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Pruitt dismisses climate science, environmental policy in flux

March 11, 2017 at 4:18 PM EDT
Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, defied longstanding scientific consensus in an interview this week when he said that neither human activity nor carbon dioxide emissions are the primary cause of global warming. Pruitt has stacked his staff with like-minded climate change skeptics. Washington Post reporter Brady Dennis joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, raised eyebrows this week when he said in an interview that carbon dioxide is not the primary cause of global warming and climate change, opinions at odds with scientific consensus and decades of data.

Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, has reportedly started to stack the EPA staff with like-minded skeptics.

Joining me now from Washington to discuss what this means for environmental policy is “Washington Post” reporter Brady Dennis.

Brady, this isn’t necessarily new on how Scott Pruitt thinks about the environment.

BRADY DENNIS, “WASHINGTON POST” REPORTER: No. I mean, he’s said before, and most recently, I think, in his confirmation hearings in the Senate, that this idea of uncertainty — we don’t really know how much of the warming of the planet is driven by human activity, I think what he said the other day was a step further than that by saying, “I don’t — I don’t believe that humans are the primary cause of global warming.” And so, it is a degree further, and I think that’s why you saw a lot of the backlash that Mr. Pruitt is getting.

SREENIVASAN: And what was that backlash like? What did environmental groups and lobbies say?

DENNIS: I mean, it was swift, you know? I mean, they pointed out, correctly so, that decades of research point to human activity as being the primary driver, and this is true through researchers at places like the EPA, where Mr. Pruitt, you know, is now the administrator. Also, NASA and NOAA and international groups of scientists have found this as well for many decades now.

The interesting thing is that it didn’t just put him at odds with scientists or with environmental groups. You know, even large — some of the nation’s largest businesses now agree that the climate is warming in this way and that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with, companies like Shell and ConocoPhillips, and others, Exxon, have supported the Paris Climate Agreement which aims to tackle this problem.

SREENIVASAN: So, what are the some of the policy implications if the head of the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t believe that climate change is cause by humans or carbon dioxide?

DENNIS: Well, it raises a lot of policy questions and all you have to do is look back to the last administration. The Obama administration made this a priority and probably the signature effort was a regulation known as the “Clean Power Plan”, which sought to limit carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants.

Scott Pruitt, as Oklahoma attorney general, sued over that, as did many other folks, and that’s currently tied up in court. He’s currently, you know, said he plans to unwind that, as does Donald Trump. We’re expecting an executive order to that — to that effect soon.

And so, there are a range of regulations that the Obama administration tried to put in place to limit the nation’s carbon dioxide, CO2, emissions and I think we could very well see, and most people expect to see a lot of that rolled back.

SREENIVASAN: So, if the carbon emissions, or at least the rules governing carbon emissions are rolled back, if our clean air plan or our– perhaps our adherence to the Paris climate accords changes, what happens?

DENNIS: That’s a really good question. And in part, it’s a good question because there’s a lot of moving parts. As I mentioned, the clean power plant is tied up in the federal courts right now, and yet, carbon emissions have fallen, and a lot of states are on pace to meet the targets that that sets. So, in some ways, the market is dictating some of this — wind energy, solar energy — are all gaining steam, gaining ground.

And so, to some extent, it’s out of the government’s hands. That said, I think it would send a big signal domestically and internationally if the Trump administration were to unwind all these regulations that say that it’s a priority for the United States to tackle this problem.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Brady Dennis of the “Washington Post” joining us from D.C. today — thanks so much.

DENNIS: Thank you.