How Trump nominees talk about climate; what it means for Alaska

Water and sewer systems in communities across Alaska are threatened by flooding and erosion due to climate change. Shown here is the village of Kivalina located on a barrier island in Northwest Alaska that's facing inundation. Joaqlin Estus KNBA
The village of Kivalina is one of several Alaska locales threatened by eroding coastlines and rising sea levels. Photo: Joaqlin Estus KNBA

When asked about climate change, the nominees for senior posts at the departments of Interior and Energy have very similar answers – the climate is changing, and humans play a role. But how big a role, they can’t say.

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“Mr. Walker, do you believe that human activity accounts for the majority of climate change since the Industrial Revolution?”  Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked Bruce Walker at his confirmation hearing last month.

“I think there is a contribution from man. I couldn’t quantify exactly what that is,” Walker, now an assistant secretary of Energy, said.

And here’s Douglas Domenech, a new assistant secretary at Interior: “I do agree that the climate is changing and man has a role in that.”

Their written responses were even more uniform.

Susan Combs, an Interior Department nominee: “I believe that the climate is changing and that man has an influence.”

Brenda Burman, another Interior nominee: “I believe that climate change is not a hoax and that man has an influence.”

Joe Balash, an Alaskan nominee for Interior: “I believe climate change is not a hoax and that man has an influence.”

Paul Dabbar, the nominee for undersecretary of science at Energy: “I believe the climate is changing and we have some impact on it. If confirmed, I look forward to getting a better understanding of these dynamics.”

Over and over, the nominees acknowledge humans have “an influence or “some impact” on climate. But they won’t go as far as American science organizations which have for years said human activity is the “primary driver.”

White House Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert said the administration is committed to dealing with the impact of climate change – just not the causes.

“I will tell you that we continue to take seriously the climate change, not the cause of it, but the things we observe,” Bossert told reporters last month.

David Hayes was Deputy Interior Secretary in the Obama and Clinton administrations. He said the uniform responses of Trump’s nominees suggest senior staff will not be free to make decisions based on climate science or help communities.

“That signals to me that they’re not going to have the discretion, the wherewithal, the air cover, to bring the resources to the table to help those Alaskans that are rightly very concerned about what’s happening to their coastline, to their fire risk, to their wildlife et cetera,” Hayes said. “And that’s that’s just not right. ”

President Obama made climate change a major emphasis of his second term. For evidence, he repeatedly pointed to coastal erosion in Alaska villages. But the boost in high-level attention on rural Alaska was not paired with a lot of funding to meet the need. And now the White House attention is gone, too. President Trump has called climate change a hoax and has announced he will pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement. He shows no sign of making climate change a priority.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things: the public doesn’t care that much about global warming,” Frank Maisano said. He’s a communications specialist at the Washington policy shop of the law firm Bracewell, where his clients include energy companies. He used to work as a press secretary for GOP members of Congress and says when Republican politicians and nominees say “man has some impact” on climate, they may mean a range of things and they have different levels of knowledge. (He also said nominees have assistants to help keep their written answers in line with the administration, which explains the uniformity.) Maisano said many Lower 48 Republicans just don’t have much experience talking about climate change.

“Because this isn’t that big of a priority issue for them,” Maisano said. “And they see it as not that big of a priority issue because the politics surrounding it hasn’t been a priority issue for their supporters.”

Maisano said Alaska leaders seeking government help for the effects of climate change should make their most compelling case, but he points out Republicans and Democrats like infrastructure projects.

I think certainly the climate change case is going to be less … well received in this administration, because this administration is different than the previous administration in terms of where they stand on it,” Maisano said. “And no one should be surprised by that.”

One outlier among the Trump nominees is David Bernhardt. He has the No. 2 spot at Interior, deputy secretary. At his confirmation hearing, he agreed with the statement that most of the increase in global average temperatures since the middle of last century is very likely man-made.

“And I personally believe the contribution is significant,” Bernhardt said. “Very significant.” But he said his personal view won’t carry the day in the department.

“We’re absolutely going to follow the policy perspective of the president,” Berhardt continued. “And here’s why: That’s the way our republic works and he is the president.”

Whatever the rhetoric, there hasn’t been a complete about-face on the ground. State of Alaska employee Sally Russell Cox works on village relocation. She said so far, the same federal agencies are still cooperating with her.

“I don’t want to jinx any of it, because maybe it hasn’t come to somebody’s attention. I don’t know,” Cox said.

That could change. The Trump administration is not fully staffed yet. At Interior, only three presidential appointees had been sworn in by early October, out of 17 positions requiring Senate confirmation.