Why the Administration Won’t Say Whether President Trump Accepts Climate Science

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“For some reason or another,” says Vice-President Mike Pence, “this issue of climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left in this country and around the world.” Might that reason be … a global scientific consensus that greenhouse-gas emissions pose a dire risk to humanity? Pence does not pause to consider it, instead moving on to the “burden” of Paris and how “refreshing” it is to finally have a president who stands up for American interests.

The Trump administration has been conspicuously silent on the question of climate science. When George Stephanopoulos asked Kellyanne Conway about Trump’s stance on climate change, she replied, “He believes in clean air, clean water, a clean environment.” Press Secretary Sean Spicer, asked whether the president still dismisses climate science as a Chinese hoax, said, “Honestly, I haven’t asked him.” EPA Director Scott Pruitt, himself a confirmed skeptic, refused to answer whether Trump believes in climate change. A White House official deflected the question by insisting, “I have not talked to the president about his personal views,” and then shut down follow-up questions as “off topic.”

Only Nikki Haley, known for deviating from script, would answer a question, and she did so elliptically. “President Trump believes the climate is changing and he believes pollutants are part of the equation,” the U.N. Ambassador told CNN. The official White House line has relegated the scientific basis for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to an irrelevant side issue, a question of “personal views,” perhaps akin to religious belief, but unrelated to the policy at hand.

At the same time, they have not actually renounced Trump’s oft-stated skepticism of climate science. The administration has clearly decided that climate-science skepticism is an inconvenient way to frame their position, and that nationalistic arguments sell better.

Most of the Republican Party has already arrived at this conclusion. Several years ago, Republicans like Marco Rubio, John Boehner, and Rick Scott began shooing away questions about climate science by insisting they’re not scientists. (While true, this fact would seem to militate toward following the conclusions of scientists, rather than treating them agnostically.)

But, if Republicans don’t want the baggage of defending climate-science skepticism in public, why don’t they just declare themselves in agreement with the scientific consensus?

The reason is that large chunks of the party elite continue to attack the science. Republicans in Congress like Lamar Smith and James Inhofe regularly make loopy attacks on the alleged international conspiracy to fake global warming. Conservative movement cadres have been toiling in think tanks and lobby shops for decades to attack climate science, and they have not given up, and never will. A National Review editorial cautiously refrains from taking a stance on whether the release of heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere results in the trapping of heat, using the careful conditional: “Even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, the alarmist interpretation of climate-change data.” (“Alarmist” is conservative movement lingo for the climate scientists’ median conclusion about the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions; the most “alarmist” views among climate scientists are actually much worse.) NR published a story ten years ago urging conservatives to accept the science and move their defense of unlimited carbon emissions to other policy grounds, but it continues to publish polemics questioning the science. There is no conservative media organ of which I’m aware that does not publish climate-science skeptics.

Most conservative elites may not believe the loopy claims of the climate-science skeptics, but the conservatives who do believe it happen to be the ones who care about the issue most. To openly concede that the climate scientists are correct, and the skeptics wrong, is to commit an act of treason against the movement.

Any political movement is at least somewhat susceptible to this dynamic: The most fervently committed people have the most extreme views on their subject of specialty, and tend to set the party line for the entire cause. It’s said that science advances one funeral at a time. The GOP won’t be able to openly make its peace with climate science until the generation of climate scientists that came of age during the 1980s and 1990s — the time when questioning the theory of anthropogenic global warming was merely tendentious rather than utterly preposterous — has shuffled off this mortal coil.

Why Trump Won’t Say Whether He Accepts Climate Science