“I do not believe it is a hoax,” said Ryan Zinke, the future secretary of the interior. (Part one.) “I think where there’s debate on it is what [the human] influence is, what can we do about it.”(Part—well, you know.)
These answers weren’t necessarily true, but they were milder and more reasonable than outright denial. They prompted coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post, which noted the new position was “more nuanced” and “less urgent” while also noting that it wasn’t, well, correct. As Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, told the Post: “It sounds like an orchestrated campaign of head-in-the-sand. The scientific consensus is clear: Most of the warming since 1950 is the result of the buildup of the human-made greenhouse gases.”
But even as scientists and some journalists shook their heads, Trump nominees’ statements were amended, and not outright rejected, in the broader public conversation. My own work testifies to that: My headline about Tillerson’s hearing announced that he believes in climate change, even as I corrected what was incorrect about his scientific summary. I also wondered if his kinder, softer line pointed to a “potential shift in the Republican Party’s treatment” of the issue.
Compare that to what happened last week. On Friday, Scott Pruitt told a CNBC host that he didn’t believe carbon dioxide to be a primary contributor to modern-day climate change. He also said he hoped for more study and debate of the issue.
This is extremely wrong. Decades of research have established that carbon dioxide, emitted by human industrial activities, traps heat in the atmosphere and boosts global temperatures. It is a scientific fact, as surely as the simple pull of gravity or the miracle of photosynthesis is a scientific fact. But if you go back and read Pruitt’s comments from January above, he doesn’t contradict himself.
And yet this time, the public leaped in to correct him. My inbox soon filled up with comments from pastors, politicians, well-known scientists, and former military leaders. So many people called Pruitt’s main telephone number to complain that the EPA had to set up an impromptu call center. And Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society, wrote a public letter to Pruitt.
“We understand and accept that individuals and institutions both public and private can reach differing conclusions on the decisions and actions to be taken in the face of this reality [of climate change],” Seitter said. “But mischaracterizing the science is not the best starting point for a constructive dialogue.”
“We are not familiar with any scientific institution with relevant subject matter expertise that has reached a different conclusion,” he added.
Then the TV segments started. The Weather Channel packaged a fact-check for television, then fired it off in a tweet retweeted by thousands. “It is simply not true that there is disagreement among scientists,” Carl Parker, a hurricane specialist for the network, told viewers.
Then Al Roker, the Today show host, went on MSNBC to correct Pruitt.