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By Reynard Loki
Scientists have recently warned in a major new report that the increasingly rapid melting of Arctic ice could be potentially irreversible and have severe implications not just for Arctic ecosystems, but for the world as a whole.
"The warning signals are getting louder," said Marcus Carson of the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of the lead authors of the report, adding that these developments "also make the potential for triggering [tipping points] and feedback loops much larger."
Researchers monitoring Arctic weather stations and satellites recently expressed alarm when they found that it is currently about 20°C warmer over most of the Arctic Ocean, which is unheard of at this time of year.
But as President-elect Donald Trump rolls out a frightening coterie of fossil fuel-loving, climate change-denying cabinet appointments, it has become clear that he's not only ignoring the gathering warning signs, but is happy to roll back many, if not all, advancements to combat the effects of climate change. Here's a look at Trump's anti-climate, anti-environment rogues gallery.
1. Mike Pence, Vice President.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has said some pretty ludicrous things about climate change, going back more than a decade. On his 2001 campaign site, for example, he expressed his disagreement with the scientific consensus that climate change was real and man-made, calling global warming a "myth" and claiming that the planet was "actually cooler than it was 50 years ago."
During his time in the House, Pence was consistent in voting against any legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including voting against a carbon cap-and-trade bill in 2009 and voting for a bill to limit the EPA's ability to regulate such emissions in 2011. An outspoken supporter of the coal industry, Pence said in his 2015 State of the State address, "Indiana is a pro-coal state … we must continue to oppose the overreaching schemes of the EPA until we bring their war on coal to end."
More recently, in a 2014 interview with MSNBC's Chuck Todd, Pence said that climate change science was unresolved, citing Indiana's "tough winter" that year as evidence of his claim. He told Todd: "I don't know that that is a resolved issue in science today ... just a few years ago we were talking about global warming. We haven't seen a lot of warming lately. I remember back in the '70s we were talking about the coming ice age." And last year, he refused to implement President Obama's Clean Power Plan, meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
2. Ryan Zinke, Secretary of Interior.
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), a freshman congressman, is a staunch supporter of fossil fuel and one of the most anti-environment lawmakers on Capitol Hill, scoring a ghastly 3 percent lifetime score on the League of Conservation Voters' National Environment Scorecard. It's no surprise that his campaign was generous backed by the oil and gas lobby. Oasis Petroleum, a Texas-based petroleum and natural gas exploration and production company, is his largest campaign contributor and the oil and gas industry is his third-largest sector contributor. He's also an ally of the coal industry. Last year, Zinke defended a regulatory loophole for coal companies by authoring a budget rider on a spending bill that allows them to dodge royalty payments.
Zinke has held numerous positions that show a callous disregard for the environment—exactly the opposite of the mandate entrusted to the position of Secretary of the Interior, which is to protect that nation's natural resources. He opposed the Obama administration's proposed rule to regulate drilling and fracking operations on federal and American Indian lands. He voted in favor of lifting the 40-year-old crude oil export ban, which helped lock the nation into a fossil fuel dependency. He co-sponsored the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act, a bill to hasten pipeline approval by instituting mandatory deadlines for federal agencies to review natural gas infrastructure projects. He supports the rapid building of Northwest coal export terminals. He has also demonstrated a blatant disregard for the treaty rights of indigenous tribes when they interfere with the construction of coal terminals.
"We're not surprised that Trump has picked Rep. Ryan Zinke for interior secretary," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. She urged senators to oppose Zinke's nominations, saying, "We need an interior secretary that would prioritize our climate and protect our public lands for future generations—not prioritize oil and gas development."
"President Obama and Secretary Jewell have left a sterling legacy of environmental progress, and Rep. Zinke will be tasked with either defending that legacy or unraveling it," said Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation. "It seems abundantly clear which path President-elect Trump would prefer he take, and considering Mr. Zinke's history of denying climate science and defending fossil fuel interests, it is likely that we will be facing an uphill battle."
"Zinke never worked for the people of Montana. He works for the fossil industry and coal companies, shilling for coal export terminals in disadvantaged communities in states he does not even represent," said Greenpeace climate campaign specialist Diana Best, noting that the congressman is the primary author of legislation that would "set our country back decades by reversing the moratorium on leasing our public lands to coal companies."
3. Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce.
On the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump made a big promise to coal miners, many of whom have lost their jobs as the industry collapses. But his commitment to out-of-work miners has faltered, as his pick for Commerce Secretary is Wilbur Ross Jr., a New York billionaire who owned the now-defunct Sago mine in West Virginia where 12 miners were killed in an explosion in 2006.
Ross made his fortune restructuring distressed companies across a variety of industries, including telecommunications, textiles, steel and coal. Initially he claimed he wasn't involved in Sago's day-to-day operations management, but later admitted he knew about the violations, and simply dismissed them. The New York Post reported that former WL Ross & Co. executives put the blame squarely at their ex-boss's feet, noting he "had been intimately involved with the company that owned the West Virginia mine where 12 miners perished—and he knew all about its safety problems."
In 2005, the Sago fines amounted to about $96,000, essentially a slap on the wrist for maintaining what was essentially a death trap. "Such 'enforcement' has a deterrent effect akin to punishing drunk driving with fines of a few nickels," remarked Jeff Milchen, director of ReclaimDemocracy.org, a few days after the disaster.
Connecting negligence with profit, Milchen argued that preventing future tragedies like Sago "involves changing the cost-benefit analysis made by corporate executives in workplace safety decisions." Although MSHA kept firing off citations and fines, "the average fine levied in 2005—about $150—equals a few seconds of income," wrote Milchen, noting that the mine's managers "simply wrote them off as a cost of doing business on the cheap."
On the campaign trail, Trump described himself as the "last shot for the miners," saying he would be "an unbelievable positive." But the only thing that is unbelievable about Trump's position on coal mining is that he may put a negligent CEO in charge of the federal department whose mission is, in part, improving the living standards of Americans through "sustainable development." Evidently, Trump is more interested in having an irresponsible fellow billionaire setting the nation's industrial standards than the welfare of out-of-work coal miners he promised to help—and who helped put him into the Oval Office.
4. Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy.
Trump's selection for Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, is particularly ironic, as the former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said during his 2012 presidential bid that he wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy altogether. Most notably, Perry is a board member of Energy Transfer Partners, owner of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There can be no mistake that his confirmation by the Senate to head the nation's energy policy would be a massive gift to the fossil fuel industry and a crushing blow to the renewable energy revolution.
As the governor of Texas, Perry espoused an "all-of-the-above" approach to energy production, making the Lone Star state a leader not only in oil and gas, but also wind power and renewable energy investment. Still, environmentalists have lodged serious concerns. "Perry is a climate change denier, opposes renewable energy even as it has boomed in Texas, and doesn't even believe CO2 is a pollutant," League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said. "Not only that, he is deep in the pocket of Big Polluters, who have contributed over $2.5 million to his presidential campaigns, a disturbing sign that they expected him to protect their profits in office, not do what's best for the American people.""Perry's tepid support for renewable energy targets doesn't excuse his backing of climate disasters like Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline," said 350.org Executive Director May Boeve. "An Energy Department run by the fossil fuel industry is a catastrophe our planet can't afford."
Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that Perry's nomination is just more evidence that Trump is "continuing to pack his cabinet with allies of big polluters who put profits over people." She added, "The American people didn't vote to return to the dirty old days when smog choked our cities. And we didn't vote to turn a blind eye to the dangers of climate change."
5. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State.
Rex Tillerson has been working at ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, for more than four decades. Since 2006, he's been the chairman and CEO of the company. "Reputedly," The Economist reported this week, Tillerson's background in engineering "makes him a stickler for evidence-based decision-making." But when it comes to climate, reputation isn't reality, as Exxon has made decisions that ignore the scientific evidence of climate change. The company has been the focus of a historic investigation by a coalition of state attorneys generals regarding allegations that it intentionally misled investors and the public about the negative impact its business has on the planet's climate.
Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard criticized Tillerson for concealing climate science "so it could cash in on disaster, instead of transitioning his company to a position of true leadership." Describing his appointment as America's top diplomat would be "an affront to global progress," Leonard said that "at this moment in time, choosing a man who knows the world through the single frame of the oil and gas industry may actually be more dangerous than picking somebody with no understanding of the world at all."
Adding to the concern about Tillerson is the fact that he has had a worryingly cozy relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin. One deal that the two worked on in particular has raised alarm: a $500 billion oil exploration partnership between Exxon and Rosneft, the Russian government's oil firm. While that deal was blocked when the Obama administration imposed sanctions against Russia for its Ukraine intervention, Tillerson, as Secretary of State, could lift those sanctions. "Imagine," writes Joe Romm, founding editor of Climate Progress, "if the oil giant is freed to produce and sell oil on the staggering 63.7 million acres of Russian land it leases, which is over 5 times the amount of land it leases in this country. Happy days are here again, for Exxon."
Tamar Lawrence-Samuel, associate research director at Corporate Accountability International, warned that Tillerson would "run the Department of State like an extension of the corporation's business development department." Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation called Tillerson's nomination the "most egregious step in turning the federal government, and stewardship of the global environment, over to a cabal of corporate extremists with proven disdain for science, stewardship, public service, and the common good. Every American should tremble for our country."
Sit-Ins Planned Against Climate-Denial Cabinet
Campbell said that Trump's recent nominations continue "a pattern of choosing cabinet members unabashedly hostile to the agency each has been anointed to lead, unwilling to follow the laws Congress has charged their agency with administering, and unwilling to allow science to guide his agency's decisions. This is more reckless than extreme partisanship and more dangerous than overblown rhetoric. It puts every American on notice that the rule of law is in peril."
"Donald Trump's cabinet picks are shaping up to be a who's who of climate denialists, Wall Street bankers, corporate CEOs, and oil barons," said Lawrence-Samuel. "If approved, these choices would represent an unprecedented level of corporate control over our democracy. Congress must block these appointments in order to protect human rights, the environment and our democracy at large."
Activists are mobilizing. "Activities will ramp up in the new year, with a national day of action targeting Senate offices across the country on January 9," according to 350.org. "Activists are already laying the groundwork for not only lobby visits, but also sit-ins, protests, and creative actions to target key Senators who say they recognize the threat of climate change, but haven't yet come out against Pruitt and other deniers in the cabinet."
"Senators are delusional if they think their constituents support appointing a climate denier to run the EPA or the CEO of ExxonMobil to head the State Department," said Jason Kowalski, 350.org policy director. "Take a state like Maine, where 74 percent of voters support EPA actions to protect the environment. There is no way Sen. Collins can get away with a vote for Pruitt and not come across as a sellout to the fossil fuel industry."
Before Thanksgiving, The Economist offered some helpful advice to help the inevitable Trump turkey talk: "Pay more attention to what the president-elect does than to what he says. His choice of cabinet appointees certainly makes for better evidence than old tweets." Less than a month later, we have all the evidence we need: Trump has declared all-out war on the environment.
But it's not just the environment that's firmly in the crosshairs—all science-based policy decision-making is now at risk, as physicist Lawrence Krauss pointed out Tuesday in The New Yorker. "Taken singly, Trump's appointments are alarming," he writes. "But taken as a whole they can be seen as part of a larger effort to undermine the institution of science, and to deprive it of its role in the public-policy debate."