In the days and months before President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw the United States from the Paris accord, climate-change deniers were preparing for the worst. Trump twicepostponed meetings about whether to remain in the agreement, raising questions about whether Trump would cave to overwhelming pressure from some of his closest advisers (not to mention scientists, corporations, and the international community). “His views are evolving,” Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser and a supporter of the agreement, claimed in late May.
This was supposed to be a straightforward decision. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to “cancel” the accord. After his election, he appointed libertarian think-tanker Myron Ebell—an ally of the fossil-fuel industry who has been labeled a “climate criminal” by green activists—to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition. After inauguration, Trump appointed then–Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, another climate denier who’s cozy with industry, to lead the EPA, and signed executive orders directing the EPA to dismantle climate-change regulations.
But two months in, some prominent members of the denier community began to worry. “We have a problem,” Ebell said at a March conference for the Heartland Institute, an organization dedicated to discrediting climate science. “Swamp creatures are still [at the White House]. They are trying to infiltrate the administration. And some of them are succeeding.” Alarmed by Trump’s indecision on Paris, Ebell’s organization—the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is partly funded by coal companies—began running television ads pressuring Trump to exit.
Paris wasn’t the only issue raising alarms, as several members of Ebell’s EPA transition team expressed concerns about Pruitt. They complained that he wasn’t speaking strongly enough against climate science; wasn’t acting quickly enough to repeal regulations; and had not acted to undo the EPA’s categorization of carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Breitbart’s James Delingpole—one of the most prolific anti-environmentalist trolls on the internet—tore into Pruitt and Trump for not being aggressive enough in rejecting climate science, and even suggested Pruitt consider resigning. “If the Trump administration is serious about dealing with the vast and out-of-control Climate Industrial Complex which has done so much harm to the U.S. and the world these past few decades, then it is going to need to seriously up its game,” Delingpole wrote.
Then Trump decided to withdraw from Paris after all—the debate was “mostly a charade,” Axios reported—and the president and Pruitt were denier-heroes once more. Ebell took to the cable news shows to praise the president. Breitbart celebrated, too. “I thought [Trump] was going to fudge it much more than he did; that he’d end up compromising to please Ivanka,” Delingpole wrote. “Just when even some of his fans were starting to doubt him, he has made his presidency great again.”
Now, as the U.S. has isolated itself from the rest of the world in the climate-change debate, those same deniers who influenced Trump on Paris are setting their sights on other policy priorities. Because if it wasn’t entirely clear that the Trump administration was on their side, it is now. “Our concern before was whether the things we wanted were going to get done at all,” said David Stevenson, a former EPA transition team member and policy director at the Caesar Rodney Institute. “Now we’re just talking about how you do it.”
What’s next on the deniers’ policy wishlist? Stevenson’s answer: undoing the EPA’s “endangerment finding.” This was demand also dominated the discussion at the Heartland Institute conference, and Ebell called it his biggest priority during a closed-door meeting at a conservative conference last month. At least three conservative groups have also petitioned the EPA to undo the finding, according to Reuters, as have other figures in the climate denier community.
The endangerment finding is the EPA’s official document stating that carbon dioxide emissions are harmful to human health and the environment, and that they therefore must be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The document ensures environmentalists have standing to sue the EPA if it doesn’t act on climate change. “As long as that’s sitting there, the potential for legal challenges just goes on and on and on, and that’s not productive for any of us,” Stevenson said.
Many conservatives want to undo the endangerment finding for the same reason so many of them wanted to exit the Paris agreement: They believed its existence exposes the U.S. to lawsuits from environmentalists alleging that the government isn’t acting to reduce emissions. In other words, conservatives want to permanently ensure that the U.S. has no future legal obligation to do anything about climate change.
But it’s not just about the future. Undoing the endangerment finding would also empower the federal government to instantly repeal all existing regulations that reduce global warming. That includes the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s effort to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, as well as Obama-era fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, known as CAFE standards. As it happens, repealing CAFE standards and the Clean Power Plan are two of the Heartland Institute’s top five environmental policy priorities.
As long as the endangerment finding exists, repealing those regulations will be extremely time-consuming because the EPA will have to replace them with weaker rules. When the EPA does so, environmentalists will sue, claiming the rules aren’t stringent enough. This will drag out the repeal process for years. Getting the endangerment finding out of the way eliminates these hurdles. “We look at it like, if you want to drain the swamp you can do it a bucket at a time,” Stevenson said, “or find where the drain plugs are and get it going a little faster.”
Leading climate deniers say the endangerment finding isn’t just burdensome, but based on bad science: They don’t believe that carbon dioxide causes harmful climate-change. “The flimsy evidence on which EPA based its endangerment finding has now been proven false beyond all reasonable doubt,” Breitbart’s Delingpole recently wrote.
But the science has not been proven false, which is likely why Pruitt has said he doesn’t plan to undo the endangerment finding. “That is the law of the land,” Pruitt said during his Senate confirmation hearing. “There is nothing that I know that will cause a review at this point.” Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times as Oklahoma attorney general, and likely knows this case is an uphill battle. “The judicial system evaluates all available scientific evidence and listens to scientific experts,” Dana Nuccitelli wrote in the Guardian. “That’s why climate deniers keep losing in court, and Pruitt doesn’t want to waste his time on another sure loser.”
If Pruitt doesn’t take up the endangerment finding, he will certainly attempt to address the individual climate-change regulations that the endangerment finding made possible. He has already started the process of repealing the Clean Power Plan, and is preparing legal arguments against environmentalists who will inevitably sue over it. Pruitt also said last month that he plans “very soon” to roll back the CAFE standards that conservatives want repealed.
There are other potential moves on the horizon. Stevenson said he’s excited about Trump’s proposed budget for the EPA, which slashes the agency by 31 percent. “There are about 50 small EPA programs that look like they’re ineffective,” he said. “They’re going to be cut.” (Congress would need to approve those cuts.) Stevenson also cited two bills from Texas Senator Lamar Smith that would restrict what kind of science the EPA can use to create regulations. That legislation effectively would prohibit the EPA from using public health studies like the Harvard Six Cities Study, which links air pollution to premature death.
But there is another, less tangible priority that the deniers seek: the intellectual validation of their opposition to climate science. When I reached out to the Heartland Institute about their policy priorities after Paris, communications director Jim Lakely’s reply was curt. He didn’t answer my question, and instead took issue with an earlier story. “No one Heartland works with ‘denies’ the climate is changing; they are merely justifiably skeptical that human activity is the chief driver of that change, and global warming is going to cause a planet-wide catastrophe,” he wrote. “You know this, but used the term ‘denier’ as a slur—and a signal to your readers to not take the scholars and experts on our side of this debate seriously—several times in your previous story.”
A climate denier is someone who denies the overwhelming scientific consensus that the climate is changing because of human activity, not merely that the climate is changing. It is not a slur; it is a fact. Climate deniers know as much, but now that denial is the official policy of the U.S. government, they are getting the legitimacy they desire, whether they deserve it or not. For an ideology based in falsehoods, that is perhaps the greatest victory they could possibly achieve under Trump.
Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, CityLab, Grist, The Guardian, High Country News, HuffPost, Medium, Mother Jones, the National Observer, New Republic, Newsweek, Reveal, Slate, Undark, Wired.