Unless you've blocked out the 2016 election from your mind, you probably remember that Donald Trump once posted this bit of gibberish:
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
That tweet is pure lunacy, the sort of thing the rest of the world could safely laugh at and ignore … if it weren’t for the fact that this guy is going to be president of the United States and is currently selecting the people who will oversee and enforce America’s energy and environmental policies.
So, during the past two weeks of Senate confirmation hearings, three of Trump’s nominees to various climate-related Cabinet agencies (former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for State, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) for Interior, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt for the Environmental Protection Agency) were all asked if they agree with the famous hoax tweet. They all said no, they didn’t think climate change was a hoax.
This, predictably, is dominating the press coverage of these hearings. Look at these nominees! They’re all more reasonable than Donald Trump!
But there’s something deeply absurd about this. Asking nominees if climate change is a hoax is the lowest bar imaginable. It’s not even a remotely interesting question. It’d be like asking a future secretary of health and human services if they believed in the germ theory of disease. Encouraging if they do, but not the sort of thing that should receive a standing ovation.
If you read through authoritative sources on climate science, like the various reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they are very clear on what’s going on. The Earth’s climate is warming significantly and there’s no doubt that human activity (particularly the burning of fossil fuels) is responsible for the majority of the warming since 1950. As temperatures keep rising, it will lead to major changes — such as large-scale sea-level rise along the coasts — that will have significant impacts on human society for thousands of years, requiring adaptation. And if we want to slow or halt these changes, it will likely mean drastic reform of our energy system.
Some of the finer details are still being hashed out, sure, but there’s very firm scientific agreement on the broad strokes here. So the big question that any policymaker should grapple with is: “What do you plan to do about this situation, given these facts?”
Throughout these Senate hearings, every Trump nominee has basically hemmed and hawed rather than addressing these facts directly. Their statements are often vague, factually wrong, or incoherent — and typically amount to a giant: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But that’s all overshadowed by the dumb hoax question.
For instance, Rex Tillerson agreed that climate change was real, but he then caviled that “none of the models” agree on what’s happening. (That is not true: While smaller-scale regional impacts are still difficult to predict, the models show plenty of agreement that we are in for significant temperature increases and sea-level rise; and anyway, uncertainty isn’t necessarily good news.) He then suggested that maybe the United States needs a “seat at the table” for global climate talks, though no one pressed him on what that might entail. (“Seat at the table” could very easily mean doing very little at all, much as it did for the George W. Bush administration.)
Ryan Zinke, meanwhile, insisted that climate change wasn’t a hoax, but he then quibbled that there’s still a debate about what humanity’s influence on the climate actually is. (This is a smokescreen; we know enough to say that fossil fuel use and land-use changes are driving the majority of the warming we’re seeing.) So, sure, he won’t call it a hoax, but he also won’t bother grappling with any of the actual facts of climate science. Zinke’s also indicated that he plans to open up more of America’s public lands for coal mining and oil drilling — with zero thought whatsoever to what that might mean for global warming.
Scott Pruitt, for his part, insisted that climate change is "subject to continuing debate and dialogue" (a meaningless truism that’s often used to beg off any further discussion). The most he would say about what he might do was: “I believe the EPA has a very important role to perform in regulating CO2." Now, this is an accurate summary of what the law requires, but given that Pruitt has sued to block every concrete step Obama’s EPA actually took to regulate CO2, it’s sort of doubtful he’ll take this seriously. More plausibly, he’s just trying to squirm out of the discussion.
As my colleague David Roberts noted the other day, the term of art for this stance is “lukewarmism.” A lukewarmer is someone who won’t be so crass as to claim that climate change is a hoax, and doesn’t really want to fight over whether climate change is happening, but has no intention of doing much about it. Some lukewarmers will try to argue explicitly that global warming isn’t serious. Others, like Trump’s nominees, will just bullshit their way through the topic, muttering about how no one can pin down humanity’s influence to the fiftieth decimal point so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see...
The gap between crude deniers like Trump and lukewarmers like Pruitt isn’t huge in practice. You get the same policies either way. One big difference, however, is that most onlookers (the press included) feel perfectly comfortable calling out Trump’s clownish denialism, whereas lukewarmism can be much more slippery, harder to pin down and debate. Deftly sidestepping the question over whether climate change is real is a savvier way to support inaction. And with Trump out there making the most outlandish statements possible, there’s plenty of cover to pull this off.