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Tina Casey headshot

How Brand Reputation Could (Finally) Sink Climate Change Denial in the US

By Tina Casey

Last Thursday the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, was fired after a mere 16 months in office. Pruitt was a high profile champion for climate change denial in the years before taking the helm at EPA in February 2017, and he kept up the pace as EPA Administrator. The immediate consensus is that the next leader to fill his shoes at EPA will carry on Pruitt's efforts to roll back greenhouse gas regulations in the US. In other words, it will be business as usual.

Still, the Pruitt resignation is intriguing from a brand reputation perspective. As the head of a major federal agency, Pruitt put a very public face on climate change denial. The question now is whether his leadership at EPA helped or hurt the movement.

A strong advocate for climate change denial...

Since the evidence does not support climate change denial, establishing a strong, trusted brand reputation is vital to the movement.

To counterbalance the overwhelming consensus climate scientists, the climate change denial movement has assembled a force of industry-funded lobbying groups like the Heartland Institute, which presents itself as a fact-based, scientific organization.

Also helping to establish brand reputation is the enlistment of top public figures like Scott Pruitt, who was the Attorney General for the State of Oklahoma before President* Trump enlisted him to run EPA.

Pruitt's support for climate change denial, and his affinity for the oil and gas industry, were well known during his tenure as Oklahoma Attorney General. Among other actions, he sued the Obama Administration to block federal air and water pollution regulations on 14 separate occasions.

During that time, Oklahoma was itself under siege by swarms of earthquakes linked to the disposal of drilling wastewater underground. Pruitt took a hands-off approach even as the state's Republican Governor, Mary Fallin, took emergency action forcing the industry to curtail disposal operations.

In consideration of Pruitt's history as Oklahoma AG, it's no surprise that he leveraged his position at EPA to continue supporting fossil fuel stakeholders at the expense of public health and safety.

While at EPA, Pruitt also frequently articulated his position on climate change. Here's an example from a March 2017 interview (cited by Scientific American):

"I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact," he told CNBC.

"So no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see," Pruitt said. "But we don’t know that yet, we need to continue to debate, continue the review and analysis.”

The argument that "we don't know yet" is a more sophisticated version of climate change denial, compared to simply ignoring the mass of empirical evidence that is already in hand.

Pruitt maintained that stance throughout stay at EPA. In a February 2018 interview with KSNV-TV in Las Vegas he added another twist to the climate change denial argument:

“We know humans have most flourished during times of what? Warming trends,” Pruitt said. “I think there are assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100, in the year 2018? That is fairly arrogant, for us to think we know exactly what it should be in 2100.”

To sum up, we don't know if human activity is causing global temperatures to rise, and even if the temperature is rising, we don't know if that's a bad thing.

...is not necessarily the best advocate.

Pruitt's cozy relationship with the industries that EPA regulates is a scandal in and of itself, but that's not what lead to his firing (initial reports that he voluntarily resigned were inaccurate).

Within a few months of his swearing-in, watchdogs in and out of government began to take note of Pruitt's exorbitant travel expenses. Unusually high costs for his security detail also came into question, as did his request for a $43,000 soundproof booth in his office.

That was just the tip of a series of unforced errors, ethical lapses and potentially illegal actions, some of which had absolutely nothing to do with Pruitt's support for fossil fuel stakeholders and other industries.

As tallied by Axios, the scandals ranged from relatively minor issues like routinely demanding that his staff perform personal errands, and motorcading with lights and sirens to cut through D.C. traffic for non-emergency travel, to trying to procure a Chick-fil-A franchise and six-figure jobs for his wife.

So, where does that leave climate change denial?

All in all, Pruitt entered EPA as a champion for climate change denial, but he left under a cloud of scandal. CNN was among those noting that Pruitt was in fact highly effective at implementing President* Trump's fossil fuel agenda.

Nevertheless, Pruitt's numerous scandals proved so toxic that even legislators in his own party were glad to see him go.

As for a ripple effect on the brand reputation of climate change denial, that already appears to be happening.

One clue may be found in Florida, where Democrats are already leveraging the Pruitt scandals to shine an unwelcome spotlight on Adam Putnam, a rising star in the Republican party and the state's Commissioner of Agriculture.

Practically on the day that Pruitt left office, Florida Democrats drew attention to the fact that Putnam had welcomed Pruitt to EPA with a glowing editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, published in January 2017. Here's a snippet from the beginning of the piece:

Thankfully, appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has the experience, understanding of the law and courage to get this out-of-control federal agency back on track.

And, here's the conclusion:
...With Scott Pruitt in charge, we can finally unravel the mess of the EPA, and begin developing and implementing thoughtful policies that will make measurable improvements to our natural resources and unleash an energy revolution that will bring jobs and higher wages to Americans.

In the same editorial, Putnam noted that he provided Congressional testimony in support of one of the lawsuits brought by Pruitt as Oklahoma AG, against EPA's Waters of the United States Rule.

With all this in mind, it's no surprise that Putnam has supported the same type of climate change denial arguments advanced by Pruitt. Here's one iteration reported by the Sun Sentinel in 2014:

“Do I think that mankind has had some impact since the invention of the internal combustion engine? Probably. To what degree is, what proportion is man versus some natural climactic cycle, I don’t know. I guess there’s some competing data out there now that shows it’s kind of been in a holding pattern for the last 10 or 20 years.

Another red flag for climate change denial

In a related development, in April 2018 the Sun Sentinel reported that Putnam has been named in a lawsuit brought by a group of eight students demanding action on climate change as a matter of constitutional rights.

According to the report, the students are allied with the Oregon-based group Our Children's Trust.

The group has already had some success in advancing the constitutional argument for climate action through the courts in Juliana v. United States.

The Juliana plaintiffs have won a trial date for October 2018, meaning that climate change deniers will have to defend their argument in court just as the 2018 mid-term election cycle heats to the boiling point -- providing climate advocates with a fresh opportunity shine the media spotlight on Pruitt and his supporters.

In the US, public opinion polls continue to show that nearly half of those surveyed continue to believe that human activity is not the proven cause of climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases from power generation, transportation and other human sources.

It will be interesting to see if that polling holds firm after October.

Image (screenshot): NOAA Climate Dashboard.

*Developing story.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey