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Update: What Trump's nominees said Thursday about science and climate at their Senate hearings


President-elect Donald J. Trump

This week marks the beginning of U.S. Senate hearings on President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees to his Cabinet. Most, if not all, of the nominees are expected to win confirmation, which requires just 51 votes. ScienceInsider is keeping a watch to see whether scientific issues—such as climate change—get much discussion, and what kind of reaction any comments draw. 

On Thursday, Senators heard from several nominees, including Representative Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and  Retired Marine General James Mattis, nominated for Secretary of Defense. We’ll be updating periodically as new hearings occur, with the most recent news at the top, so come back to see what’s happening.

Pompeo ducks on climate

“Frankly, as the director of CIA, I would prefer today not to get into the details of climate debate,” he said in response to a question from Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) about whether he accepted climate science (she referred specifically to findings by NASA’s Earth Science division). As head of the CIA, Pompeo said his role would be “different.”

Previously, Pompeo has said that scientists think “lots of different things” about climate change and called President Barack Obama’s climate policies “radical.”

(In a speech last November, John Brennan, the outgoing CIA director, called climate change one of the “deeper causes of this rising instability” in places like Libya, Syria and Ukraine.)

Mattis on DOD research and the “active” Arctic

Mattis was not asked directly about climate change, but his answer to a question about competition with Russia in the Arctic suggests he believes climate change is having an impact on national security. Noting that melting sea ice is opening new shipping lanes, Mattis said the Arctic is now an “active area” where the U.S. will need to assert its sovereignty.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked Mattis about how the Department of Defense (DOD) should dole out its research funding, noting that her state hosts one of the nation’s top research universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mattis agreed with Warren’s assertion that DOD should “assess the intellectual resources” of an area when deciding which organizations the military partners with for scientific research.

Highlights from Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing to be secretary of state:

Climate change not “imminent national security threat”

“I don’t see [climate change] as the imminent national security threat as others do,” former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson said. He also declined to make any direct links between an increase in natural disasters and climate change, calling the scientific literature “inconclusive.”

When asked by Jeff Merkley (D–OR) whether the United States should step up in combatting climate change, to match major efforts in countries including India and China, Tillerson said, “I think we have stepped up.”

Breaks with Trump on nuclear proliferation

Tillerson “does not agree” with Trump’s statements suggesting that countries like Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia should get nuclear weapons.

Ebola outbreak exposed “deficiency” at World Health Organization

In response to questions by Senator Johnny Isakson (R–GA) about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tillerson praised the U.S. response to disease outbreaks, but suggested the ebola outbreak “exposed deficiency in the World Health Organization and how they responded.”

United States would be “better served” by staying in Paris pact

Senator Tom Udall (D–NM) asked Tillerson directly whether he supports the Paris climate agreement.

The United States would be “better served by being at that table,” Tillerson replied.

For context: Trump has called climate change a “hoax” and said during the campaign that he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement. More recently, Trump has suggested he would have an “open mind” about the accord.

Paris Agreement “looks like a treaty”

Senator Ron Johnson (R–WI) asked Tillerson about the executive branch making treaties without proper legislative input citing the Paris climate accord (which is not technically a treaty, so did not need Senate ratification), among other treaties.

Tillerson said he “respects the proper roles of both branches of government. He also said the Paris climate accord “looks like a treaty.” 

It’s still unclear exactly where Tillerson stands on withdrawing, or not withdrawing from the agreement.

Ducks question about oil lobbying group

Senator Cory Booker (D–NJ) asks Tillerson whether Exxon was part of USA*Engage, an oil lobbying group who has lobbied against government sanctions in the past.

Tillerson refused to answer and referred the question to Exxon.

Exxon appears to have been part of USA*Engage. A press release from USA*Engage suggests that Exxon’s Robert W. Haines, the manager of international relations for the company, was chairman of the lobbying organization in 2003. He served until 2007.

Green think tank: Tillerson’s comments don’t go far enough

“It’s encouraging that Tillerson recognizes that climate change requires a global response and that the U.S. must be at the table. But he must go further,” David Waskow, director of International Climate Initiatives at the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said in a statement responding to some of Tillerson’s comments. “As the country’s potential top diplomat, Tillerson should understand that the U.S. needs to be a leader on climate change and honor its international commitments. The Paris Agreement is one of the singular achievements in international diplomacy in recent years, and the U.S. must continue to cooperate with the rest of the world in driving forward strong action on this urgent challenge. The vast majority of Americans want the U.S. to support the Paris Agreement and the international community expects the country to be a productive participant. This leadership is critical to U.S. diplomatic, economic, and security interests. Senators should continue to press Tillerson to ensure the U.S. maintains its key role in tackling this issue.”

United States will review funding for United Nations climate fund

Senator John Barrasso (R–WY) asked: “Will you commit that no funding will go to the U.N. Green Climate Fund?”

The new administration will “look at things from the bottom up,” Tillerson responded.

Barrasso also advocated for more coal energy, especially in developing countries. Tillerson said he supported delivering electricity to developing areas in whatever way was the most efficient use of U.S. dollars.

Paris climate deal could put United States at a “disadvantage”

The nominee refused to commit to honoring the Paris climate agreement, when asked by Senator Ed Markey (D–MA). Tillerson suggested that although he would share his opinion about the reality of climate change with senators, the president-elect’s “priority in campaigning was America first,” and the Paris Agreement could put us at a “disadvantage.”

No plan to recuse himself from decisions involving Exxon after 1 year

Tillerson refused to commit to recusing himself from decisions about Exxon as secretary of state, outside of an initial 1-year period required by law. Instead, he suggested that it would be enough to solicit and follow the advice of the Office of Government Ethics when it came to potential conflicts of interests.

United States should keep seat at climate negotiation table

Asked by Senator Ben Cardin (D–MD), the ranking member of Senate foreign relations committee, whether the United States should “continue in international leadership on climate change,” Tillerson suggested he wanted the United States to continue to have a seat at the table.

No retaliation against State Department climate experts

Senator Tom Udall (D–NM) asked Tillerson about reports that President-elect Trump’s transition team had asked the Department of Energy for names of staffers who had worked on climate change. Tillerson said he wouldn’t retaliate against Department of State staffers who had worked on climate issues, calling it “unhelpful.”

Declines to answer questions about Exxon’s role in climate science

Tillerson refused to answer questions from Senator Tim Kaine (D–VA) about Exxon’s past and current relationship with climate change science. Citing reporting by the Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News, Kaine asked about documents that showed Exxon concluded in the 1970s that carbon dioxide affected climate, then for years after publicly cast doubt on the science. Kaine also asked about Exxon’s past funding of climate denial groups and current lesser funding of these groups.

Tillerson refused to answer the questions because he no longer worked for Exxon and didn’t want to speak for them.

“Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question or are you refusing to answer my question?” Kaine asked.

“A little of both,” Tillerson said.

Kaine said he didn’t believe Tillerson didn’t have the knowledge to answer after nearly 40 years working for Exxon.

Later, Kaine tweeted: “It’s shameful Tillerson refused to answer my questions on his company’s role in funding phony climate science. Bottom line: #ExxonKnew”

No climate questions early

In his own opening statement, Tillerson, Trump’s nominee to be the nation’s chief diplomat and run the Department of State, didn’t mention climate change, instead focusing more on issues including relations with China and fighting the Islamic State group.

The first mention of science and climate change came nearly 40 minutes into the hearing. In an opening statement, Cardin pointed out that climate change was causing irreparable harm to our world and also that business and government interests were different. “Having a view from the C-Suite at Exxon is not at all the same as the view from the seventh floor of the Department of State,” Cardin said.


Tuesday’s hearing on Senator Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General: Climate and Krispy Kreme

On Tuesday, climate change made a momentary appearance during the confirmation hearing of Senator Jeff Sessions (R–AL) to be attorney general. In the past, Sessions has acknowledged that human activity may be warming the planet but has fiercely fought government efforts to curb emissions of warming gases including carbon dioxide and methane. During the hearing, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI) asked Sessions how he would approach “making a decision about the facts of climate change” if a case before the Department of Justice required it.

In response, Sessions said:

“I don’t deny that we have global warming. In fact, the theory of it always struck me as plausible, and it’s the question of how much is happening and what the reaction would be to it. So, that’s what I would hope we could see occur.”

Here is the whole exchange, according to an unofficial transcript published by CNN.

WHITEHOUSE: You may be in a position as attorney general to either enforce laws or bring actions that relate to the problem of carbon emissions and the changes that are taking place both physically and chemically in our atmosphere and oceans as a result of the flood of carbon emissions that we’ve had.

It is the political position of the Republican Party in the Senate, as I have seen it, that this is not a problem, that we don’t need to do anything about it, that the facts aren’t real, and that we should all do nothing whatsoever. That’s the Senate.

You as attorney general of the United States may be asked to make decisions for our nation that require a factual predicate that you determine as the basis for making your decision. In making a decision about the facts of climate change, to whom will you turn? Will you, for instance, trust the military, all of whose branches agree that climate change is a serious problem of real import for them?

Will you trust our national laboratories, all of whom say the same? Will you trust our national science agencies—by the way, NASA is driving a rover around on the surface of mars right now. So, they’re [sic] scientists, I think, are pretty good.

I don’t think there is a single scientific society, I don’t think there is a single credited university, I don’t think there is a single nation that denies this basic set of facts.

And, so, if that situation is presented to you and you have to make a decision based on the facts, what can give us any assurance that you will make those facts based on real facts and real science?

SESSIONS: That’s a good and fair question, and honesty and integrity in that process is required. And if the facts justify a position on one side or the other on a case, I would try to utilize those facts in an honest and appropriate way.

I’ve not—I don’t deny that we have global warming. In fact, the theory of it always struck me as plausible, and it’s the question of how much is happening and what the reaction would be to it. So, that’s what I would hope we could see occur.

WHITEHOUSE: Indeed, I’ll bet you dollars against those lovely Krispy Kreme donuts we have out back that if you went down to the University of Alabama and if you talked to the people who fish out of mobile, they had already seen the changes in the ocean. They’d be able to measure the PH changes and they’d know the acidification is happening, and there’s no actual dispute about that except in the politics of Washington, D.C.

SESSIONS: I recognize the great interest in time and you’ve committed to the issue and I value your opinion.

WHITEHOUSE: I do come from an ocean state, and we do measure the rise in the sea level and we measure the warming of Narragansett Bay and we measure the change in PH. It’s serious for us, Senator. Thank you. My time has expired.

Source: Science Mag