When speaking about climate change, President-elect Trump has flip-flopped between acceptance and denial, which suggests that he hasn’t put much thought into one of humanity’s greatest threats. However, what his administration does is far more important than what he thinks. Unfortunately, Trump has nominated individuals to several critical climate leadership positions who reject inconvenient scientific and economic evidence.
It’s ironic that Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson – CEO of ExxonMobil – has the most sophisticated position on climate change among Trump’s key nominees. Tillerson accepts that humans are causing global warming, but he denies that it’s a problem. His key argument focuses on sowing doubt about the accuracy of climate models.
Tillerson has long cast doubt on the accuracy of climate models, for example saying at a 2013 ExxonMobil annual shareholder meeting:
The answer to that question is that we get the co-benefits associated with reduced burning of fossil fuels: cleaner air, cleaner water, healthier people, green jobs and economic growth, energy independence, and so on. But the point is that Tillerson tries to cast doubt on scientists’ ability to project what will happen in the future, because the projections show that we need to leave most fossil fuel reserves in the ground. For Exxon, that’s bad for business.
Trump’s appointees will sometimes get stuck in Stage 1 denial – that global warming is even happening – but most frequently they land in Stage 2 denial – that humans are responsible.
This is a question that’s about as settled as science gets. The best estimate in the 2014 IPCC report, representing the consensus of the world’s top climate scientists summarizing the body of climate research, was that humans have caused all the global warming over the past 65 years. The report concluded with 95% confidence that humans have caused most of the global warming since 1950. Climate scientists are as confident in human-caused global warming as medical scientists are that smoking causes cancer. There’s a 97% expert consensus on the subject. Even Trump himself has said “nobody knows” what’s causing it.
we can solve it
Trump’s nominees will sometimes advance to Stage 4 denial, and argue that solutions to the climate problem are too costly. For example, while environmental regulations actually have a positive net effect on employment, Pruitt and Trump argue that these sorts of regulations kill jobs. Tillerson argues that third world countries need fossil fuels to end ‘energy poverty.’ In reality, while access to electricity certainly helps the poor, distributed renewable energy like solar panels and wind turbines are a better fit for most developing nations, especially since poorer countries are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
Trump’s transition team also believes the cost of carbon pollution is lower than the estimates used by the Obama Administration. However, the most recent research on the subject indicates the actual cost is in fact much higher than government estimates, and a majority of economists agree that the federal estimate is too low.
Tillerson has claimed to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax – a bipartisan solution that in addition to helping curb climate change and its damages, would have a modestly beneficial direct impact on the economy. However, under Tillerson’s leadership, ExxonMobil hasn’t supported policymakers who have proposed this exact legislation, and has instead continued to fund climate denial organizations that work to obstruct
Tillerson has argued that climate change is “an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions.” In other words, that we can keep burning fossil fuels, and solve the problem through adaptation efforts. However, research is quite clear that while we’ll need a combination of mitigation and adaptation, relying primarily on adaptation would be exceptionally costly.
It’s not surprising that the CEO of ExxonMobil advocates for a path that would lead to the burning of lots more fossil fuels. However, the Secretary of State has tremendous influence over America’s role in international climate negotiations. ExxonMobil’s priorities are in sharp conflict with America’s and the world’s on this issue.
We may need a ‘Facts Matter’ campaign
The prevalence and effectiveness of misinformation in this year’s elections suggests that we’re entering a post-truth world in which many people disregard whatever facts they don’t want to believe. A study by Robert Brulle and colleagues found that cues from political leaders are the main driver of public opinion on climate change. That strong response to elite cues is exemplified in the sudden spike in Vladimir Putin’s favorability among Republicans.
Unfortunately, Republican Party leaders are sending cues of doubt and denial to their constituents. But denying facts doesn’t change reality.