — is a myth propagated by a single faulty study published in 2013. In fact, similar studies have been conducted multiple times since then and come to similar conclusions on the consensus, said Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University. (We wrote about one of them last year.)
“Anybody who’s accepting reality accepts the consensus view on climate change,” Shindell said.
The global temperature record
The Kreutzer essay also suggests that the instruments used to construct temperature records are subject to “noise” and uncertainty, and that climate scientists introduce bias into their data by correcting for these uncertainties.
Indeed, man-made instruments can be subject to noise and sometimes data sets do require adjustments — but one reason scientists are so sure of their records is because different scientific groups are taking the same measurements all around the world and coming up with the same results, Shindell said.
“Everybody comes out with the exact same answer because the data is so overwhelming,” he said. “These small uncertainties lead to very small differences between each group’s analysis. But the fact that it’s so close is really robust.”
Melting at the poles
The essay also tackles some of the observed and projected patterns related to sea ice extent, glacier melt and sea-level rise. It suggests, for instance, that recent declines in Arctic sea ice can be attributed to the end of a global cooling period, and these declines have also been offset by increases in Antarctic sea ice extent. But these are not new suggestions, and they’ve been debunked by multiple recent studies, said Jennifer Francis, an Arctic climate expert at Rutgers University.
For instance, she told The Washington Post in an email, “Arctic sea ice hit record low extents in eight of 11 months so far in 2016, punctuating a declining trend since the 1950s. Half of the Arctic’s sea ice is now gone, and the only explanation is greenhouse gas-induced warming.” She added that Antarctic sea ice behavior is more variable because it doesn’t have as much surrounding land to contain it as in the Arctic, making it more susceptible to wind-induced fluctuations. Even so, she said, “scientists expect Antarctic sea ice to eventually diminish, as well.”
Sea level rise
In the same vein, the Kreutzer essay has also pointed out that melt-induced sea-level rise projections for the next century pale in comparison to the amount of sea-level rise the Earth has seen since the end of the last ice age. But this argument does nothing to address the threats that even small amounts of sea-level rise pose to the modern world, said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate and geosciences expert at Princeton University.
The argument “choos[es] to neglect the obvious fact that 10,000 years ago when the last ice age drew to a close, cities and millions of people didn’t populate the coastal plain,” Oppenheimer said in an emailed comment to The Washington Post. “Even if only a few feet of sea-level rise occurs in the near future, a lot of valuable infrastructure will be lost and many of those millions of people will need to retreat inland unless billions of dollars are spent building coastal defenses.”
It’s true that the Clean Power Plan isn’t enough to save the planet — indeed, this is obvious, since the United States is no longer even the largest single emitter. But as Shindell points out, nobody expects the country to save the world on its own. Making a real difference in the global climate requires an international effort, with every country’s commitment adding up to a substantial cumulative impact.
“If you break any large problem down into small enough pieces, then by definition they’re all tiny,” Shindell said. But on the other hand, removing any one of those small pieces — particularly when it comes from a major economy and greenhouse gas emitter like the United States — could jeopardize the entire effort. This, in fact, is the entire idea behind the Paris agreement.
To be clear, Kreutzer (who did not respond to several requests for a response) is hardly the only member of the EPA team, or even the entire Trump transition team and still-growing cabinet, who has expressed views like these. But the essay provides a remarkably detailed list of the kinds of arguments and justifications for an end to U.S. climate action we may soon see from the new administration.
As the authors conclude, “Congress and the next administration should reverse course on climate policy in order to unchain economic potential and allow for the world to adapt to the real problems the future may bring.” Combating these ideas with scientifically sound evidence may feel old-hat by now — but it’s become more important than ever.