John Kelly reportedly feared Pruitt’s climate debate would be a huge embarrassment

No televised climate debate for Pruitt.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: Pete Marovich/Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt hasn’t made much of an effort to hide the fact that he rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

Over the past year, Pruitt has falsely claimed that carbon dioxide is not a top contributor to climate change, and that humans have “flourished” in warming trends; he has also overseen a purge of scientists from EPA advisory boards and was personally involved in erasing key climate change information from the agency’s website.

Pruitt has also been pushing the idea of nationally televised debates challenging climate science. But John Kelly, the embattled White House chief of staff, killed the idea for fear it could become “a damaging spectacle,” the New York Times reported Friday.

While President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly denied widely accepted climate science, had reportedly been receptive to the idea in his conversations with Pruitt, other top officials “regarded it as ill-conceived and politically risky,” according to the Times report.


Pruitt had intended to announce the debates last November, but Kelly delayed that release and ultimately killed the idea altogether in December. Pruitt’s desired announcement would have coincided with the release of an exhaustive federal government report, well underway before the Trump administration came into power, that emphatically concluded America’s current path of unrestricted carbon pollution would have disastrous consequences, and that humans are responsible for all of the warming since 1950.

Those findings don’t square with the message Pruitt wants Americans to receive, however. “It is not a question about whether human activity contributes to it. It is a question about how much we contribute to it? How do we measure that with precision?” he told Reuters, outlining his reasoning for the debates last year.  And by the way, are we on an unsustainable path?… Is it causing an existential threat?”

The decision to stop Pruitt from moving forward with the debates wasn’t rooted in the fact that such an exercise would create the false impression that scientists are divided on whether climate change is real and driven almost entirely by human activity. Rather, the Times reported that the White House wanted to avoid “an unnecessary distraction from the steps the administration has taken to slash environmental regulation.”

In addition to his long track record of dismissing and attacking science, Pruitt’s motives for pushing the climate debates can also be gleaned from who he reportedly asked to help recruit “red team” scientists: the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank that has pushed misinformation on climate science for decades. The exercise was necessary “to critically examine what has become alarmist dogma rather than a sober evaluation of climate science for many years,” Heartland’s communications director Jim Lakely told the Washington Examiner.


While Kelly’s decision to thwart the debates doesn’t seem to have deterred Pruitt from his focus on dramatically reshaping the EPA and subverting its core mission to protect the environment and public health, the American public was at least spared one more attack on climate science.

“They’re looking to use taxpayer funds to run a pro-fossil fuel industry disinformation campaign aimed at confusing the public and policymakers over what is potentially the greatest threat we face as a civilization,” climatologist Michael Mann told ThinkProgress last year regarding the proposed debates. “It is frankly un-American.”