Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
“Fire and Ice” – Robert Frost
The room is small and harshly lit. The tables are cheap and their white sheen is marred by dirt that has accumulated through years of use. The side of the room to the right of the doors is adorned with an eclectic collection of items: a stuffed white deer, a bison head angled curiously towards the corner, a majestic photograph of Oklahoma’s Ole Route 77, an American flag that has had glory stolen by years of light. There is a lectern here, though it barely earns the term, and a man. The man is professionally dressed, though not quite fancy – a sort of elegance that suggests both a businessman on Wall Street and a lone ranger, riding into the evening across the west Texas plain, though he may take offense at the comparison.
The man has a mic and he stands tall on the wrong side of the lectern. His voice is about what one would expect from a man of his appearance; clear and strong, with a hint of southern flare. The date is November 1st, 2013, and the man is Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General. He is speaking to the High Noon Club, a conservative political interest group in Oklahoma City. His statements are met with the occasional cheer or clap, but ultimately the meeting is a dull affair. This does not deter Pruitt from proselytizing. “The EPA has an anti-fossil fuel agenda. It’s not anti-coal, it’s not anti-natural gas, it’s anti-fossil fuels, period,” he announces to the room. He continues calmly, informing the club that coal serves 50% of America’s base-load energy, a fact met with a smattering of “that’s right” from the crowd (the fact is not right – the US Energy Information Administration reports coal provided 38% of US energy in 2013). People nod at his denouncement of environmentalists as “fanciful.” They laugh and cheer as Pruitt lays his own agenda, paraphrasing a discussion with then-Attorney General of Texas, Greg Abbott – “[he’s] got thirteen or fourteen lawsuits against the EPA… I’m trying to catch up. I’ve only got three.”
There was a sense that his blistering rhetoric was nothing but bluster, designed to incite a base in a world in which protecting the environment has become a partisan issue.
Flash-forward to December 7th, 2016. Now the man, with marginally less hair, is dressed much more formally, strutting across the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan. His briefcase in hand, he’s graced with a new boldness, a new aura of validity. For now, in a cruel twist of irony, the man who made himself the EPA’s antagonist, the man who has sued the agency countless times, the man who describes himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” is President-Elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead it.
The choice of Scott Pruitt as EPA chief is at once both surprising and unsurprising. The choice represents the culmination of Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail – that human-influenced climate change is a hoax of the Chinese, that Obama’s Clean Power Plan is a “war on coal,” that the Paris Climate Accords is a disastrous surrender of American sovereignty and should be abandoned. But there was reason to believe that Trump was beginning to come around to a reasonable approach to climate policy. He met with Al Gore in what both described as a productive meeting on the environment, and told the New York Times (NYT) editorial board that there was some evidence of human-caused climate change. There was a sense that his blistering rhetoric was nothing but bluster, designed to incite a base in a world in which protecting the environment has become a partisan issue. Such an outcome, though dangerous, would have been infinitely preferable to Pruitt’s appointment.
Scott Pruitt is not an unknown figure. Indeed, Pruitt emerged spectacularly into the national spotlight in 2014, not long after he addressed the High Noon Club. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative report by the NYT, Pruitt and 12 other Attorney Generals were outed as having deep political and financial ties to the nation’s largest energy firms. The Times found that lobbyists from energy firms drafted letters that Pruitt then signed and sent unchanged to the EPA, the Interior Department, or the White House.
Beyond mere letters, Pruitt’s re-election campaign was chaired by Harold Hamm, chief executive of Continental Resources, a leading oil company in the midwest. After announcing Hamm’s work on the campaign, Pruitt filed a suit against the Interior Department over a proposed increase to the endangered species list – one that would add to federally protected land, and decrease drilling land available to Continental Resources. The Times detailed nearly $16 million in donations from energy companies and industry executives to Pruitt and the group of Attorney Generals that Pruitt directed to take on the EPA. It is worth noting, however, that the huge amount of money has produced almost nothing. None of Pruitt’s suits against the EPA have ended in a legal victory for Oklahoma.
You’d be forgiven in thinking that Pruitt was experienced in environmental science, but you’d be incorrect. Pruitt is, first and foremost, a lawyer. His experience with climate science does not extend beyond the courtroom. Of course, that did not stop Pruitt from penning an op-ed in the May 2016 National Review, in which he called the debate of climate change “far from settled.” He continued, “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
That isn’t the case. Scientists overwhelmingly agree on mankind’s effect on the climate, and the evidence continues to mount in favor of a rapid warming of the world (13 of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 15 years) – a threat to our very existence. In fact, earlier this year, the Pentagon included climate change on a list of the most pressing threats to American security, going as far as instructing all branches of the US military to plan operations with climate change in mind, warning that further warming would lead to an inundation of many current US bases. Admiral Samuel Locklear, former head of US Pacific Command, called climate change the “biggest long-term security threat” that the Pacific region and US operations there faced. Climate change is settled science elsewhere in the government; the Department of Defense, in its 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, said global warming posed “immediate risks to US national security” and warned that it would exacerbate US threats as far reaching as disease and terrorism. The 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Committee, presented before the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that climate change would “create or exacerbate humanitarian crises and instability risks,” and warned of the increasing possibility of terrorist organizations igniting climate battles over limited food and water resources.
The EPA ushered us out of an era where the Cuyahoga burned and our air and lungs yellowed in our cities.
Our defense and intelligence agencies aren’t the only organizations that likely oppose Pruitt’s appointment. The American Association for the Advancement of Science released a statement saying “any policy maker who would base national policy on denial of climate science because there is ‘debate’ would be called dangerously irresponsible,” and compared Pruitt’s denial of climate change to a denial of gravity. Additionally, a coalition of 365 companies (including some of America’s largest – Nike, Unilever, DuPont, Mars, General Mills, Monsanto), released a joint statement demanding Trump maintain carbon restrictions, arguing that “failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk.”
In the face of these reports, Trump’s promise to dismantle the EPA and Pruitt’s desire to lead the fight border on terrifying. Never before has a president been so cavalier about their rejection of science, or the consensus of their own intelligence community. Climate change denial is an issue, but actively working against climate science is far worse. And given that the cornerstone of Obama’s energy policy, the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2026, is under legal challenge over jurisdiction, a skilled lawyer (which Pruitt is) could reverse or dismantle it alongside many other EPA statutes. This would make it nearly impossible for the US to reach its Paris Climate Accords commitments.
There is a real argument to be made for a greater cooperation between industry and the EPA. Environmental regulations are expensive, but the cost pales in comparison to the cost of the destruction of the environment. It’s a sacrifice of short-term costs for long-term gains. The EPA ushered us out of an era where the Cuyahoga burned and our air and lungs yellowed in our cities. Environmental disasters, such as the one in Flint, are news now, as opposed to common happenstance. The EPA’s Clean Air and Clean Water acts and further regulations since can be thanked for, unironically, our clean air and clean water.
In the end, our earth, our lives, and our future lie in the hands of the Senate, who must vigorously oppose Pruitt’s confirmation. Unfortunately, the echoes of endorsements of America’s president-elect still reverberating around the Hill do not inspire much confidence. James Inhofe’s snowball fight on the Senate floor, a disturbing misunderstanding of climate science, does not inspire much confidence – made even worse in light of the fact that Inhofe is the chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment. In a time when the entire planet hangs precipitously over the edge of a warming abyss, the world looks to America to lead, to offer the expertise and example it’s accustomed to seeing. America’s scientists have tried their best – now it is our leaders’ turn.