The Trump cabinet contains more public climate science deniers than any administration in modern history.
According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, at a full meeting of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, more than half the room denies the reality of climate science. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within CAP.)
In addition to Trump, 12 of the 24 members represented at his cabinet table are climate deniers. That’s not counting at least eight senior Trump administration officials whose job responsibilities, in a typical administration, would be to provide expertise and enact policies to safeguard a healthy climate.
Climate science denial starts at the top, and the person who hired everyone else around the table has consistently made public statements that profoundly misconstrue or contain utter falsehoods about science, weather, and climate policy. As a candidate, Trump called global warming “a total hoax,” attacked wind energy, boosted fossil fuel energy, and argued that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese.”
Since becoming president, this has escalated, not abated. Last month Trump confused the concept of weather with long-term temperature trends when he said cold weather in North America disproved global warming. And at this week’s State of the Union address, he said “we have endured floods, fires, and storms,” but did not mention climate change at all.
Trump’s cabinet, now complete again with Alex Azar recently confirmed as HHS secretary, largely follows his lead on climate change. Their statements of denial fall into three main groups — the largest of which is the 12 officials who have denied widely accepted scientific consensus that climate change is both real and almost entirely driven by human activity. This includes:
- EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt: “I would not agree that [human activity is] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”
- Energy Secretary Rick Perry: On whether carbon dioxide is the primary contributor to climate change, Perry stated that “no, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in.”
- Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke: “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either.”
- Vice President Mike Pence: “I don’t know that that is a resolved issue in science today…”
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “…It’s another to spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year to try to fight this global warming that we’re not even sure exists.”
- OMB Director Mick Mulvaney: Asked “Is climate change driven by human-generated CO2 emissions a huge risk?” Mulvaney said, “I challenge the premise of your fact…”
- Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats: “There have always, in the history of the world, been reactions to different climate changes, and that is an issue that continues.”
- CIA Director Mike Pompeo: “Look, I think the science needs to continue to develop. There are scientists who think lots of different things about climate change. There’s some who think we’re warming, there’s some who think we’re cooling, there’s some who think that the last 16 years have shown a pretty stable climate environment.”
- Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen: At her Senate confirmation hearing, she said, “I do absolutely believe that the climate is changing,” but that she is “not prepared to determine causation,” following up that “she would review the science.”
- Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue: “Whether temperatures are unseasonably low or high, global warming is the culprit. 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.”
- HUD Secretary Ben Carson: Carson has said “there’s always going to be either cooling or warming going on.”
- Linda McMahon, administrator of the Small Business Administration: “I just don’t think we have the answers as to why it changes… I’m not a scientist, so I couldn’t pretend to understand all the reasons. But the bottom line is we really don’t know.”
The only member of the cabinet who has never appeared to question the reality of climate change is Defense Secretary James Mattis, who said this in unpublished congressional testimony: “I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.” Historically, instead of direct climate mitigation, the Pentagon has focused more on climate adaptation, efficiency, and reducing the impact of threat multipliers — which includes climate change. Public statements about the causes of climate change are rare in the military, so it is not surprising that Mattis has only addressed climate change’s impacts.
The remainder of the cabinet, 11 people, falls into a more muddled category of people who do not embrace the conclusions of mainstream climate science, have few public statements on it, or dodge the question when asked. However, the majority have made statements that cast enough doubt on the seriousness with which they appear to take climate change.
When asked during his confirmation hearing whether he believed in climate change, for example, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded by saying, “the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our abilities to predict that effect are very limited.” There are actually fairly robust ways to predict climate impacts. When talking about last year’s spate of major hurricanes, Trump actually addressed one of climate change’s most serious consequences: simultaneous severe natural disasters.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has not talked about climate change publicly, but she did leave the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies when it announced it would increase investments in “Beyond Coal” campaigns.
One cabinet member, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, stood out for his particularly unclear public statements on climate change. Ross has not discussed climate change publicly very often, even though he oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which plays a central role in how the government monitors and researches climate change. Ross pledged to protect NOAA scientists from censorship and political intimidation before his confirmation, but that has not stopped him from promoting a budget that cuts weather research and coastal management programs.
And when asked directly whether the recent rise in temperatures “owes any connection to man,” Ross told Fox Business’ Neil Cavuto, “It may. I’m not a scientist.” While Ross uses the “I’m not a scientist” dodge, he precedes it with “it may,” which puts his position in murky territory. Others on the deniers list who have used that dodge have made other statements to bolster active denial of the reality of climate change. Ross’ public statements fall just short of that and he therefore was categorized as “unclear.”
In addition to the climate science deniers across the cabinet, there are at least eight others among Trump’s senior staff or nominees for top environmental positions. For example, Trump’s pick to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), Kathleen Hartnett White, famously denied climate change, calling carbon dioxide “harmless,” touting the “benefits” and “moral case” for fossil fuels, and even claiming that fossil fuels ended slavery. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concerns about her extreme views, putting her nomination at risk. If confirmed, White would be joining other climate deniers in senior spots at the White House.
Mike Catanzaro, special assistant to the president for domestic energy and environmental policy, has written that there is there is “no connection between global warming and extreme weather,” and has authored numerous articles with titles like “No Global Warming Consensus,” as DeSmog Blog reported. He is also a former energy industry lobbyist.
There are also deniers placed in senior roles within many of the federal agencies charged with protecting the environment and public health. EPA Regional Administrator Cathy Stepp has said she has “read competing pieces” on climate change and thinks there “is debate out there.” And although Sam Clovis was eventually forced to withdraw his nomination for USDA’s top scientist last year, he is still working at the agency in a senior position that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Clovis has said that “a lot of the science is junk science” and he doesn’t “think there’s any substantive information available to [him] that doesn’t raise as many questions as it does answers.”
Trump’s denial and incuriosity rhyme well with that of his cabinet, which has real-world consequences. In addition to the 180 members of Congress who were on record last year denying the reality of climate change, Trump’s political appointees have profoundly changed the direction of the federal government’s approach to climate, energy, and environmental policy, as well as basic climate science.
Trump has already announced he is withdrawing the United States from the Paris agreement, which will make it literally the only country in the world outside of the biggest global effort to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Trump administration has also quietly curtailed how climate change is discussed on government websites, excluded clean energy from its goal of “energy dominance,” proposed budget cuts that would devastate the thriving clean energy industry, announced a plan to open all nearly all American coastal waters to drilling, and broke with longstanding military policy by removing all mentions of climate change as a national security threat from the National Security Strategy.
One aspect of the federal government’s core climate work that has not yet been reversed or doctored is the conclusions of the National Climate Assessment. Despite widespread climate science denial from Trump political appointees, the report, composed by 13 federal agencies and overseen by the White House, concluded that if the government does not meet Paris targets, the country will face catastrophic impacts from climate change. It also concluded that human activity is responsible for all warming since 1950.
What defined a denier? The researchers classified as a denier any lawmaker who: has questioned or denied the scientific consensus behind human-caused climate change; answered climate questions with the “I’m not a scientist” dodge; claimed the climate is always changing (as a way to dodge the implications of human-caused warming); failed to acknowledge that climate change is a serious threat; or questioned the extent to which human beings contribute to global climate change.
The researchers also based all classifications on public statements about beliefs on climate change, not on statements about policy. For example, supporting the President’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement did not classify someone as a climate denier. Additionally, no one was classified as a denier for previously staffing or producing content for prominent climate science deniers. For example, there are more than eight EPA staffers who previously worked for well known climate denier Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), including Amanda Gunasekara who famously handed Inhofe the snowball on the Senate floor. While these former staffers might believe their former bosses views, without additional public statements or writing, they were not classified as climate deniers.
It’s safe to say there were no public climate science deniers in the Obama or Clinton administration’s cabinet or senior staff. The George W. Bush administration notably censored climate scientists, undermined scientific integrity, and is now being credited for providing a blueprint for Trump on how to attack climate science. However, during his second term Bush deviated from climate denial to at least acknowledging that humans helped cause it, and that it was a problem worth doing something about even as he continued pursuing anti-environmental policies. Other senior Bush officials, including Vice President Cheney, publicly denied climate change and led a charge within the White House to spread misinformation on the subject, but the majority of Bush’s cabinet did not publicly deny the science behind climate change.
William Ruckelshaus, EPA administrator under Nixon and Reagan recently called the GOP’s climate denial “a threat to the country.”
Credit to Jonathon Padron for the cabinet table interactive, Diana Ofosu for graphics and design, and Emma Weinert and Erin Auel for research assistance.