Zinke defends Trump’s climate cuts by getting facts wrong

Debunking more misleading climate claims from the Trump administration.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

On Thursday, while every major news channel was trained on former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was busy defending the Trump administration’s budget before the House Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee.

Under the proposed budget, the Department of the Interior — which manages about 500 million acres across the country — would see its funding cut by 13 percent. Climate programs, in particular, would take a substantial cut, seeing reductions of around 80 percent.

Those cuts reflect a complete shift in priorities from the Obama administration — which made climate action a pivotal part of its domestic policy — to the Trump administration, which has rolled back U.S. climate action in favor of fossil fuel extraction. As the cabinet member in charge of the United States’ federal lands — which contain extensive deposits of untapped coal, oil, and gas — Zinke is in a particularly powerful position to influence the administration’s climate change policies. So Rep. Betty McCollum (MN), the ranking Democratic member on the subcommittee, specifically asked about the administration’s pivot.

“I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about climate change,” McCollum said, citing her disappointment with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. “There has been call for clarity about what the president and cabinet believe about climate change, and what they’re willing to do to address it. You yourself have made conflicting statements about climate change over the years. Could you clarify for us — do you agree that climate change is caused by greenhouse gases?”

What followed was an approximately three-minute exchange, in which Zinke gave at least six misleading statements about climate science, climate policy, and the Paris climate agreement (the exchange begins about 45 minutes into the video below).

1. “The Paris Agreement is about 20 pages, and when you get to page 5, I think it’s just a badly negotiated deal.”

The Paris agreement being a “bad deal” has been a primary talking point for Trump administration officials. The agreement — which was signed by almost 200 countries — seeks to limit global temperature rise to less than 2° C (3.6° F) above pre-industrial levels. In order to get almost every country in the world on board with the deal, negotiators built it around individually-determined emission reduction pledges from each country, meaning that every participant got to decide how best to reduce their own emissions in line with the overall global goal.

The United States, for it part, submitted a fairly weak pledge, promising to reduce its nation emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 (the European Union, in contrast, promised to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2030). The pledge didn’t even mention agriculture, which is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. And despite making a fairly weak pledge, the United States would still reap the economic benefits of global action, which some economists have estimated could be as high as $12 trillion dollars.

Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change during the Paris climate conference, said the deal was a remarkable win for the United States.

“We got an awful lot of what we wanted,” Stern told ThinkProgress in December of 2015, just days after the agreement was finalized. “When we sat down and read through the agreement, we were sort of shaking our head a little bit.”

2. “[The Paris agreement] lets China, India, Russia, walk. The CO2 in China actually increases until 2030 because it is structured on people. China has more people, so the world’s greatest polluter takes a walk until 2030.”

The idea that the Paris agreement lets big polluters like China and India off scot-free is another misleading talking point the Trump administration has often used to rationalize withdrawing from the deal. But it’s not exactly true that China would continue to spew carbon pollution until 2030 — as part of the agreement, China promised that its carbon emissions would peak in 2030, and make “best efforts to peak early.”

It’s possible that China’s carbon emissions have already peaked, though it’s difficult to say that for sure (since predicting carbon emissions, especially from China, has proven especially tricky). Coal consumption in China, one of the primary contributors to its national carbon emissions, has significantly declined in recent years, partly due to an economic slowdown and partly due to government policies aimed at curbing coal use. Moreover, the country has announced plans to significantly expand its renewable energy generation, investing $360 billion by 2020 in an attempt to dominate a post-Paris green economy that some economists estimate could be worth $13 trillion.

China has also promised to contribute to climate funds aimed at helping developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change, pledging $3.1 billion to the South-South Climate Cooperation fund and another $12 billion to the South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund by 2030.

3. “You look at the MIT report, at the end of the day, it makes insignificant difference.”

In his speech in the White House Rose Garden announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the agreement, Trump cited an MIT study that found that “if all member nations met their obligations, the impact on the climate would be negligible… less than .2 degrees Celsius in 2100.” Immediately after, researchers in MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change released a statement warning that Trump had used the study in a misleading way, but that didn’t stop EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt from trotting out the same talking points in a White House press briefing the next day. And Thursday, Zinke used the same study to argue that the Paris agreement would have little impact on climate change.

According to the MIT researchers responsible for the study, the .2° C (.36° F) figure represents the incremental impact over the Copenhagen agreement, and assumes that no country would deepen its emission reduction targets after 2030. The researchers clarified that, in contrast to a scenario with no global climate policy, the Paris agreement would reduce global warming by 1° C (1.8° F)— still far below what is needed to remain below 2° C (3.6° F), but well above the .2° C figure.

John Reilly, the co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, told Reuters that if the world doesn’t take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, global temperature could rise by 5°C (9° F), an outcome he described as “catastrophic.”

4. “The problem is that we don’t understand what the effects [of climate change] are. There are no models that exist…”

After discussing Paris, Zinke pivoted to his own understanding of climate science, arguing that while he does not view it as a “hoax” and concedes that “man has had an influence,” there is no way to know what the effects of climate change will be.

It’s true that climate science is more robust as to causes than to predicting specific outcomes, but there are ongoing impacts that scientists feel confident in linking to climate change, like sea level rise, loss of Arctic sea ice, and more frequent heat waves. Scientists are confident that climate change is creating an environment that favors more extreme weather events, like heavier storms and more devastating floods, because as the Earth’s lower atmosphere becomes warmer, it can hold more moisture. And scientists are confident that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is contributing to a greater concentration of oceanic carbon dioxide, making the world’s oceans more acidic and less hospitable to some marine life, including shellfish like oysters.

5. “CO2 is a concern. But what can we do about it? What should we do about it? What is the right path forward?”

Zinke wrapped up his diatribe on climate with a serious of questions that, while not directly misleading, could certainly be construed as disingenuous, especially in light of the Trump administration’s clear aversion to climate action. Asking what can be done about carbon dioxide while rescinding a ban on federal coal leasing is like asking what can be done about diabetes while subsidizing candy stores — it’s a rhetorical question that is completely at odds with action.

In the past, Zinke has claimed that there is “no such thing as clean energy.” His personal schedule also reveals frequent meetings with energy and industry groups, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute. If he’s sincerely looking for answers about how to deal with carbon dioxide emissions, filling his schedule with companies that profit from fossil fuel extraction seems like an odd choice.

And a sad truth: “Man has had a negative influence not just on CO2, but you look at arsenic, you look at the chemicals that we have looked at agriculture, man has not been a particularly good influence anyway.”

Embedded in Zinke’s argument was the parallel between carbon pollution and other pollution. This is not so much a lie as a strange diversion — Zinke appeared to argue that since man has been a poor influence on the planet writ large (through chemical industry, for instance) that man’s influence on the climate through greenhouse gas emissions was just par for the course.

It’s true that human activity has created all kinds of environmental problems, from toxic waste spills to rampant deforestation. But just because there are a number of problems doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and solve one of the biggest.