Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you’re a believer in real science, and accept the overwhelming evidence that pollution from our power plants and vehicles and other sources is leading to a cascade of global problems, the world seems a little closer today to a real climate change danger zone.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is among those who don't believe that evidence. He asserts that the jury is still out on the link between pollution and climate change, even though it isn't. He's fought hard against new federal regulations to cut climate pollution. And as of today, he's in line to run the very agency that's supposed to administer most of those regulations — the Environmental Protection Agency.
President-elect Donald Trump announced Pruitt's nomination to run EPA Thursday to the joy of many conservatives and, well, the opposite of joy of many others.
So much for Al Gore, “common ground” and an “open mind” from Trump on climate change.
Gore came out of his surprise meeting with on Trump Monday calling it "a sincere search for areas of common ground" on climate. That and Trump’s recent comments to the New York Times editorial board that he has an “open mind” on the subject suggested a possible pivot from his earlier rhetoric on the subject, in which he repeatedly called climate change a hoax and assailed the EPA's efforts to rein in carbon emissions and other pollutants as attacks on American business and jobs.
But the choice of Pruitt is a definitive return to that pre-election form, and his selection just two days after the Gore-Trump meeting suggests the only common ground the two found is that "climate change" is a real, er, phrase.
When it comes to climate change and environmental protection in general, Pruitt is pretty much the anti-Gore. He also has no formal background in environmental science, policy or law.
In a more normal era, that lack of relevant experience might disqualify him from even being considered as the country’s top environmental steward. But Trump made his own lack of expertise on key policy questions something of a virtue during the campaign. So, as with other cabinet appointments, Pruitt’s selection hews to the president-elect’s successful anti-Washington, anti-government campaign rhetoric.
What the Trump transition team does tout is Pruitt's work in environmental regulation, though that experience is essentially in opposition to regulation. But that actually makes Pruitt well qualified for the job that Trump clearly wants him to do. The president-elect has talked about dismantling or at least vastly shrinking the EPA, which he believes is guilty of massive overreach on numerous fronts.
Among his bona fides, Pruitt has fought the EPA and other federal agencies on air and water pollution, methane emissions and endangered species protections, often with the close backing of his state’s powerful oil and gas interests. Most famously, he was one of the first state officials to challenge the EPA's biggest effort to crack down on climate pollution, the Clean Power Plan, which would put stringent regulations on carbon emissions from power plants.
That challenge succeeded in getting the CPP held up in court. Trump also assailed the plan on the campaign trail, and while it's not necessarily dead in the water, it’s hard to imagine Pruitt and the Trump administration defending it as it works its way to the Supreme Court or implementing it if it's ultimately upheld.
The CPP was in turn the cornerstone of the Obama administration's promises to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement, the deal struck last year by just about every country on the planet to try to rein in global warming. It would be very hard to meet those commitments without the CPP, or without the vehicle fuel economy standards that the EPA put in place under Obama and that the Trump team has talked about rolling back.
But Trump has promised to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement entirely, so don't expect a lot of worry about not meeting those commitments once he's in the White House.
Meanwhile, of course, the signs of rapid and increasingly dangerous climate change are coming in from all over the planet. So what would a wholesale reversal of the EPA's efforts on climate change mean to the global effort to address the climate crisis?
Government representatives at the latest UN climate conference in Marrakech a few weeks ago said a US reversal would certainly make it harder but that they were committed to sticking with their own plans and pledges. Activists promise they’ll fight harder than ever. And there's more focus than ever now on what individual US cities, states and businesses are doing and will continue to do to cut their climate pollution and increase their climate resilience, regardless of what happens at the federal level.
But the US remains the world's second-largest current climate polluter, and the largest one historically. It will be very hard to keep global emissions below what scientists think are a relatively safe level without the US playing a big role in cutting its own emissions and helping less wealthy countries cut theirs — leading by example in trying to help fix a problem for which it is most responsible.
Of course the Pruitt appointment is not a done deal. He’s likely to be approved by the Senate, but not a cinch.
The Republican majority in the Senate likely will be four seats over the Democrats and Democrat-aligned independents after a runoff this weekend in Louisiana. Pruitt will probably pick up at least one Democratic vote, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who's very conservative on energy and environmental issues.
But at least three Republicans who do take climate change seriously could potentially go the other way — John McCain of Arizona, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine. That would put opponents within shouting distance of blocking Pruitt’s approval.
And given the high stakes, and the fierce opposition of green groups, there at least will be a lot of shouting before Pruitt takes over the agency he’s made a career out of taking on.