Trump’s EPA Pick Reveals Triumph of Politics Over Science

Scott Pruitt rejects global warming in the face of overwhelming evidence. A new study shows many Americans are doing the same because it matches their political identity.

Trump Picks Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt to Lead EPA

For many Americans, the phrase “climate change” has become little more than a trigger for expressing political identity. For some, science, evidence, and facts are now beside the point. 

Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University, has formally posited what some may already suspect. America is not just a victim of fake news and the pervasive inability to apply skepticism to ferret it out. Kahan reveals it’s also under assault by affirmative choices to dismiss scientific evidence simply because it doesn’t match one’s social or cultural identity. By that logic, President-elect Donald Trump has fired a starter’s pistol with his nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to become administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Wednesday’s news caused environmentalists to wail and conservatives to gloat over the anticipated undoing of U.S. President Barack Obama’s domestic environmental policy and global-scale climate diplomacy. It’s the same pattern that has played out multiple times over previous election cycles. Only the howls from the scientific community this time feel more desperate, and the delight of climate change deniers feels, as with all American politics of late, angrier and coarser. 

The weirdest thing about the U.S. climate discussion, Kahan and University of Richmond’s Jonathan Corbin suggest, is that this polarization is a function of rationality—the “perverse effects of actively open-minded thinking.” They’re not talking about the scientific rationality that proceeds from hypothesis, to evidence, to critical reasoning, to conclusion. Or even the rationality of conventional economics, which posits that individuals always make decisions that optimize their returns.

Rather, it’s a rationality acknowledging how much easier it is to support people you identify with culturally than it is to say things that may be unpopular but true. 

Their short paper, in the journal Research & Politics, measures how liberals and conservatives think using a standard test measuring “actively open-minded thinking,” or a willingness to seek out and evaluate new information. They find little divide in open-mindedness between the political left and right (lack of open-mindedness, or excessive motivated reasoning, is one hypothesis for conservatives’ climate denial). The more “open-minded” liberals are, the likelier they are to understand evidence of man-made warming. More “open-minded” conservatives, however, are much less likely to do so. What’s happening is this: People use their mental nimbleness the better to screen information that matches facts that support their identity or cultural sense of self. Not unlike the key criticism of the 2016 election campaign, it’s no longer about facts—it’s about belief.

“‘Beliefs’ about human-caused climate change and a few select other highly divisive empirical issues are ones that people use to express who they are, an end that has little to do with the truth of what people, ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ know,” the authors write.

Their work, anchored at CulturalCognition.net, is an attempt to understand how Americans understand climate change. It’s a step removed from the ultimate arbiter—the vast, messy world of air, oceans, soil, ice, heat, and life. Messy as it is, in that world there are certain facts—whether you like them or not. 

What's really warming the world?

Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, is to be nominated to run a sprawling federal agency that, despite its name, is largely a health agency tasked with keeping pollutants, toxins, and other harms out of our bodies.

To recap, Pruitt sued the EPA over Obama’s Clean Power Plan, an ambitious regulatory strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and increase clean energy. Pruitt was profiled in a 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigation about his close relationship with one of Oklahoma’s biggest fossil fuel energy companies. Pruitt has repeatedly attempted to dismiss—with no evidence—broadly accepted scientific research about the causes of global warming, causes that have been understood and verified for years. This matches Trump, who has denied climate change exists, with no support for the assertion and in the face of overwhelming factual evidence. He has called it a Chinese hoax intended to lay low America’s economy, though later he said he was only joking.

Compare a statement Trump’s EPA nominee and a co-author made in this May article in the conservative publication National Review

“Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”

The erroneous statement by Pruitt (who as attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer for Oklahoma) is diametrically opposite of the most recent global climate scientific assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

“It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

While climate scientists can differ about why Arctic sea ice is at a totally anomalous record November low or what’s causing U.S. tornado outbreaks to spin out more twisters, when it comes to the overarching, man-made planetary calamity of global warming, there is no avoiding the consequences—regardless of one’s politics. Rising sea levels, 100-year storms, hotter summers, intensified droughts, wildfires, and global food shortages are unlikely to play favorites.

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