After Pruitt ignored an FOIA request for studies supporting his view that humans are not the primary contributor to climate change, environmental advocates turned to the courts.
Scott Pruitt, Trump’s administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has made no secret of his skepticism about the human role in driving climate change. But thanks to a June 1 ruling by Beryl Howell, chief judge of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, Pruitt can no longer keep the reasoning behind his opinion secret.
According to the ruling, Pruitt has until July 11 to produce “an explanation for any documents withheld in full or in part” from a FOIA request filed by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the plaintiff in this case.
PEER’s FOIA was submitted in response to Pruitt’s comments on the CNBC program “Squawk Box” on March 9, 2017. During his appearance, Pruitt said that “there’s a tremendous disagreement about the impact [of] human activity on the climate” and that he “would not agree that [humans are] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”
Because these statements run counter to the scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change, and represent a reversal of the EPA’s position on the subject, PEER’s FOIA request asked Pruitt to produce the research that informed his opinion, as well as any EPA studies that find that human activity is not the primary driver of climate change.
The EPA missed the deadline to respond to the request, and when PEER filed a suit to compel an answer, the agency dodged it again by calling the legal action “a trap” and “a fishing expedition,” which PEER denies.
“Mainly we’re just trying to flush out what evidence they have, if any, for his complete turnabout on EPA’s position on climate change,” PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein told me in a phone call. When I asked her if the ruling could put pressure on other Trump administration leaders who have questioned climate science without evidence, she noted that EPA has traditionally taken the lead on climate issues. “If the EPA doesn’t have any evidence on this, then that would imply that nobody does.”
Pruitt has previously expressed interest in having “red team, blue team” debates about the human role in climate change, but White House chief of staff John Kelly shot down the idea. Now that Pruitt is legally obliged to explain his views, he will finally have the opportunity to present his “red team” defense—if it actually exists.
“If it turns out that there is no such evidence [supporting Pruitt’s views] then that will have a lot of implications,” Dinerstein told me. “It will, for one thing, show that his whole ‘red team, blue team’ thing is ridiculous because the red team doesn’t have anything.”
“In terms of other actions that EPA might take on climate change,” she added, “you would have a record that there is no supporting evidence for a conclusion that humans are not the primary driver of climate change.”
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