What You Should Know About Trump’s Cabinet & Climate
As President-elect Donald Trump continues to round out his cabinet and White House staff, his policies and priorities are coming more into focus.
All indications so far point to a bleak future for addressing climate change, or even recognizing it as one of the world’s largest challenges. A number of his cabinet nominees, political appointees and closest advisors are climate denialists while others have funded the denial of climate change or are lukewarm on accepting the science.
Donald Trump with Lt. General Michael Flynn on the campaign trail. Flynn will serve as Trump's National Security Advisor.
Credit: Mike Segar/REUTERS
At best, climate action will likely take a backseat to other issues. At worst, there could be an all-out assault on the science, and as important, the funding that makes it possible.
To glean a clearer picture of where Trump’s administration stands and where it may be headed, we’ve created a list of his major cabinet and agency appointees as well as his senior advisors. We’ll continue to update this as appointments are made.
Steve Bannon, Senior Advisor
His views: Since 2012, Bannon has been in charge of Breitbart News, a site that espouses extremist right-wing views on a number of issues, including climate change. Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart News has repeatedly referred to climate change as a hoax and denigrated everyone from scientists (“dishonest” and mostly “abject liars”) to the Pope (“a 16-year old trotting out the formulaic bilge”) who has spoken out about the need to rein in carbon pollution.
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According to James Delingpole, a writer for Breitbart, “one of his pet peeves is the great climate-change con . . . it’s going to be a core part of his administration’s political program.”
Bannon has also framed dealing with climate change and terrorism as an either/or choice (a similar theme has emerged with Trump’s national security picks as well. It’s also a false dichotomy).
What he could do: As senior advisor, Bannon will be in position to influence Trump’s thinking on a wide range of issues, including climate change.
Reince Priebus, Chief of Staff
His views: As chair of the Republican National Committee, Priebus oversaw the creation of the 2016 party platform that called the widely respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution.”
During the primaries, Priebus criticized Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley for saying that “the cascading effects" of climate change contributed to the rise of ISIS despite the research directly linking the climate-change fueled Syrian drought to instability in the region.
More recently, Priebus reiterated that Trump “has his default position, which most of it is a bunch of bunk” when it comes to climate science.
What he could do: As chief of staff, Priebus will also have Trump’s ear and advise him on all fronts, including climate change. Traditionally, the chief of staff also acts as a gatekeeper to the president and works with Congress to communicate and enact the president’s agenda.
Senator Jeff Sessions, nominee for Attorney General
His views: Sessions (R-Ala.) has repeatedly questioned climate change and voted against climate action. In a 2003 floor speech in opposition to the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, Sessions said, “I believe there are legitimate disputes about the validity and extent of global warming . . . Carbon dioxide does not hurt you. We have to have it in the atmosphere. It is what plants breathe. In fact, the more carbon dioxide that exists, the faster plants grow.”
Sessions repeated an oft-debunked claim that there’s been “almost no increase” in temperatures over the past 19 years during a December 2015 episode of Washington Watch, a podcast put out by the conservative think tank Family Research Council.
The White House.
Credit: Matt Wade/flickr
Sessions also signed a letter to cut U.S. contributions to the United Nations Green Climate Fund, which is designed to help poor countries adapt to climate change. He is also on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works where Republicans have attacked the U.S. commitments to the Paris Agreement and the EPA’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan.
What he could do: As attorney general, Sessions would be advising Trump on the legality of various climate rules and treaties, including the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement. Sessions would also be head of the Justice Department, which is currently defending the Clean Power Plan in court. As Attorney General, Sessions could tell federal government to stop arguing the case, though how that would work and what would come after is unclear according to Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Burger said there are a number of states, cities and environmental organizations that could continue the defense.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, nominee for Director of the CIA
His views: Pompeo (R-Kan.) has been an outspoken critic of factoring climate change into national security issues during his tenure in the House of Representatives. In a December 2015 statement, Pompeo said, “For President Obama to suggest that climate change is a bigger threat to the world than terrorism is ignorant, dangerous, and absolutely unbelievable.” The Pentagon doesn’t necessarily support that view nor the idea that climate and terrorism is an either/or issue (more on that below).
Pompeo has referred to the Paris Agreement — a pact forged between nearly 200 countries to voluntarily take steps to reduce their impacts on the climate beginning in 2020 — as a “radical climate change deal” and even used last year’s mass shooting in San Bernardino to claim that President Obama “continues his pursuit of misguided policies, including his radical climate change agenda.”
On C-SPAN in December 2013, Pompeo responded to a question on if he agrees that global warming is a problem by saying “Look, I think the science needs to continue to develop. I’m happy to continue to look at it. 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.”
That statement belies the fact that the world has warmed dramatically, with temperatures increasing about 1°C since the start of the Industrial Revolution. This year will be the hottest on record, marking the third year in a row that’s happened. The 2000s were the warmest decade on record and the 2010s are easily on the path to surpass that mark.
What he could do: As the CIA’s director, Pompeo would be responsible for how the U.S. approaches national intelligence and security. The CIA shut down its climate program last year, but an agency spokesperson said “it continues to evaluate the national security implications of climate change.” Under Pompeo, it’s likely that resources focused on climate change would be further scaled back or scrapped altogether.
Gov. Nikki Haley, nominee for United Nations ambassador
Her views: South Carolina, where Haley is governor, is one of the states suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. She has criticized that plan, saying in a meeting with electric utilities that it “raises the cost of power. That's what's going to keep jobs away.”
During her tenure as governor, the state Department of Natural Resources came under fire for burying a report on the impacts of climate change throughout South Carolina for what appear to be political reasons.
What she could do: As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Haley would set the tone for how the U.S. approaches international climate negotiations. Trump has threatened to “cancel” the Paris Agreement. While he can’t cancel it, he can pull the U.S. out of it and Haley would likely play a major role in doing that if Trump decides to move forward.
Lt. General Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor
His views: Similar to Pompeo, Flynn has railed against the idea that climate change should be a national security priority, a stance that would fly in the face of the Pentagon’s risk assessment and planning.
Dealing with climate change and terrorism is not a simple one-or-the-other decision. The two are linked, with numerous studies showing climate change is tied to conflict and that climate change will only further destabilize the world. The Pentagon itself has described climate change as an “immediate” risk and major threat multiplier, one that could cause crops to fail, spark mass migrations and increase conflict for dwindling water resources (to say nothing of the threat sea level rise poses to U.S. naval bases around the world).
U.S. Marines help transport displaced Filipinos in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
Credit: U.S. Pacific Command/flickr
What he could do: As national security advisor, Flynn will be Trump’s main sounding board and trusted source on security issues. If he downplays the threat of climate change, Flynn could create a huge blind spot for the administration’s security plans.
Betsy DeVos, nominee for Education Secretary
Her views: Of all Trump’s appointees so far, DeVos, an heiress to the Amway fortune and philanthropist, has the most moderate views on climate change (though she’ll likely have little influence in that realm as head of the Department of Education). WindQuest Group, the investment management firm she operates with her husband Dick DeVos, has overseen investments in clean technology.
But that moderation is somewhat tempered. DeVos has donated to the political campaigns of a number of Republican senators and representatives who deny climate change and have voted on an array of bills that would increase offshore oil drilling, end fuel efficiency standards and bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. Of course, that’s a bit of guilt by association as over the past eight years Republicans have been steadfast in their opposition to Obama’s climate and energy policies and any donation to her party would have resulted in votes against meaningful climate action. But given Republicans will soon control the White House, Senate and House, the legislators she’s backed will likely play a role in further gridlocking climate action or actively dismantling it.
What she could do: As education secretary, DeVos would have little direct sway on climate policy as there are no national education standards. But Ann Reid, head of the National Center for Science Education, said DeVos’ interest in providing vouchers and school choice could have an indirect effect on climate education.
“It’s not at all clear these charter schools are held to the same standards as public schools with curricula,” Reid said. “Part of their point is to be creative and teach in new ways. That sounds grand but what if they don’t accept climate change? Are they going to be held to the standards of the state? That’s a big, big change.”
K.T. McFarland, Deputy National Security Advisor
Her views: Like Bannon, Pompeo and Flynn, McFarland views climate change and terrorism as mutually exclusive. McFarland worked in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations on national security and is currently a commentator on Fox News. It’s in the latter position where she’s espoused views that terrorism is a greater threat than climate change. Speaking about President Obama attending the 2015 climate conference in Paris in the wake of the terrorist attacks that killed 130, she told Fox host Neil Cavuto:
“Well, because President Obama thinks that climate change is the greatest strategic and geological and existential threat to our future. You know, here we are — and the irony, if it were not so tragic it would be funny — here we have ISIS, which is attacking with suicide vests and Kalashnikovs and potentially chemical weapons in the French water supply. What are we doing? We're going to fight ISIS. We're going to have windmills. We're going to have solar panels. We're going to show them. It's just really — all it does is it gives encouragement to the terrorists who feel that they have been selected and chosen by Allah to establish the caliphate and kill everybody who disagrees with them. They now look at this and they are laughing.
“This is a threat and an assault against all western civilization. We will not defeat it with windmills and solar panels.”
What she could do: As deputy national security advisor, McFarland will occupy a similar role to Flynn, and her views on climate change appear to line up with his.
Rep. Tom Price, nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary
His views: The voting pattern of Price (R-Ga.) in the House lines up with his fellow cabinet nominees Pompeo and Sessions. He has voted against having the EPA regulate greenhouse gases and voted no on subsidies for renewable energy as well voting to continue giving subsidies for oil and gas exploration.
Price also signed a pledge created by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, vowing to oppose climate legislation.
What he could do: As Health and Human Services Secretary, Price would have sway over a number of agencies and centers that do research on climate-related diseases and health issues, including the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health.
Elaine Chao, nominee for Transportation Secretary
Her views: In a 2009 blog post for the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, where she was a fellow at the time, Chao derided a proposed cap-and-trade system as a policy that “would drain trillions of dollars out of the private economy and into federal coffers.” While the economics of any cap-and-trade system are worthy of debate, it’s clear something has to be done about climate change and Chao has shown no interest in any alternative. Letting global warming continue unabate could cause trillions in economic losses from drowned coastal cities to decreased agricultural productivity.
Chao was on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ board until January 2015. She chose to step down after the foundation decided to ramp up its “Beyond Coal” campaign. The move came shortly after her husband, Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.), won re-election during a campaign where he was attacked for accepting money from “enemies of coal,” a veiled reference to Chao’s board membership at Bloomberg.
What she could do: As Transportation Secretary, Chao would be tasked with overseeing a large chunk of Trump’s proposal to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. She would also be tasked with building out the electric vehicle charging corridors proposed by the Obama administration earlier this month, a project that is unlikely to fit with Trump’s plans that focus on the private sector.
Steven Mnuchin, nominee for Treasury Secretary
His views: It’s a mystery. Mnuchin has worked at Goldman Sachs, hedge funds and as a financier in Hollywood. Through all that, he’s said nary a word about climate change or energy-related issues.
His political donations also don’t say much about his views. He and his wife donated $5,400 to Trump, the maximum amount allowed under campaign finance law, and $309,600 to the Republican National Committee. That’s not surprising since he was Trump’s campaign finance chair. He also donated $2,000 to Kamala Harris, California’s new Senator who has been outspoken about the need to address climate change (in sharp contrast to Trump).
What he could do: As Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin would essentially help Trump set economic policies for the country. Climate change is expected to cost the U.S. — and the world — trillions if actions aren’t taken. Speaking at the Brookings Institute in 2014, current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said, “if the fiscal burden from climate change continues to rise, it will create budgetary pressures that will force hard tradeoffs, larger deficits or higher taxes.”
The Treasury has also had to loan $24 billion to the National Flood Insurance Program to cover hurricane damages from Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Sandy, underscoring that planning for a fiscal response to near- and longer-term climate shocks will be a part Mnuchin’s job.
Wilbur Ross, nominee for Commerce Secretary
His views: Ross is a billionaire who made his fortune in buying distressed companies, cutting costs and selling them for a profit. In the past, he’s invested in coal companies and has recently moved into the oil and gas industry.
Beyond those investments, Ross hasn’t said anything about his interest or understanding of climate science.
What he could do: As Commerce Secretary, he would oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s $189 million climate research budget. One of Trump’s advisors has suggested shifting some of NASA’s climate science responsibilities to NOAA, further expanding the amount of climate work Ross would be in charge of.
Gen. James Mattis, nominee for Defense Secretary
His views: Mattis served in a number of roles in the Marines prior to retiring in 2013. He hasn’t espoused anything publicly, but according to Stephen Cheney, a retired Marine brigadier general, Mattis “gets climate change.”
In 2003, Mattis led the 1st Marine Division during the Iraq invasion. Following the invasion, he told Navy researchers to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.” That indicates an understanding that renewable energy and alternative fuels have an important role to play in military preparedness and operations. The statement lines up with recent Department of Defense goals to reduce the use of petroleum products, increase renewable energy and cut non-combat greenhouse gases 34 percent by 2020.
What he could do: As Defense Secretary, Mattis would be in charge of implementing military strategy around the world (in comparison to Trump’s National Security Advisor, who can only offer advice). Under the Obama administration, climate change has been on the Department of Defense’s radar from how it affects national security to how military installations around the world should prepare for climate impacts, like sea level rise at naval bases, melting permafrost in the Arctic and more extreme rainfall events around the world.
Ben Carson, nominee for Housing Secretary
His views: Carson has said the climate is changing but implied that he views it as part of natural fluctuations. At a 2015 campaign event, he said “of course there’s climate change. Temperatures are going up or going down. When it stops happening, that’s when we’re in big trouble.”
He reiterated that view in a December 2015 interview with Sky News, noting that “when things stop changing, then we’re dead.” Despite Carson’s assertion, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the current rise in global temperatures is due almost completely to human carbon pollution.
In that same interview, when asked if he would have attended the Paris climate talks, Carson said he would have but that he doesn’t view climate change as a marquee issue. Similar to other nominees in Trump’s cabinet, Carson denigrated the idea that climate change can help fuel terrorism.
What he could do: As Housing Secretary, Carson would be in charge of a $47 billion budget to address a variety of housing needs around the country, particularly for low-income communities. That includes community development block grants, a flexible funding source administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help with disaster response and community improvement projects that can address climate change. From 2005-13, HUD administered $43 billion in grants to assist with disaster recovery.
Climate change tends to disproportionately affect low-income communities, making HUD’s planning for it that much more important. For example, Hurricane Sandy left 80,000 New Yorkers living in public housing without heat, power and hot water for up to 2 weeks. Sea level rise will only make future storm surge that much more fierce and damaging.
Sea level rise and its impact on public housing is just one risk climate change poses to HUD’s mission. Extreme rainfall, higher temperatures, melting permafrost and increases in wildfires all pose threats to HUD programs from cities to Indian reservations to rural areas. HUD has an adaptation plan in place to assess those risks and prepare public housing, home lending and other programs for the challenges of climate change but it seems unlikely Carson would make that a priority.
Scott Pruitt, nominee for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator
His views: As Oklahoma’s Attorney General, Pruitt has been a close ally of the fossil fuel industry, a vocal critic of the EPA, and has questioned the validity of climate science. Pruitt has helped lead the lawsuit against the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which he labeled as “anti-fossil fuel.” He has also argued against other state attorney general’s investigations into Exxon’s role in spreading climate misinformation.
On the subject of climate science itself, Pruitt said in a March 2016 statement with Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange that “reasonable minds can disagree about the science behind global warming, and disagree they do.” This statement flies in the face of reality that 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that climate change is happening and human-driven.
He and Strange also penned a May 2016 National Review article in which they falsely claim that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
Pruitt has run for Oklahoma Attorney General twice and Lt. Governor and state Senator once each. Over the course of those four races, he received more than $250,000 in donations from the oil and gas industry. A 2014 investigation by the New York Times further revealed his close ties with the sector and a concerted effort to push back against regulations related to air quality and clean water.
What he could do: As EPA Administrator, Pruitt would be tasked with running the agency that oversees a host of greenhouse gas and other energy-related rules. Pruitt has already made it clear he does not like the Clean Power Plan and Trump has said he wants to scrap it, which would leave a void in how the federal government plans to address climate change.
“When you look at EPA, there’s going to be substantial change in that agency,” Pruitt said prior to being nominated to lead the agency. “There’s going to be a regulatory rollback.”
Linda McMahon, nominee for Small Business Administrator
Her views: McMahon’s tenure running the WWE doesn’t yield any clues about her thoughts on climate change or energy. Her two failed bids running for the Senate to represent Connecticut do provide a little context.
“McMahon believes that clearly there is conflicting science on both sides of this issue," her spokesman Ed Patru told the Stamford Advocate in 2010. He went on to say that despite her views on climate, McMahon still supported developing renewable energy since fossil fuels are a finite resource.
McMahon has donated heavily to Republican candidates for office, including Mike Pence and Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Like Trump, Pence and McMorris Rodgers are climate denialists. McMahon also contributed $7 million to Super PACs that supported Trump.
What she could: As Small Business Administrator, McMahon would oversee an agency that manages post-disaster loans. The agency also helps with disaster preparedness and sustainability, including transitioning to renewable energy.
While McMahon has regressive views on climate change, she has expressed an understanding that the world will have to stop using fossil fuels, which could ensure that sustainability measures stay in place at the agency she’s been nominated to run.
Rex Tillerson, nominee for Secretary of State
His views: As head of ExxonMobil, Tillerson has somewhat acknowledged climate change is happening while simultaneously downplaying how much scientists know about it.
“I'm not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact,” he said during a 2012 talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It'll have a warming impact. How large it is is what is very hard for anyone to predict.”
ExxonMobil, where Tillerson has worked since 1975 and has been chief executive since 2006?, has only recently acknowledged climate change at all. For years, the company helped fund a network of denial groups despite its own scientists having studied fossil fuels’ impact on the climate, an InsideClimate News investigation revealed last year. That has led to the company being investigated by several states for potential fraud.
While it’s true models predict a range of warming depending on carbon pollution, that’s hardly indicative that climate change impacts are “very hard” to predict. Sea levels will rise, temperatures will increase and oceans will become more acidic, leading to a host of impacts on society.
During the 2012 CFR talk, Tillerson also suggested climate change was essentially an engineering issue.
“We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK?” he said. “So we will adapt to this. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions. The fear factor that people want to throw out there to say we just have to stop this, I do not accept.”
Since then, he has modified his stance slightly and ExxoxMobil itself has acknowledged the value of climate policy. The company affirmed its support for the Paris Agreement after it went into force last month. The day before the election, Tillerson acknowledged the agreement in a speech at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference and said Exxon “shares the view that the risks of climate change are serious and warrant thoughtful action.”
What he could do: As Secretary of State, Tillerson would be tasked with leading U.S. international climate efforts. That includes international climate talks as well as helping craft U.S. plans to ratchet up its carbon pollution cuts. He will also oversee international aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development, which spends more than 40 percent of its climate budget on funding adaptation projects. The State Department also helps fund U.S. commitments to international efforts to help poor countries to mitigate climate change such as the Green Climate Fund.
Rick Perry, nominee for Secretary of Energy
His views: Perry has long been a climate denialist. During his tenure as Texas’ governor, the state Commission on Environmental Quality scrubbed all references of climate change from a sea level rise report.
“I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects,” he said during a 2011 stop in New Hampshire for his failed presidential campaign. “I think we're seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing our climate to change.”
This could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of the world’s scientists accept that climate change is caused by human carbon pollution.
Perry also advocated getting rid of the agency he’s been nominated to lead (though he infamously couldn’t recall the name of it in a November 2011 debate that hurt his presidential bid).
During his two campaigns for president, three campaigns for governor and one for lieutenant governor in Texas, Perry received $11.4 million from the oil and gas industry, making it the largest industry donor to his campaigns.
What he could do: As Secretary of Energy, Perry would be in charge of 17 national laboratories around the country that do a variety of climate modeling and energy research. That includes the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.
Trump has advocated for a fossil fuel revolution, which could result in cuts to renewable research. His transition team has also sent a survey to Energy Department employees probing their climate-related work. Coupled with Perry’s own disdain for the agency he could run, it’s likely that the Energy Department could see its climate and clean energy-related work curtailed in the coming years.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly note that Kamala Harris is California's newest Senator, not governor.
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