By Justin Gillis* -The New York Times
From the day he walked into Congress as the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt has been trying to foist a colossal lie on the American public.
“Science tells us that the climate is changing, and human activity in some manner impacts that change,” he said that day, 14 months ago. “The human ability to measure with precision the extent of that impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue, as well they should be.”
In other words: We do not know enough about the risks to take any action. Burn that coal, baby! Mr. Pruitt, confirmed by the Senate in a close vote, then proceeded to begin dismantling the modest regulations on climate change that the Obama administration had put in place.
This is not just any old white lie that Mr. Pruitt has been telling. This is a civilization-threatening lie, a lie that will kill people and destroy small nations, if not some large ones. Future generations will see him as a man guilty of a major historical crime, along with his enablers in Congress and their puppet masters in the fossil-fuel industry.
How bizarre, then, that Mr. Pruitt is now in trouble not for this epic lie, but for petty ethical violations.
He got a sweetheart deal on a condo from the family of a lobbyist with business before the E.P.A. He blew taxpayers’ money on unnecessary first-class air travel. He ordered up a security detail larger than any E.P.A. administrator has ever had, a Praetorian guard to protect him from the rabble out there who, presumably, care more than he does about the nation’s land and water.
Mr. Pruitt has become such an embarrassment to this administration — stop and let that sink in — that he would already be out the door if Donald Trump were not protecting him. He is, after all, a man after the president’s own heart.
Amazingly, it turns out, Republicans in Congress who are perfectly willing to countenance his lies about climate change can still be shamed about the waste of taxpayer money and have begun some sort of investigation of his ethical lapses.
Whether he is driven out soon or not, his effectiveness as E.P.A. administrator is shot. The whole thing is odd, a bit like prosecuting Al Capone for tax evasion. Whatever it takes, I guess. The sooner the man is sent packing, the better.
But it would be a shame for Mr. Pruitt to be allowed to slither back to Oklahoma without everyone appreciating the true magnitude of what he has done. He was a prime voice urging President Trump to abandon the Paris climate deal, the fragile international consensus that we ought not wreck the only planet we have.
During his time in office, Mr. Pruitt has episodically repeated his big lie, always using weasel words — “with precision” — to try to appear more reasonable in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change.
When asked on CNBC about the role of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, Mr. Pruitt said: “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet. We need to continue the debate and continue the review and analysis.”
But we do know it, no matter how much Scott Pruitt sweats under the television lights as the distortions fall from his lips.
We know in exquisite physical detail what pouring carbon dioxide into the air, something humans are doing with abandon, will do to the heat-trapping properties of the atmosphere. We know that the planet is warming at a rate with little known precedent in the geological record and that no natural factor can account for that warming.
Scientists predicted the warming many decades ago, and it is proceeding pretty much as they forecast. They also predicted that glaciers and ice caps would melt, the oceans would rise, rains would intensify, heat waves would get worse — and every bit of that has come to pass. The same scientists are telling us that failing to get emissions under control would be to risk a mass extinction of life on Earth and would be very likely to create so much chaos in the human realm as to imperil the stability of our civilization.
Do they know everything that will happen, year by year and decade by decade? Of course not, and it is this uncertainty about the scope and rate of change that Mr. Pruitt wants to magnify into a pretext for inaction.
We do not know “with precision” how gravity works, either, but we know enough about it to calculate the approximate rate at which an apple will fall from a tree, to predict the existence of a planet before it is found and to plot the trajectory of a nuclear missile.
In other words, while no science is ever complete, any science that has proved itself by making correct predictions warrants our attention and our provisional trust. Climate scientists have done that, and they are warning us that we have entered a planetary emergency — not in 50 years, but now. We are fools not to be trying to cut emissions of greenhouse gases as fast as we possibly can.
Why do I claim that Mr. Pruitt is lying, rather than just deluded? You can tell by the way he words his statements, all that fine salami slicing about the need for more “precision” before we can do anything. The truth is that the science you need to know we have a problem was published 30 years ago, and it has already stood the test of time.
I think Mr. Pruitt knows that, too. But he found a fast, easy path to national prominence by becoming an errand boy for the most retrograde of the coal and oil barons. The way to understand the sleazy condo deal, the careless use of taxpayer money and all the rest is that these ethical lapses are just symptoms of the main disease.
The disease is that the man is so fundamentally immoral that for momentary political gain, he is willing to risk nothing less than the fate of the Earth.
*Justin Gillis, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, is a public speaker and consultant who is working on a book about how to solve global warming. Mr. Gillis is working on a book about how to solve global warming.