EPA head Pruitt sees good in global warming, but experts don't

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt
Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP file

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency is again understating the threat posed by climate change, this time by suggesting that global warming may be a good thing for humanity.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has championed the continued burning of fossil fuels while expressing doubt about the consensus of climate scientists that man-made carbon emissions are overwhelmingly the cause of record temperature increases observed around the world.

In an interview with KSNV-TV in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Pruitt made several statements that are undercut by the work of climate scientists, including those at his own agency.

The Associated Press shared a transcript of Pruitt's remarks with top U.S. scientists, and a dozen of them faulted his understanding of science.

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Asked for references to any climate data or scientific studies Pruitt was relying on, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox instead provided a link to a recent Fox News report questioning the accuracy of a statement made by former Vice President Al Gore in 2006.

A look at some of Pruitt's statements:

Pruitt: "We know that humans have most flourished during times of what? Warming trends. So I think there's assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing."

The facts: While it is true that early human civilizations flourished in warm climates such as the Middle East and South Asia, the Earth has not been as warm as it is now for about 11,000 years, according to several studies. That was toward the end of the Stone Age, before humans had invented math, science or written language.

And a 2017 draft federal report that Pruitt's agency helped write says that by the end of the century global warming will add 4,500 to 9,000 deaths a year in the U.S. because of heat, with costs being $60 billion to $140 billion a year, depending on how much carbon pollution is emitted globally in the coming decades.

Pruitt's statement appears to draw from an argument by pro-fossil fuel groups that global warming will be a positive for some colder areas, bringing milder winters and longer growing seasons. While that may be true for a few areas of the United States, climate scientists say they will be the exception.

For most of the country, climate change will be disruptive — bringing more severe heatwaves and droughts, stronger tropical storms and increased coastal flooding.

"One theme from studies that look at the full range of impacts from climate change is that there are a few winners, but there are lots and lots of losers," said Stanford environment professor Chris Field, who oversaw a United Nations and World Meteorological Organization scientific report on climate change impacts. "And, the fraction of losers grows dramatically with the amount of warming. We need only look to the damage from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria or the California wildfires of 2017 to appreciate the power of the climate system."

A hotter climate will also have negative overall health consequences, said Dr. Howard Frumkin, an environmental health professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health.

"While milder climates in cold places may bring some local benefits, a warmer world overall is clearly bad for health," said Frumkin who was appointed to head the National Center for Environmental Health by Republican President George W. Bush. "Hot weather promotes the spread of infectious diseases, reduces work capacity, increases rates of injuries and violent crimes, impairs sleep, reduces agricultural production, worsens air quality, and prolongs the allergy season."

While past warming periods in human history did sometimes boost agriculture, those climatic changes occurred over centuries, not at the rapid rate now being observed. The last four years have been the hottest ever recorded since accurate national weather data began being collected in the 1880s.

Pruitt: "No one disputes the climate changes, is changing, we see that constant. We obviously contribute to it, we live in the climate, right? So our activity contributes to the climate changing to a certain degree. Now, measuring that with precision ... is more challenging than is let on at times."

The facts: A "certain degree" vastly understates the science. Recent studies leave little doubt that human activity is the overwhelming cause of climate change.

The National Climate Assessment's Climate Science Special Report, published in November 2017 from a consortium of government agencies that included EPA, calculated that the human contribution to global warming since 1950 has been 92 percent to 123 percent.

It's more than 100 percent on the higher end because some natural forces — such as volcanoes and the Earth's orbital cycle — are working to cool the planet, but are being overwhelmed by the effects of greenhouse gases, said study co-author Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University.

Pruitt: "Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100, in the year 2018? That's somewhat fairly arrogant for us to think we know exactly what it should be in 2100."

The facts: What he calls arrogant is established science. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says if fossil fuel emissions continue on the current trajectory, temperatures by the end of the century will be around 6.5 degrees warmer than now (3.7 degrees Celsius).

That means more extreme heat waves, heavy rains, floods, droughts and storms. It will worsen health problems that now exist, hurt the poorest and most vulnerable and lead to more conflicts and civil wars, much like the one in Syria, the report said.

"Human civilization came about and has thrived during a period in Earth's history with very little climate change," said Paul Higgins, a scientist with the American Meteorological Society. "We have no experience with the climate we expect in the near future and the rates of change are unlike anything people have dealt with before."