What will Trump’s Cabinet Picks Mean for the Environment?

Eric Orts, Wharton Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics & Management, and the Director of the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership Eric Orts and Jody Freeman  discuss Trump’s cabinet appointments and the future of environmental protections and research.

Note: This interview was previously published as a Knowledge@Wharton article on December 2, 2016

Many are worried about President-elect Donald Trump’s selections for cabinet appointments, including former Texas governor Rick Perry for energy secretary, Montana congressman Ryan Zinke for secretary of the interior and Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Scientists and universities doing research on climate change are moving to protect their data, fearing the worst from the Trump administration, while scientists at NASA are worried about cutbacks in federal funding for earth science.

The private sector must step in to fill any gaps in federal funding for research in areas such as climate change and earth science, says Eric Orts, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics who is also faculty director of the school’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. The concerns of defunding and excessive deregulation are real for the most part, although the Trump transition team might be doing some amount “head-faking” or posturing, says Jody Freeman, professor of law at Harvard University and founding director of the Harvard Law School Environmental Law and Policy Program. She is also author of the book Global Climate Change and U.S. Law.

Orts and Freeman discussed the implications of Trump’s cabinet picks on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111.

Knowledge@Wharton: Eric, what is your reaction to some of these nomination bids?

Eric Orts: It’s not really surprising that Trump has been [staying] in line with his rhetoric during the campaign. He said that he was going to target climate change. He said that he doesn’t believe in the science of climate change. And he said that he was going to roll back the EPA to almost nothing.

There was some of what the head of the Sierra Club called “head-fakes” toward maybe a more moderate position; when Trump met with The New York Times, for example, he said, ‘Well, there’s some connectivity [between human activity and climate change.]’ And then he met with Al Gore.

But then the very next day, [Trump] appointed a series of people who are pretty much against climate science. His transition team has been described as a conspiracy of climate deniers. So we really are in a world where he is trying to make good on what his campaign promised.

“Given the depth and the volume and the persuasiveness of the scientific record, suggesting that the science isn’t settled is just unacceptable for this level of appointment.”–Jody Freeman

Jody Freeman: I agree that there’s been a little bit of head-faking, and an interesting presentation of people who seem [like they] would do radical things. But the one thing that links them all — Pruitt, Perry and Zinke — is that they have expressed this skepticism about the fundamental science that grounds climate change. At this point, given the depth and the volume and the persuasiveness of the scientific record, suggesting that the science isn’t settled is just unacceptable for this level of appointment to lead the government agencies most responsible for implementing science-based decision-making and regulation.

So that’s the real problem. [On climate change], Zinke has said, “It’s maybe not a hoax, but it’s not proven science, either.” Perry has said it’s not settled. Pruitt has said things along those same lines. The notion that these [people] are going to be running agencies that really need to make sound legal judgments based on the best science available is alarming to many people.

Knowledge@Wharton: The Rick Perry nomination is one that’s obviously catching a lot of attention, partly because of what has become a rather famous video from the 2012 presidential debates.

Freeman: … I think what was revealed in [Perry’s] presidential run was a sort of deep anti-regulation agenda. As Texas governor, he sounded the same themes: anti-regulation, the argument that the government is always overreaching. And [he is] very supportive of fossil fuels, [based on his] record.

Now, what’s interesting about [Perry’s] appointment is he’s been named to head an agency that isn’t really a regulatory agency. In other words, it’s not like the Environmental Protection Agency that issues pollution regulations or climate-related regulations….  It invests in science and innovation at the crown jewels of our national labs, which makes you worry about Rick Perry’s commitment to science. The agency invests billions of dollars in R&D in a variety of energy technologies.

So he’s really not set up to be a regulator. The question is: How will he administer an agency that’s really about funding energy research?

Orts: What many secretaries who come in at the energy department say is that they didn’t really know what the job was going to be about. It’s about administering a very large agency that includes nuclear capacity, developing new technologies with respect to nuclear applications in the military, etc. In that respect, I suppose Perry will be able to do the job. So, he will be competent. He’s a governor, he ran the state of Texas, and he can probably run the department of energy.

The concern on the climate side is that energy has been an area where you have research commitments that are being made. There have been a lot of research commitments made to climate alternatives and new energy technologies, and next generation energy sources. It’s clear that the agenda is to cut that back.

…One question I have is: Is there anyone on this list whom you could probably target, in the sense of getting enough votes to deny them a nomination during the hearings? The one I would pick out of this group is probably Pruitt. This is someone who has been nominated to be administrator of the EPA. His whole career has been run against the EPA. He’s been suing the EPA, and he’s been refusing to follow legitimate regulations that EPA puts forward…. You could make an argument that he is not qualified to faithfully execute the laws, which is what the executive is supposed to do.

Freeman: The other troubling aspect that has happened recently was the story circulating confirming that the transition team for Trump demanded the names of the people at the department of energy who had worked on climate science. This is a very unusual and very ominous kind of request. My understanding is, the DOE very clearly and quickly said, “No. We don’t supply names and affiliations and meetings that our climate scientists went to — or people working on research at the agency.” That is really the stuff of authoritarian regimes. Coming into office and doing that kind of thing really raises people’s level of worry and concern about how, once the Trump Administration is in charge, the government is going to treat science and scientists.

Caller on the show: With the exception of the state, defense, justice and treasury departments, all the other cabinet posts need good administrators. They don’t need somebody who knows minute details of what the whole department does. They need administrators. Let’s take Mr. Pruitt, for example, with the EPA. I drive a truck for a living. The EPA has attacked the trucking industry, wanting us to get better fuel mileage. But they want it on such a fast time table that the technology doesn’t have all the bugs worked out of it. Yes, the air is better, and there’s nothing wrong with great air. But meanwhile, I’m stuck with a $40,000-a-year [bill] of repairs for that technology that was not proven.

“It’s clear that all of these candidates are going to follow an agenda of trying to be deregulatory.”–Eric Orts

Orts: The caller indicates one of the major arguments in the campaign, which is, to try to roll back regulations. There was a feeling — and the trucking industry is one target of this — that in order to try to bring down the total greenhouse gas emissions, as well as have some other benefits, [there’s a need to enforce] fuel-efficiency standards. It causes pain, as the caller’s indicating. That’s one of the reasons why you have support for Trump being elected.

I agree with the caller that you need to have good administrators for these various agencies. You should evaluate whether they are able to do that. It’s clear that all of these candidates are going to follow an agenda of trying to be deregulatory.

So we have a repeat, maybe, of what we saw in the Reagan period. My concern is not that that isn’t a legitimate political position to take. But you still have to do it in the right way. This is an issue that Jody, in her comment about the treatment of bureaucrats, raises. You have to follow the law. When we have some candidates who look like they’re not going to follow the law in that process, that’s where there are some concerns.

Freeman: The caller’s comment is important, because it raises this tension that we have. [Regulations are needed] to achieve the air and water pollution control that we want. People don’t want to be poisoned. They want their kids to be healthy, and to address serious risks from climate change that, over time, are going to be very severe. One may not feel [the effects] right now, but they will be very serious once they start manifesting. You have to do something … because the law requires you to do something. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, etc., [are examples].

How do we [regulate] in a way that allows for economic growth, and limits the pain on folks like our caller? That’s the challenge, and that’s the balance that these agencies have to address — this question of reasonable regulation. The trouble is that the rhetoric from the Trump team, and from these appointees, has been constantly and consistently anti-environmental protection. They constantly and consistently [maintain] that the federal government never can do anything right, and is over-reaching. They are constantly and consistently [against] the scientific foundation of why we even need to regulate in the first place. So it’s hard to be optimistic about them striking the balance.

Knowledge@Wharton: The letter nominating Ryan Zinke as interior secretary came out while we have been having this discussion. Here’s somebody that obviously has lived a majority of his life in the state of Montana, and seemingly would be very concerned about the environment. I guess like a lot of other candidates, this is not a positive nomination. Correct?

Orts: He’s a little less-disturbing than a couple of the other appointees. He is on record as saying that he thought that the Republican Party should go back to its “conservationist” roots. He’s a hunter and a fisher and an angler, and I think has a love of the land.

It’s also true that he will follow a development policy on federal lands. So there will be a conflict between the department of interior [and some other government agencies]. One of the big jobs of the department of interior is in administering the policies regarding the lands that the government owns in the West. That includes mining leases, oil leases, etc. [Zinke] is very pro-development.

Zinke also fits the profile of having a military background. But the number of former military officials coming into the Trump Administration also is cause for concern from some of us who are worried about a potential authoritarian turn. Zinke was a Navy SEAL commander. I think he’s going to have an easy confirmation, partly because he’s coming from Congress.

Freeman: This is one example of the head-fake that makes you now feel happier than you might have otherwise, in the sense that other people being considered for this post were rumored to be folks who favored privatizing public lands. This idea that there would be a sell-off of federal lands was alarming to many people who want to protect public lands for the nation’s future. Zinke has not been on record saying that he wants to sell public lands. As Eric said, he seems to appreciate their value for people to use them for recreation, and to leave them wild to some extent.

“How do we [regulate] in a way that allows for economic growth, and limits the pain…? That’s the challenge, and that’s the balance that these agencies have to address.”–Jody Freeman

He is a traditional appointment, in the sense that he comes from the West. So much of the federal lands are owned in the West. But there’s no question this administration will support a more aggressive policy of resource-extraction on the public lands.

But Zinke will have a tough job. Every secretary of the interior has a tough job balancing all the tasks that are delegated to him or her from a variety of resource protection laws. You have to run the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which protects endangered species. There is sometimes tension between these bureaus. He will have a very tough job ahead of him if he winds up being confirmed.

Knowledge@Wharton: Many people within the scientific community are concerned about where a Trump Presidency may go on climate change; they are storing away volumes of data on climate change that have been brought forth in the last few years. There is a significant concern among many people that this is data that may vanish in the next couple of years.

Orts: The University of Pennsylvania and some colleagues here are involved in that. The concern is a valid one, and their involvement [in storing data on climate change] is legitimate. [What motivates] the people who deny climate science? Usually, it comes down to an economic interest; they might be doing so on good faith, but there are really other reasons why they’re denying this. They’re not taking an objective view.

As Jody said, there’s no doubt at all that this is a major risk to the planet. There’s no doubt at all that we increasingly have been hitting records in terms of global warming. There’s no doubt the sea levels are rising. Increasingly, the science is coming in [to prove all that]. So when you have an administration that’s saying the science is wrong, you’re concerned that there will be a destruction of data, or destruction of the basic knowledge base. So the University of Pennsylvania has been involved [in protecting the data on climate science]. The University of Toronto has been involved. They are saying, “Well, we’re not going to let that happen.” If there’s data that legitimately has been created through all the scientific efforts and taxpayer money, etc., we’re going to make sure that we can try to preserve that data so that we can have it for future research, and [continue to develop] the knowledge of what we know about climate change and climate science.

It shows that scientists are very concerned. The idea that you would target civil servants by saying, “Did you guys go to a climate conference or not? We want a list.” That’s their job. They’re being told by somebody to go to a conference, and develop the science. The idea that you’re going to target people [who are] doing their work and going to conferences to study something is pretty scary.

Knowledge@Wharton: People at NASA [are also worried about cutbacks in funding for programs to study the earth]. To tell NASA, “Don’t worry about that. Worry about putting rockets into space,” is a little bit of an attack.

Orts: That will be another issue. Some of the best science that has been moving this whole issue forward, and our understanding of it, has come from organizations like NASA. My guess is that [the Trump Administration will] follow the same template of trying to roll back the commitment to science in this area.

“When you have an administration that’s saying the science is wrong, you’re concerned that there will be a destruction of data, or destruction of the basic knowledge base.”–Eric Orts

Knowledge@Wharton: Jody, what was your reaction when you started to hear these reports about what’s going on here at Penn, and University of Toronto, in trying to save all this data?

Freeman: I don’t fault the scientists at all for being concerned. If you’ve spent your life working on this kind of research, and you were listening to the rhetoric of the incoming Trump administration, it’s justifiable to be concerned and want to preserve the data. But what I’m more worried about is the quantum of funding that the major research agencies will provide to universities and research centers, and even to federal labs, to do this work.

There’s some significant risk that the Republican Congress will defund some of these agencies, or significantly cut back or redirect funding away from basic research on the trajectory of climate change and climate science. It would be really disturbing if the funding that we’ve seen coming into the best universities and the best research gets cut back. We have to wait and see on that. We’ll see what the Trump Administration proposes in the budget for agencies like NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and NASA and the NSF (National Science Foundation). We will then see what Congress does in response to the President’s proposed budget. The question is: Will universities push back? Will the private sector step up in order to make sure that there isn’t a dramatic loss of support for this kind of work?

Orts: I entirely agree with Jody. In fact, we can just assume that there will be major cuts. The Republicans control Congress, and you have Trump coming in with an anti-climate approach. The private sector can step up. Harvard University is investing more into climate research. That’s a way to step up. We still live in a world where there are private universities conducting this research. Unfortunately, it won’t be government-supported. So you have to find some sources of funding somewhere else.

Freeman: The idea that we’re sitting here on the verge of 2017 talking about how the private sector needs to step up and replace government support for foundational, basic science — the idea that America isn’t going to be the world leader in researching the new science and technology for the next century — is very disappointing, if that turns out to be true.

We will not be considered the leader of the world. We have Nobel laureate after Nobel laureate in this country doing leading, cutting-edge work on climate science and many other related areas. We’re developing the best, and most important, technology for our society and our defense. The notion that what we might face is a dramatic cut of fundamental support for that is very worrying to a lot of people.