5 things to know about Trump’s USDA nominee and the environment

Perdue called climate science “obviously disconnected from reality.” He also led Georgia in a prayer for rain during a 2007 drought.

Agriculture Secretary-designate, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Agriculture Secretary-designate, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

On Thursday, the last man to be nominated for a spot in President Donald Trump’s cabinet — former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue — will get his confirmation hearing. Perdue has been nominated to be secretary of agriculture, a position that would put him in charge of a department with more than 100,000 employees and a budget of $140 billion.

It would also put Perdue in the position of influencing how American agriculture chooses to tackle — or chooses to ignore — climate change and environmental degradation. And if his past record on the environment and climate change is any indication, Perdue could continue the troubling trend of Trump administration officials who dismiss climate science and oppose environmental regulations for the benefit of big business and industry.

Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. But despite its rather large contribution to the problem, agriculture is largely free from many of the regulations that dictate other sectors of the economy: agriculture is exempt from reporting greenhouse gas emissions data to the EPA, for example.

That started to change under the Obama administration, with then-secretary Tom Vilsack advancing a number of climate-related initiatives, from launching Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture & Forestry — a set of voluntary initiatives aimed at curbing U.S. agriculture’s carbon footprint — to creating the USDA’s regional Climate Hubs, aimed at providing farmers and ranchers with regional, on-the-ground expertise about climate adaptation and mitigation.

If confirmed, Perdue will have the option of continuing these programs at USDA — and strengthening its commitment to tackling agriculture’s environmental and carbon footprint — or reversing course. But his track-record has a lot of environmental groups worried about the prospect of an environmentally-friendly USDA under a potential Secretary Perdue.

He has a history of climate denial

In 2014, in an op-ed for the National Review, Perdue mocked the phenomenon of climate change, railing against “the left” and “mainstream media” for their acceptance of climate science.

“Whether temperatures are unseasonably low or high, global warming is the culprit,” Perdue wrote. “Snowstorms, hurricanes, and tornadoes have been around since the beginning of time, but now they want us to accept that all of it is the result of climate change.”

He then went on to call climate change “a running joke among the public,” and describe climate science as “so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”

Perdue’s line of reasoning — that both extreme cold and extreme heat are opposites, and therefore clearly cannot be caused by the same thing — is a common refrain of climate deniers, who point to snowstorms as proof that global temperatures have not been rising steadily over the last few decades. But that confuses the concept of weather — what is happening with the atmosphere at a particular location at a particular time — with the concept of climate — what is happening with the atmosphere over a long period of time.

As a farmer, Perdue is no doubt familiar with the complexities of weather, but his understanding of climate science runs counter to 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists, who agree that climate change is both real and a result of human activities.

His plan for solving drought was to pray for rain

In 2007, during Perdue’s second term as governor, the state found itself in the midst of a prolific drought — the most intense in more than a century. The drought was so severe that it threatened Georgia’s public water supplies, and caused lakes and rivers to fall to record low levels.

In response to the drought, Perdue took to the steps of the Georgia state capitol to do one thing: pray for rain.

“I’m here today to appeal to you and to all Georgians and all people who believe in the power of prayer to ask God to shower our state, our region, our nation with the blessings of water,” Perdue said at the time.

According to the EPA, climate change will likely increase the incidence of drought in Georgia, as well as many other regions throughout the United States. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with praying for rain, there is absolutely no scientific proof that it actually works as a solution to drought. In contrast, there is overwhelming scientific evidence backing up the fact that climate change is real, human-caused, and will contribute to increased drought throughout the American Southeast — contrary to Perdue’s claim that climate science is “so ridiculous and so obviously disconnected from reality.”

He’s extremely friendly with big agribusiness

As governor, Perdue supported the expansion of factory farming throughout the state, applauding a plan by Perdue Farms (the poultry business, no relation to the governor) to expand its operation in Georgia. The plan, among other things, was to double the capacity of one of its existing processing plants.

Perdue processing plants and factory farms are notorious polluters. Five of the country’s major factory farm companies — Tyson, JBS, Cargill, Smithfield, and Perdue — produce a combined 162,936,695 tons of manure every year.

He has ties to the chemical industry

Perdue also has deep ties to the chemical industry. He has received around $330,000 in campaign donations from chemical giant Monsanto and other agribusinesses, according to GrubStreet, and was named Governor of the Year in 2009 by the GMO-lobbying group Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

Before becoming governor, Perdue owned several small businesses, including a business that sold inorganic fertilizer. Despite being used to grow a large majority of crops in the United States, when produced or used improperly, inorganic fertilizer can be detrimental to the environment. Strip mining at a fertilizer company in Florida created a massive, 45-foot wide sinkhole in 2016 that dumped 215 million gallons of polluted water into an underground aquifer. And the overuse of fertilizer can lead to nutrient runoff, where phosphorus that is not absorbed into the soil or taken up by crops makes its way into waterways after precipitation events. Scientists have connected fertilizer runoff to a number of ecological problems, including dead zones and algal blooms.

As agriculture secretary, Perdue would be in charge of a number of programs aimed at lessening farmers’ reliance on fertilizer — actions that would run contrary to his experience as the owner of a fertilizer company.

He opposed clean air laws as governor

As governor, Perdue fought EPA efforts to implement a reformulated standard for gasoline throughout the state, aimed at improving air quality. The reformulation was ordered so the state would come into compliance with Clean Air Smog standards — but Perdue fought the effort, arguing that it would raise gas prices for Georgians.

“Georgia is currently using the most appropriate gas to improve our air quality,” Perdue said in a 2004 statement. “A transition to reformulated gas will not only make it more difficult for Atlanta to meet federal air quality standards, but it will also make gasoline more expensive for Georgia citizens.”

Eventually, courts found that Georgia did not need to use the reformulated gas in order to reduce air pollution.

Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the USDA’s budget at $140 million. It is $140 billion. ThinkProgress regrets the error.