DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

Week 22: Trump Gives Even More Top EPA Scientists the Boot

. . . and Rick Perry blames climate change on the ocean.

June 23, 2017

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Courtesy CNBC

Shoot the Messenger

Joe Kernen of CNBC asked Energy Secretary Rick Perry the following question this week: “Do you believe CO2 is the primary control knob for the temperature of the earth and for climate?” When Perry replied, “No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in,” his answer caused outrage among environmentalists (and scientists in general). But if you want to get mad at someone, get mad at Kernen.

There are many ways to phrase a question that demands a straightforward answer. For example, “Do you believe that carbon emissions are causing the earth’s climate to change in a way that threatens human health and security?” Or how about “Do you agree with the scientific consensus that human carbon emissions are changing the climate in dangerous ways?”

Why didn’t Joe Kernen ask one of those questions? Because Kernen himself is a climate change denier. He has falsely claimed that the 1930s were the warmest period on record and has likened climatology to “witchcraft.” So rather than force Perry to go on record with a serious view on climate change, Kernen tossed him a softball. (Perry, however, still somehow managed to get it wrong—if the earth has a temperature control knob, it’s the sun, not the oceans.)

Kernen’s question also demonstrates his misunderstanding of climate science. No one alleges that carbon dioxide is the primary control knob for the earth’s temperature. That’s not the point. Climatologists have proven that even small increases in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere can trap the sun’s heat and cause long-term changes to the planet’s temperature.

Also, while I don’t want to get into the business of defending Perry, he did slip into his meandering answer something very interesting about the future of U.S. energy: “I’m excited about what we’re going to see coming out of our national labs.” That’s a not-so-subtle jab at President Trump’s laughable budget request to gut funding for the Energy Department’s innovation research. Even though Perry did defend Trump’s budget in front of Congress on Wednesday (albeit poorly), he has spent the past few weeks openly advocating for more research funding.

Only in the age of Trump could Rick Perry start to sound like the grownup in the executive branch.

Scientists? What Scientists?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has notified dozens of scientists on its Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) that their terms will not be renewed once they conclude in August. The decision leaves only 11 scientists of the 49 who had survived Trump’s last round of EPA dismissals in May.

The agency says it is “taking an inclusive approach to filling future BOSC appointments and welcome[s] all applicants from all relevant scientific and technical fields.” That is, of course, a load of nonsense. The EPA is in no position to evaluate applicants for one of its most important scientific advisory bodies, because the Trump administration is utterly devoid of scientific expertise.

Trump doesn’t even have a presidential science advisor, whose counsel every president since Eisenhower has relied on in making decisions relating to science and technology. Could it be that Trump can’t persuade one eminent scientist to join his administration in a role of high prestige and influence? And if not, how is he going to persuade dozens of them to work behind the scenes on the thankless task of minimizing the damage that his administration is inflicting on the environment?

More likely, the president has no intention of filling these positions.

“This could also be a way of just weakening advisory boards, of diminishing their role by not replacing members,” says Robert Richardson, an ecological economist at Michigan State University who worked for BOSC until May.

Bingo. You can’t be accused of censoring or ignoring your scientific advisors if you don’t have any scientific advisors.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmstead

Axios reports that President Trump is set to make energy lobbyist Jeff Holmstead the deputy administrator of the EPA.

DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

Holmstead is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to his statements on environmental issues, but his actions consist largely of doing the bidding of fossil fuel companies. Regarding climate change, Holmstead has said, “I’m not sure the big debates are around the science, the big debates are around well, what is it that we should do.” It’s not exactly “Act on Climate!” but at least he appears to accept the scientific consensus. However, Holmstead refers to investing in breakthrough energy technologies as “the only way we actually end up dealing with climate change,” which sounds good but is really just a polite way of saying he doesn’t want to regulate carbon emissions. While head of the EPA’s air program under the George W. Bush administration, he oversaw the weakening of numerous environmental regulations in favor of polluting industries.

Holmstead also has an embarrassing history of inconsistency when it comes to air pollution. While at the EPA, he argued that reducing emissions from power plants would save thousands of lives. As a lobbyist for the utilities, however, Holmstead said he didn’t believe that such emissions were killing thousands of people. As an EPA official, he called mercury a “potent toxin that causes permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.” As a lobbyist, he said, “It’s pretty hard to say that [mercury from power plants] is a significant public health issue.”

Seemingly, there are two Jeff Holmsteads—one who’s all talk, no walk on environmental issues, and one who rejects public health research and protects polluters. Which Holmstead is Trump appointing to help lead the EPA? Well, both. Sad face.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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