WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2017 - A major question arising this week during confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s cabinet picks is whether his administration, which takes office on Friday, will accept and act on the scientific consensus that climate change is a clear and present danger – or reflect Trump’s climate-change skepticism.
A National Academy of Sciences report released last week warns that “changes in CO2 emissions today may affect economic outcomes for centuries to come.”
The 394-page report, “Valuing Climate Damages: Updating Estimation of the Social Cost of Carbon Dioxide,” considers impacts including “market damages, such as changes in net agricultural productivity, energy use, and property damage from increased flood risk, as well as nonmarket damages, such as those to human health and to the services that natural ecosystems provide to society.”
The report backs ongoing efforts “to monitor research that identifies and explores the magnitude of various interactions and feedbacks in the human-climate system.” It recommends better procedures to account for climate change in other regions of the world affecting the U.S. “through such pathways as global migration, economic destabilization, and political destabilization.” And it notes that the U.S. can benefit from U.S. emissions reductions “levering actions by other countries.”
Last week, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a stern climate warning, even as Trump continued to tweet sharp criticisms of the U.S. intelligence agencies.
The 73-page Global Trends: Paradox of Progress report from the National Intelligence Council concludes that “Climate change, environment, and health issues will demand attention. A range of global hazards pose imminent and longer-term threats that will require collective action to address – even as cooperation becomes harder. More extreme weather, water and soil stress, and food insecurity will disrupt societies. Sea-level rise, ocean acidification, glacial melt, and pollution will change living patterns. Tensions over climate change will grow. Increased travel and poor health infrastructure will make infectious diseases harder to manage.”
Yet coinciding with the NAS and NIC warnings, Trump’s Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, opened his testimony at his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing last week with a long statement that called for asserting American leadership but never mentioned climate change.
In response, Senate Democrats pushed for climate answers. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Ben Cardin of Maryland, asked, “Do you agree that the United States should continue in international leadership on climate change issues with the international community?” Despite Trump’s past promises to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, Tillerson said, “I think it’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on the conversations around how to address the threats of climate change, which do require a global response. No one country is going to solve this alone.”
Yet in response to Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Tillerson said that while he accepts climate change as real, “I don’t see it as the imminent national security threat as perhaps others do” and that “the science behind the clear connection (to weather events) is not conclusive.”
Tillerson, who retired as ExxonMobil CEO in December to focus on preparing for his first-ever position in government, presided over Exxon’s shift from denying human-caused climate change to acknowledging the link and supporting the 196-nation Paris climate agreement aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
Exxon’s shift actually reflects a return to what its Corporate Research department concluded in a 1982 report: “. . . the increase of atmospheric CO2 is well documented . . . a clear scientific consensus has emerged regarding the expected climatic effects of increased atmospheric CO2. The consensus is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its pre-industrial-revolution value would result in an average global temperature rise (of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 to 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) . . . There is unanimous agreement in the scientific community that a temperature increase of this magnitude would bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”
Most significantly, the 1982 Exxon report acknowledged that climate change is human-caused and fossil fuel-caused. Confirming a direct link, the report concluded, “The time required for doubling of atmospheric CO2 depends on future world consumption of fossil fuels.”
Beyond Tillerson’s comments, this week already includes further indications that Trump’s cabinet is likely to consider climate change as an issue – but not the urgent issue it has been for the past eight years under the Obama administration. On Tuesday, the Senate Energy Committee held its confirmation hearing with prospective Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Sen. Bernie Sanders asked whether Zinke agrees with Trump’s calling climate change a “hoax.” The GOP congressman from Montana replied, “I do not believe that it is a hoax.” Raised in Whitefish, Montana, near Glacier National Park where the glaciers are receding, he said it’s “indisputable” that “climate is changing” and that “man has had an influence.”
Zinke said he supports keeping public lands public, making the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent. An “unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” Zinke said Roosevelt “had it right when he placed under federal protection millions of acres of our federal lands and set aside much of it as our national forests.” Pressed by Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to support reopening more public lands and offshore waters to drilling, Zinke committed to an “all-of-the-above” energy policy to support oil drilling and coal mining along with wind and solar development.
Recalling his overseas missions as a Navy SEAL, Zinke said he knows it’s far better to “produce energy in America under reasonable regulation” rather than overseas under “no regulation.”
More consideration of climate issues is guaranteed in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Jan. 18 hearing with prospective EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and in the Senate Energy Committee’s Jan. 19 hearing with the likely next Energy Secretary, Rick Perry.
As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt has led the 27-state legal battle to overturn the Obama administration’s court-stayed Clean Power Plan that would limit power plant carbon emissions for the first time. Former Texas governor Perry hails from another state where oil and gas industry interests are major players. Yet Perry has an impressive record of supporting regulatory changes and electricity grid investments that have turned Texas into a major wind-power producer. So both men are likely to make significant contributions to Trump administration discussions about energy and climate policies.
No doubt Tillerson will also play a prominent role in setting the Trump administration’s policies on those issues. He confirmed in his Senate hearing that he will recuse himself for one year from any decisions directly related to the company he headed.
OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo has welcomed the prospect of Tillerson running the State Department, hoping that this appointment will lead to the U.S. supporting OPEC’s and Russia’s efforts to curtail global oil and natural gas production in order to end the current overproduction that has depressed petroleum prices.
Calling Tillerson “an outstanding accomplished oil technocrat” and “a champion and advocate of stability in the oil market,” Barkindo said in a CNBC interview a month ago that “there is a very thin line between oil and geopolitics and diplomacy.” He called the U.S. “extremely lucky to have such an asset stepping into the State Department at these challenging times, considering the geopolitics of the world.” He concluded with the hope that Tillerson and “particularly oil companies in the United States” will help stabilize world production, prices, and investment to benefit producers, consumers and “the entire global economy.”
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