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“Do you believe?” is the wrong question to ask public officials about climate change

Policy, not the contents of hearts and minds, is what matters.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 24: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley talks with reporters during the daily press briefing at the White House April 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. Haley briefed reporters about the meetings between U.S. President Donald
Not a denier, per se.
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate agreement has sparked an unprecedented surge of interest in climate change, putting more mainstream media attention on the subject than I’ve ever seen. (A pretty low bar, admittedly.)

One thing it has revealed is that most White House reporters lack the background knowledge to go more than an inch deep. The one thing about climate change that they seem to know, and feel confident about, is that it’s real — it’s really happening. So that’s what they’ve seized on, asking Trump officials about it again and again.

The administration isn’t helping by dodging and weaving, though it may be a necessity when speaking for a volatile, thoughtless manchild. Jennifer Dlouhy and Christopher Flavelle have a great account of the serial dodges in Bloomberg: “Trump’s Climate View Is Closely Held Secret at Leaky White House.”

In a press call preceding Trump’s Paris announcement, when asked whether Trump thinks climate change is a hoax, a senior administration official responded, “can we stay on topic?” Press secretary Sean Spicer, faced with the same question, said, “Honestly, I haven’t asked him.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt held a press conference the day after the announcement and over half the questions he received were variations of the same thing: Do you believe? Does Trump believe? If Trump doesn’t believe, why does Trump want to renegotiate? If the polar ice is melting, why don’t you believe? (No, Pruitt didn’t answer them either.)

Democrats have fixated on the same angle. "From a politics standpoint, our strongest argument still is 'Do you believe in science?' and 'Do you believe climate change is real?’” a senior Democratic aide told E&E News, “versus getting to the back and forth of whether or not we stay in Paris."

This drives me crazy. Of all the aspects of Trump’s Paris decision, and his administration’s approach to climate and energy more generally, what he really, truly believes, in his heart, is of the least significance to the American public. We’ve got to get past this.

The dance that skilled conservatives do around climate “belief”

It’s way too easy to talk around the belief question.

To be sure, Pruitt is not very good at it. His press conference was a semi-coherent farrago of lies, contradictions, and non-sequiturs — even loopier than Trump’s Paris speech, which is saying something.

But a moderately intelligent and well-spoken person can tap dance around the question fairly easily. Witness UN Ambassador Nikki Haley:

Jake Tapper is exceptional here — informed and on point. He catches Haley out in lie after lie. But when pressed on whether Trump believes climate change is real, Haley resorts to the state-of-the-art GOP line: “President Trump believes that the climate is changing, and he believes pollutants are part of the equation.”

This is the current “lukewarmer” two-step (okay, three-step):

1) The climate is changing. This is how you get the CNN headline: “Haley: 'President Trump believes the climate is changing'.” It’s how you get Politico saying this:

Thus you avoid the “denier” label.

But keep in mind: this means nothing. Of course the climate is changing. As deniers are fond of pointing out, it is always changing. We can tell it’s changing with a thermometer. It’s like saying you believe in erosion, or gravity.

2) Anthropogenic (man-made) carbon emissions play some role, or are “part of the equation,” but we’re not sure how much. This is usually enough to throw questioners off the scent, but remember: It’s false. We know that human greenhouse gas emissions are driving most or all (or more than all) of recent atmospheric warming.

the causes of climate change
The causes of global warming.

That’s what the scientific consensus is about. And, crucially, it is the “part of the equation” that establishes human responsibility and culpability. That’s why conservatives try to fuzz it.

3) Measures to reduce emissions are impossible, onerous, and job-killing. Haley says that the Clean Power Plan destroyed South Carolina jobs — made it impossible to create jobs in the state! — which is pretty remarkable, given that the Clean Power Plan was never actually implemented. She also said that the carbon targets Obama committed to in Paris are “impossible to meet,” though there are multiple, detailed models showing how to meet or exceed them.

Policy is what affects Americans, not beliefs

The problem is, press questioning usually peters out in a fog of confusion before getting to number three. It happened at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, at Pruitt’s, at Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s, and it’s happened in media encounters and press conferences countless times since.

But it’s No. 3 that matters! It’s No. 3 that is the biggest, most consequential deception of all. After all, what is ultimately significant about the Trump administration is what it does, the policies it passes or reverses, not what is in the hearts of its staffers.

The Haley interview is illustrative on this point. She repeatedly returns to the theme that the US is an environmental leader, with or without Paris. She says of Trump, “He knows we have to be responsible for [climate change], and that’s what we’re gonna do. Just because we got out of a club doesn’t mean we don’t care about the environment.”

This is the key juncture, the one that’s doing all the real work in her argument. This is where journalists should be focusing. But by the time he got there, Tapper was out of time and had to move on to NATO.

The question Trump and his appointees should be asked again and again is not “Do you believe?” but “What is your plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? You say you “care.” You say the administration is “environmentally responsible.” So what are you going to do about it?

Trump’s policies will put the US 2025 emissions target out of reach.

The reality is that Trump is halting or rolling back policies that would reduce carbon emissions and passing policies likely to increase them. His Department of Interior, his Environmental Protection Agency, and his Department of Energy are all explicitly being instructed to encourage fossil fuel production.

Trump is working against the global community on climate policy, increasing emissions as the rest of the world labors to reduce them.

That, not what anyone believes or cares about, is what matters about Trump’s approach to climate change.

As it happens, we already know that Trump is a climate denier. (There are 115 tweets demonstrating as much.)

We already know that Scott Pruitt is a climate denier — even during his press conference, as he was fumbling to dissemble, he let slip that climate change has “been on hiatus since the late 1990s,” one of the oldest and dumbest denier myths of them all.

We already know that Tillerson, Perry, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and Haley barely give enough of a damn about climate change to come up with a desultory bit of obfuscation.

Continuing this dance with them, trying to pin them down in a clear-cut case of denialism, is pointless.

Health care journalism is not dominated by the question of whether politicians believe in the germ theory of disease (though, yes, there are germ theory deniers). Climate change journalism should not be dominated by debates over basic facts either. Human beings are causing rapid atmospheric warming. We know this. We can go ahead and treat it like a fact, a phenomenon in the world, not a debating point.

The question that matters now is what political leaders plan to do to protect their own countries and homes from the danger. That’s the question Trump and his appointees should be forced to answer.

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