Matters of Belief: What Pruitt’s Rhetoric Really Means

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

On Thursday, March 9th, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt appeared on “Squawk Box,” a CNBC morning news and talk program, where he was asked if he believed that carbon dioxide (CO2) was proven to be the “primary control knob” for climate. Pruitt responded:

No – I think that measuring, with precision, human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So, no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see… but we don’t know that yet. We need to continue the debate and continue the review and analysis.

The headlines have offered a decisive and obvious takeaway: that the administrator of the EPA does not believe that carbon is the primary contributor to climate change. And while many news outlets have explicated the stark contrast between Pruitt’s comments and the findings of some of the country’s and world’s leading scientific institutions and experts, Pruitt’s response requires a more careful analysis. What I hope to argue is that there is deliberate nuance and caution in Pruitt’s statement that aims to validate belief over fact by perpetuating seemingly pragmatic discourse that the science hasn’t been settled yet.

Before I do that, I will briefly run through Pruitt’s history and reputation a a climate skeptic and as an adversary of the EPA, then review some of the more prominent facts and debates related to the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. I will conclude by offering my thoughts on how we must respond to rhetoric that presents issues as matters of belief, versus matters of fact.

By now, many of us are aware of Pruitt’s controversial background. Since 2010, Pruitt served as the Attorney General for the state of Oklahoma, and prior to that he served in the Oklahoma State Senate. In his own biography on the website of the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General, Pruitt was described as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” having frequently and openly criticized the EPA throughout his career.

During this time, he took frequent litigative action against the EPA. In 2013, he sued the agency on behalf of Oklahoma utility companies over coal emission regulations. In 2015, he sued to block the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule, and sued them again (with other state Attorney Generals) over methane emissions regulations in 2016. All in all, he has sued the agency 13 times. At best, it seems odd that he leads the agency and, as one might surmise, Pruitt has never been quite convinced that anthropogenic carbon emissions are the primary driver of climate change.

However, the scientific evidence and holistic consensus stands in overwhelming contrast to Pruitt’s views. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body of the world’s leading scientists established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), have come to a number of critical conclusions regarding the science and impacts of climate change:

  • first, “human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history” (pg. 2, 5th Assessment Report (AR5), Synthesis Report),
  • second, “anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century” (pg. 4), and
  • third, “cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond” (pg. 8).

These conclusions are stated early on in the AR5, and are supported by a vast amount of scientific studies from the world’s leading academic and meteorological institutions. And if scientific consensus is not sufficient for Pruitt, there is a strong societal stance that climate change is an important issue that requires government action and needs input and steering from climate scientists. The Pew Research Center found in polls from Spring 2015 that more than half the world believes climate change is a serious problem, and that wealthier nations like the United States are obligated to do something about it. And while views on climate change are highly divided along partisan lines in the U.S., a Fall 2016 poll from the Pew Research Center showed that more than 75% of Democrats and Republicans believe climate scientists should have a major role in policy decisions about climate issues, and that there is strong bipartisan support for solar and wind energy production. If all else should come short, the Paris Climate Agreement is a testament to a shared, global belief that climate change is real, that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the primary driver, and that we must all act to limit its effects in the long-term.

But surely, Pruitt and others who share his views are not ignorant to all of this. Even the most unreasonable of cynics could tell you that the reality of climate change and needed policy action on the issue simply goes against the short-term goals of the individuals, special interest groups and utilities who support Pruitt. The man is considered an ally of the energy industry – after all, he came to the defense oil & gas giant ExxonMobil when the company was under investigation for failing to disclose decades’ worth of research and information on climate change. More importantly, the energy portfolio of his home state of Oklahoma is largely comprised of oil and natural gas, and more than a quarter of Oklahoma’s job force is in the energy industry. Naturally, he may feel somewhat inclined to protect those economic interests.

With all that in mind, it is crucial that we carefully look at what Pruitt said in that CNBC interview, because it is undeniably interwoven with ideology and belief while spoken to seem more pragmatic and cautious. Pruitt acknowledges, and rightly so, that true precision in scientific assessments of climate and weather are “challenging,” and that “we see” global warming occurring. These are welcoming statements, because as the CNBC’s Joe Kernen comments after, it is less and less popular to be labeled and seen as a “climate denier.”

But when Pruitt says there is “tremendous disagreement” and that we must continue the “debate, review and analysis,” he is misrepresenting the truth. Yes, it is true: there are debates and disagreement in climate science, but not about whether or not carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming. A couple of ongoing debates in climate science, which really ought to be framed as important questions that the science is trying to resolve, include: (1) whether or not the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), or Gulf Stream, will shut down due to warming oceanic temperatures, and (2) how precipitation patterns, magnitude and frequency will change in a number of regions around the world due to climate change. The point is: debate does not invalidate science, it is in an inevitable part of the scientific process that helps us better understand the world. He is right that the review and analysis must continue on climate science as a whole, but he is wrong when it comes to carbon dioxide’s role in global warming.

What Scott Pruitt is doing is arguably deliberate: he is using scientific pragmatism and terminology to invalidate climate science, all the while interlacing his commentary with true and accurate points about global warming and real challenges in climate science to hold up his argument. It’s hard not to believe that this nuance is not carefully crafted to make his point seem valid, all the while hoisting invalid arguments.

Arguably, the more frightening commentary can be found, as I alluded to earlier, in Joe Kernen’s (CNBC) response:

I agree. When I hear the science is settled, it’s like, I never actually heard that the science had gotten to that point. That’s the whole point of science: you keep asking questions, you keep asking questions. But, I don’t want to be called a denier. So, you know, it scares me. It’s a terrible thing to be called.

This is precisely what Pruitt could have hoped for in a response, because it brings home what is truly threatening about his commentary. Kernen’s statement resonates because it acknowledges a truthful point about science, in that it is about constantly asking questions, but that point is used to validate a falsehood. The worst part is that it has emotional resonance: of course no one wants to be called a denier! What Kernen has done, perhaps innocently and unintentionally, is help Pruitt to legitimize skepticism about climate science and blur the lines between matters of belief and matters of fact. And relatedly, it advances an interest-driven agenda that stands to suffer in the face of climate action.

Our response should not be to vilify people like Pruitt, but instead to contest and detest when falsehoods are spoken as truth. To delegitimize climate science more broadly threatens our ability to separate what is truth and what is not, and that effort is most dangerous when it poses as reason. And while we could, and should, speak out against the appointment of Pruitt as the head of the EPA, the greater and more important battle will be to challenge his rhetoric in public discourse. We must remind those who represent us in government of the facts, and above all, we must speak truth to power.