What Donald Trump’s Cabinet Full of Climate Science Deniers Means for the UK

Donald Trump speech

Like much of the world, the UK has a feverish fascination with how Donald Trump’s presidency will unfold. Every time he announces a new member of his team, news organisations go into overdrive, discussing the faults and merits of his picks for positions that are alien to most overseas readers.

Those that get the jobs will have significant power to affect the country’s climate policy. But through a combination of international clout and complex diplomatic networks, they could also have significant influence on policy across the Atlantic.

While the Republican-controlled Senate still has to approve most of the appointments, here’s what each pick could mean for the UK:

Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State

The position likely to have the greatest impact on other countries is America’s Secretary of State. They represent the US abroad, and negotiate all international treaties, trade deals, and diplomatic agreements on behalf of the US.

The job was previously filled by John Kerry, who was much-loved within the climate community for his key role in forging the Paris Agreement on 2015.

It’s fair to say Trump has chosen to take the department in a different direction, officially picking former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to fill his shoes.

Tillerson has stated climate change is a “serious” problem, which marks a departure from many of his new colleagues.

But if Tillerson really is concerned about climate change, he has a funny way of showing it.

ExxonMobil is currently being investigated for potentially misleading shareholders over the impacts of climate change on its assets, and is a well-documented funder of climate science denial.

And under his leadership, Exxon has has pushed to extract oil and gas from ever harder to reach places including the Arctic, Texas' Permian Basin shale patch, and the Russian sea. In fact, Exxon’s close ties with Russia and state-sponsored oil company Rosneft saw Putin give Tillerson the Order of Friendship Award in 2013, and probably helped secure the Trump’s support.

So what might that all mean for the UK?

First, it seems ever more likely that the US may try to renege on many of the pledges in the Paris Agreement. While it would take four years for the US to officially leave, there are no sanctions for the country missing its goals, other than global peer pressure.

Regardless of what Tillerson may say about climate change, corporate deals to extract more fossil fuels simply can’t fit with these goals.

That could put the UK in an awkward position between the generally pioneering European Union (which it is leaving) and the US (which it is increasingly trying to court). As DeSmog UK revealed, it will have to negotiate that tricky scenario with ever fewer resources.

Tillerson could also prove to be another ally for the UK’s Brexiteer, de-regulation, climate science denying politicians.

This network has been growing in recent months, with international trade secretary Liam Fox and Brexiteer MEP Daniel Hannan both visiting the climate science denying US think tank, the Heritage Foundation, in recent months. That’s without even considering a potential official role for Nigel Farage.

Tillerson’s official UK counterpart is Boris Johnson, who has been less than convincing in his assertions that he understands the science of climate change. Between them, the UK and US’s official representatives abroad could undo decades of gradual international progress on climate change.

Scott Pruitt for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator

Unlike the Environment Agency in the UK, which only hits the public’s radar once a year when there’s flooding, the Environmental Protection Agency is a pretty high-profile gig in the US.

That has become particularly the case in recent years after President Obama thrust it into the limelight by tasking it to implement his Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 30 percent.

And Trump hates it.

That could explain his pick to head up the EPA: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate science denier and fossil fuel company shill.

Pruitt does not accept evidence of human-caused change, has called for an end to the Exxon investigation, and previously led legal challenges to end the Clean Power Plan.

If Pruitt cuts the Clean Power Plan and ramps up coal and gas production, as Trump has promised his administration will do, it could serve as fodder for those in the UK calling for ever more deregulation of the energy sector.

Cutting the Clean Power Plan would also likely mean the US missing its international climate obligations. And if the US is ramping up coal and ignoring climate change, it could give other countries the excuse to do the same.

The UK has pledged to phase out coal from its electricity sector by 2025. Pruitt’s actions could test the policymakers’ resolve, though coal is becoming increasingly marginalised across the globe.

It would also breathe fresh life into calls for the UK to open up its lands for fracking, which have so far faced fierce local opposition. The government has been gradually forcing through the plans, and would no doubt welcome an international ally.

Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy

The Secretary of Energy has responsibility for tens of billions of taxpayers dollars that can be pointed towards developing new clean energy solutions, cutting emissions and creating jobs in the process.

Or not.

Trump’s pick for Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, is an oil man who accused scientists of manipulating climate data in his ill-fated bid for the presidency in 2011.

He also famously forgot the name of the department he is set to lead.

Like the EPA chief and secretary of state, Perry is likely to do all he can to keep the US’s fossil fuel industry alive.

That means more oil, gas and coal on the market, destined to be be burned both in the US and abroad, contributing more and more emissions to the world’s ever decreasing carbon budget.

And Perry may follow through on Trump’s apparent wish to cut the number of staff working on climate change in the department. Trump has requested the names of employees that attended climate meetings, in advance of what is feared to be a purge in the department. That situation isn’t so different to the UK, where there are now only eight members of staff working on climate change in the foreign office’s London HQ.

Perry could also work to slash climate change related research in the department. Any cuts could have a knock-on effect for UK researchers working on any cross-border projects or relying on US data for their work.

Ryan Zinke for Secretary of Interior

The Secretary of the Interior controls the US’s public lands, and can hand out permits to companies that want to drill on them.

It was rumoured that Cathy McMorris Rogers would get the job. But in the end it’s gone to yet another climate science denier: Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke.

On climate change, Zinke has said “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either”. And he’s against cleaning up the US’s energy sector “on a maybe”, ThinkProgress reports.

Trump will task Zinke with opening up the US’s lands for more oil and gas exploration - a job for which he has the credentials. He calls himself a “Roosevelt conservationist”, but has a record of prioritising fossil fuel development over environmental protection.

He voted against reforming coal leasing rules (to the delight of fossil fuel companies), and supported ending a decades old oil export ban.

Alongside the energy secretary and EPA chief, Zinke will be part of a triumvirate working to boost the US’s domestic oil and gas production, pushing some of this towards the international market and on to ships that could head for the UK.

Some of this is has already landed on the UK’s shores, and with the country looking for any way to diversify its energy portfolio post-Brexit, more could be on its way.

In Zinke, the UK’s fracking fans will also find an ally. And he could provide a blueprint for those wanting to drill in protected areas.

Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Chief of Staff Rince Priebus

All politicians like to surround themselves with those they trust to give advice, guide them in difficult matters, and take on some of the burden of running the country.

So it’s of huge concern that one of Donald Trump’s closest advisors is Steve Bannon, formerly CEO of the far-right, racist, sexist, climate science denying Breitbart news outlet.

Of even more concern is that he may find allies in his UK counterparts.

Bannon appointed well-known James Delingpole as executive editor of the London wing of Breitbart News. Bannon’s appointment no doubt bolsters Delingpole platform from which to spout his brand of climate science denial.

Breitbart will launch sites in France and Germany in January, with the potential to further bolster the European wing of an ever-growing international climate denier network.

Bannon is joined at Trump’s side by chief of staff Rince Priebus, who oversaw the Republican National Committee as it criticised both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UN’s climate agreements including the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement.

Priebus has confirmed that Trump’s “default” position on climate science is that “most of it is a bunch of bunk”.

One of Bannon and Priebus’s UK counterparts is special advisor to Theresa May, Nick Timothy. Timothy has called the UK’s Climate Change Act, which legally requires the country to cut its emissions, a “unilateral and monstrous act of self-harm”.

So Bannon, Preibus, and Timothy may get along. If they share ideas about how to undo all those pesky regulations that keep the air clean, water safe and emissions falling, it could be bad news for both countries’ climate policy.

Jeff Sessions for Attorney General

It may seem odd that the President’s pick to give him legal advice could have international ramifications for climate change. But given who Trump has chosen, it really could.

Trump has decided to give the country’s highest legal role to Jeff Sessions, a former Senator who denies the science of climate change and has a penchant for circumventing law to benefit the energy industry.

As a senator, Sessions co-sponsored a bill with climate change-denying Senator James Inhofe to exempt fracking from prosecution under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Many UK residents have legitimate concerns regarding chemicals from fracking contaminating drinking water. Sessions’ appointment could give fracking supporters another voice to draw on as they try to work around these concerns and finally kick start the UK’s fledgling shale gas industry.

Nikki Haley for US ambassador to the UN

The UN is responsible for the most significant bits of international climate policy. But the organisation is only as strong as those that work with it.

It’s generally considered a place for diplomatic veterans. Trump has picked someone that reportedly made all of eight trips abroad over four years while Governor: South Carolina’s Nikki Haley.

Haley has been accused of burying a report that showed climate change would significantly impact her state, and for failing to acknowledge its role in the devastating floods in 2015.

When Donald Trump finally stops “studying” the UN-coordinated Paris Agreement, Haley will be part of the team tasked with carrying out his orders.

And, if accepted by the Senate, it will be Haley that countries, including the UK’s increasingly stretched diplomatic team, will have to deal with during the inevitable fallout.

Verdict

The UK is increasingly casting longing glances across the Atlantic as it tries to decouple from the EU. As a consequence, some politicians will eye an opportunity to solidify a burgeoning de-regulation, isolationist, anti-climate science network.

But all is not lost. There are some significant barriers which means the UK probably won’t become the US-lite.

To start with, there is the Climate Change Act. While the UK gets some of its environmental regulations from the EU, most of its climate goals are enshrined in a law that would be difficult to repeal due to its cross-party support.

It also has a very different energy sector. Coal is very much on its way out, and there is little public appetite for fracking. All the while, renewables are getting cheaper, providing more power, and remain very popular with the public. Teresa May simply won’t get the political boost from backing fossil fuels that Trump had.

So while Trump’s team may look to exploit the UK’s current geopolitical vulnerability to align the countries’ climate agendas, the UK should have plenty of political will to resist.

Update 14/12/2016

A section on Rick Perry was added. The section on the Secretary of Interior pick was altered after Trump decided against Cathy McMorris Rogers and plumped for Ryan Zinke instead.

Main image credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA

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