On Wednesday morning, scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration formally reported news that almost everyone in the climate community already knew: 2016 was the hottest year ever measured, the warmest since people began keeping detailed temperature records in 1880. It is the third year in a row that has broken the planetary heat record. A streak like this has never occurred before; the chances of this happening naturally are vanishingly small.
It was a doleful year for the planet. Hundreds of miles of the Great Barrier Reef bleached and withered, the worst die-off ever observed. Arctic sea ice—the continent of white that materializes at the North Pole every winter—has never been observed at lower levels. Rising oceans inundated the east coast of the United States, costing the tourism business at Miami Beach and plaguing the U.S. Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia.
As the government researchers delivered the news, their overseers were meeting in the upper chamber of the most powerful democracy in the world. The members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee were splitting hairs over whether human-caused climate change exists.
The formal occasion was the confirmation hearing of Scott Pruitt, the man whom Donald Trump nominated to serve as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Association. Pruitt has no formal scientific or environmental training; he would be the first EPA administrator without a background in the field since George W. Bush nominated Utah Governor Mike Leavitt in 2003.
But among the Republican donor crowd, Pruitt distinguished himself as attorney general of Oklahoma. In that role he sued the EPA at least 14 times on states’ rights grounds seeking to block the Obama administration’s climate-change plan, its protections against airborne mercury, its airborne-smog rule, and several more. His own website brags that he is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
Now he will be the one setting the agenda. Wednesday’s questioning unfolded as partisan ping-pong, with Republicans and Democrats trading off the dais. It fell into a pattern. Republicans would complain about an EPA rule that their constituents found particularly burdensome and ask Pruitt to alter it. (Their most common target: The “Waters of the United States” rule, which broadly defines what constitutes a federal waterway under the Clean Water Act.) Pruitt would demur, replying that he could only do what the federal statutes allowed him—and then nonetheless assure the senator that his or her reading of the same statute seemed, to him, to be entirely sensible.
Then a Democrat would take the stand. Inevitably they would ask about climate change. In his opening statement, Pruitt outlined his talking points on the issue: “Science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change,” he said. “The human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.” This just isn’t right: The international scientific consensus, hard-won after many decades, is that human activity is the dominant cause of modern-day global warming.
One Democratic senator after another attempted to weaken Pruitt’s resolve on global warming. They would recount its many consequences and the seriousness of the science. “Ten years ago we were talking about models. We don’t need models now, because we have facts on the ground,” said Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Merkley talked about how oysters were struggling off his state’s coast because of ocean acidification. Its moose were dying because of a thriving tick population, he said. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island added that climate change was killing his state’s fisheries.
Pruitt sat and listened and smiled. He said he granted that—thanks to a landmark 2007 Supreme Court case and a 2009 endangerment finding—the EPA had an “obligation” to regulate carbon dioxide. But he did not say what that obligation entailed, nor did any Democratic senator ask him to go into specifics.
Only Senator Bernie Sanders succeeded in agitating the nominee. Sanders pressed Pruitt on the science, pointing out that researchers agree that human activity is the driving cause of climate change. When Pruitt pointed again to the statutes, Sanders asked him for his personal views on global warming.
“My personal opinion is immaterial to the job,” Pruitt replied.
“Really?” Sanders said, agog. “You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feeling about whether climate change is caused by human activity is immaterial?!”
“Senator, I’ve acknowledged to you that human activity impacts the climate,” said Pruitt, visibly annoyed. The exchange was the most effective at revealing Pruitt’s seeming nonchalance about the issue, but it did not really supply new information. We don’t know any better how Pruitt will address CO2 after the hearing than we did before it.
Some senators, including Whitehouse and New Jersey’s Cory Booker, tried other lines of questioning. Whitehouse pointed to Pruitt’s deep ties to the oil and gas industry: Harold Hamm, the oil billionaire who popularized fracking, was the chair of Pruitt’s reelection campaign. Pruitt has also accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the industry. Whitehouse highlighted the donations and the “dark money” that flowed into other groups that Pruitt ran.
Pruitt said all the donations were above-board—and the Senate Republicans, who hold a majority on the committee, did not seem to find it worth asking about.
Slightly different problems bedeviled Booker’s approach. Pruitt inherited a long-running water-quality lawsuit from Oklahoma’s previous attorney general. The suit alleged that poultry firms in Arkansas were poisoning the Illinois River by dumping chicken manure into it. Firms and executives in the poultry industry donated $40,000 to Pruitt’s campaign; when he won in 2010, he downgraded the suit to an investigation.
That, at least, is the simple version. The long version involves various Arkansas municipalities and decades-long debates over the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause. Booker attempted to spear Pruitt on the issue, but Pruitt—the trained trial lawyer—got him stuck in specifics. And Senator John Boozman, a Republican of Arkansas, intervened multiple times to say that Arkansas itself was quite pleased with Pruitt’s work.
Throughout the hearing, Pruitt repeatedly reiterated his commitment to federalism and “the rule of law.” He will stick to what the statutes let him do, he said, over and over and over again. Multiple times he implied this will involve devolving some regulatory authority to the states, and, indeed, federalism is built into the architecture of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
But the only real bit of policy news to emerge from the hearing seemingly contravened his stated objective of federalism. The 1970 Clean Air Act allowed California to develop and enforce stricter emissions standards for cars—if the EPA administrator specifically granted them a waiver to do so. (Remember the images of smog-choked Los Angeles and it becomes clear why Congress delegated this power.) California has generally used this power to push for a more efficient and less polluting fleet of vehicles. And in the nearly 50 years since the Clean Air Act passed, the EPA administrator has denied their waiver only once—in 2008, during the Bush administration, when Stephen L. Johnson said that California could not regulate cars to limit greenhouse gases. (The next year, Obama’s EPA granted the waiver.)
In his hearing, Pruitt said that he could not guarantee California would continue to receive its waiver, because the EPA has to review each request individually. Failing to grant the waiver would undercut some of the state’s climate-change policies, which are the most expansive and aggressive in the country.
It was a moment that shows just how frustrating Pruitt could prove to be for the environmentally inclined. Like many EPA administrators before him, he will always be able to champion statutes while pleading innocence when regulatory processes support his political ends.
Of course, if Pruitt denies the waiver, it’s possible that California could sue the EPA—asserting that it deserves the federalist respect that Pruitt sought for Oklahoma in his 14 lawsuits against the very same agency. Any lawsuit against his agency will take years. Through it all, the planet will continue to warm.