My younger sister has red hair and fair skin. Born 18 months after me, she passed through a period as a toddler referred to with awed reverence in my family as a “difficult” time. Long months ticked by during which my sister balked at the most basic of daily tasks, such as putting on her shoes, brushing her hair, or eating any form of food other than bread and butter and crisp apple slices. When pressed with the necessity of wearing clothes in our cool New England climate, she simply stated what to her was obvious — “No.” That response was repeated with emphasis and rising volume as the reality of clothing pressed ever more strongly against her will to remain unclothed. Most such battles ended in tears from my sister and often the unfortunate adult in contest with her. 

I suspect EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is waging a similar sort of clash with reality. The former Oklahoma attorney general expressed doubt during a March 9 television interview with CNBC’s Joe Kernen, host of the appropriately titled morning talk show “Squawk Box,” that human-generated carbon dioxide is the principal cause of our warming climate. He said that “measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do.… we need to continue the debate, continue the review and the analysis.”

Perhaps the new head of the agency directly responsible for protecting the U.S. environment has failed to read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth report on the subject, released in 2014, in which it stated that “it is ‘extremely likely’ (at least 95% probable) that more than half of the observed temperature increase since the mid-20th century is due to human, or anthropogenic, activities. … This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.” The panel first referenced this link — between carbon dioxide produced by humans and global atmospheric changes — in 1995, a few years after Pruitt graduated from law school.

O.K., let’s give the man a little slack. There are other sources of carbon dioxide that end up in the atmosphere, such as volcanic eruptions and emissions from the stuff rotting in landfills. Burning down forests by the thousands of acres also puts a lot of carbon dioxide in the air. 

 


Yet 97% of scientists the world over agree that the dominant cause of the uptick in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a rise since 1950 so rapid that it looks like a reverse ski jump (above 400 ppm now), is due to us, not to a few volcanoes burping. The U.S. Supreme Court referenced this scientific consensus in its 2007 opinion that named carbon dioxide and three other gases as pollutants that should be regulated under the federal Clean Air Act. In 2009, the EPA formally agreed, announcing that carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases endangered public health and welfare by causing global warming. The Obama administration then rolled out its Clean Power Plan, which is designed to control industrial emissions of greenhouse gases; as attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt promptly sued the EPA over that plan. 

I don’t know Scott Pruitt. I would hazard a guess that he walks upright, eats with a knife and fork, and is an intelligent man, one smart enough to become a lawyer and state attorney general. In the latter position he spent a good deal of his time, from 2010 to this year, filing 13 suits against the EPA, which one might argue was not a wise use of time. It did reveal, however, a fundamental characteristic that Pruitt shares with my sibling as a child: obstinacy. You must be a stubborn son of a gun to retreat so soundly from reality as Pruitt appeared to do during his interview. 

Scientific facts are hard to come by. It takes many years of repeated experiments, data collection and scrutiny, and review by steely-eyed members of the scientific community for anything to be considered true. Even then there will be certain scientists who will contest the results, suggesting flaws in methodology or bias by the researchers. 

The impact of human activities on the world’s atmosphere does not require additional debate, review and analysis, as Pruitt said. It requires action. I doubt, however, that such action will come from the EPA any time soon. 

My sister eventually grew out of her willful stage. She wears clothes regularly now and, much to the family’s surprise, is a gourmet cook. Scott Pruitt is several years younger than my sister but I suspect his stubborn denial of reality may persist forever. It is a politically motivated stance and one that is likely to result in tears, not from him but from many, many other citizens of the world.