by Anna LaCombe
As Scott Pruitt marks the one month anniversary of his tenure as the head of the EPA, I would like to take a moment today to thank him for the tremendous work that he is doing on behalf of the environmental movement. In a time when the public’s attention is sapped and overextended due to reports from the Congressional Budget Office, the re-issuing of the Muslim ban, its subsequent obstruction (part deux), eavesdropping microwaves and a tax returns frenzy, the health of the planet and our country’s responsibility could have been sidelined. Yet, Pruitt is there, poised to reinvigorate a weary audience with a splash of cold reality.
We have been gifted with a steadfast, unyielding advocate for climate change and our lapsed civic duties. From the outset when murmurings of his appointment rattled many, to his closely-watched confirmation, he has revealed the gaping hole of public participation and appealed to our better, civic-minded selves.
He rode in on a wave of criticism for his close ties to big oil companies and his most important accolade—suing the EPA 13 times. Mere days after his confirmation, thousands of pages of emails detailing his relationships with the fossil fuel industry as the Attorney General of Oklahoma were made public. More emails are expected to be released in the future by his office, thus generating the potential for further public outcry and at the very least large swaths of prime print real estate.
However, the power of Pruitt was not fully realized until his unsavory admission in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in which he said he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming.
His comments generated front-page headlines not only for his scientifically unsupported claim but for the backlash they received. One Washington Post article reported that the US EPA office was flooded with calls to the point where the office had to set up “an impromptu call center” to field the influx of calls from angry citizens. The article reported that a call script was posted on Reddit and his number was tweeted and retweeted.
His incendiary comments awoke the sleeper cell of the American public, marking a pivotal turn in climate change coverage. Once relegated to shrinking arctic ice sheets and disappearing polar bear habitats in the Science section, climate change is featured alongside an unpopular administration. Climate change is the news because skeptics at the helm insist on its denial. To Pruitt’s credit, his unwavering determination to rebuff the encroaching threat of a hostile climate has led to a groundswell of public engagement.
The environment often ranks low on the list of issues that brings people to the polls. It must compete with the day’s problems, fluctuating based on the headlines. In times of crisis, like the Great Recession, it is downgraded further. People’s worries gravitate towards the immediate, or the seemingly immediate, threats and understandably so. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, as a 2016 voting issue, the environment ranked relatively low among all voters—twelfth among a list of fourteen.
Inaction is often worse than outright obstruction. During the Obama-era, America had a plan to fight climate change and bring America into a greener future by boosting the renewable energy industry. Although President Obama moved the country forward with the Clean Power Plan and brought the United States to the Paris Agreement, he was never able to deliver on all of his campaign promises when it came to the environment. He reflected on some of these shortcomings last September in an interview with the New York Times. (https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000004632792/obama-on-terrifying-threat-of-climate-change.html). A friendly face in the White House nurtures complacency. We grow comfortable with the idea that someone in Washington and their counterparts around the world are looking out for our interests, smoothing the roughest edges of a warming planet even if the political climate stifled real action.
During his brief span as acting head of the EPA, Pruitt has kept the spotlight trained on his widely unpopular views and this may prove disastrous for his agenda. Framing himself as the antithesis of empirical fact and the nay-sayer to onerous government protections will only get him so far. As he continues to make headlines, draw attention, and elicit indignation, he will inadvertently galvanize those who do not share his vision. Mr. Pruitt, you may make environmentalists of us yet.
Anna LaCombe is an Energy Policy and Communications Intern at the Sierra Club North Star Chapter