EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt dismissed European critics of President Donald Trump’s climate policies as hypocrites on Wednesday, while chastising German Chancellor Angela Merkel for phasing out her country’s nuclear power plants.
"I just think the hypocrisy runs rampant," Pruitt said in an interview with POLITICO. "To look at us as a nation and say, ‘You all need to do more’ in light of what we’ve done in leading with innovation and technology — the hypocrisy is palpable in those areas."
Pruitt mentioned Merkel by name, urging the public to press her on the issue. If reducing carbon dioxide emissions "is so important to you, Madam Chancellor, why are you getting rid of nuclear? Because last time I checked, it’s pretty clean on CO2," he said.
Merkel is one of the most vocal public defenders of the Paris climate change agreement, the 2015 pact that Trump said last month he intends to leave. Merkel hosted the recent G-20 summit of the world’s wealthiest economies, where the United States was the only country not to throw its support behind the deal. At the same time, Germany announced in 2000 it would phase out nuclear power, a shift that Merkel accelerated after the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan.
Pruitt repeated his criticism of the Paris deal, casting doubt on whether the United States would remain part of the climate agreement even if the Trump administration rewrites former President Barack Obama’s aggressive plan to cut U.S. emissions. When Trump announced the withdrawal June 1, he held out the possibility of negotiating to "re-enter" the accord "on terms that are fair to the United States."
Pruitt argued that the United States has shown it can address climate change without being bound to an international agreement. He noted that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have declined since President George W. Bush decided in 2001 to abandon the Kyoto Protocol.
"What we ought to be focused upon in my view is exporting innovation and technology to nations like China, like India, to help them with respect to their power grid," he said.
Pruitt said the United States will continue to engage with the international community on climate change, but he called the Paris deal "pure symbolism," adding, "It was a bumper sticker.
"Engagement is unquestioned. We’re going to continue to engage," he said. "But we have led with action.”
Still, Pruitt continued to raise concerns that remaining in the Paris deal could create legal complications as the administration tries to unravel Obama’s domestic climate regulations, arguing that outside groups could seek to hold the U.S. to its pledges in court. "Why would you hold yourself out to that type of legal liability?" he said.
During the administration’s monthslong debate over Paris, Pruitt and other opponents of the agreement made that argument behind the scenes, clashing with other Trump advisers who believed those legal fears were unfounded. Pruitt, along with Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, was the most forceful advocate of ending U.S. participation in the Paris deal.
Pruitt bristled at the phrase "climate denier," a description that his critics have often applied to him in light of his repeated statements disputing scientific conclusions about the large role humans play in warming the planet.
"What does it even mean? That’s what I think about it. I deny the climate? Really? Wow, OK. That’s crazy, in my view," he said.
Pruitt reiterated his position that the climate is warming and humans contribute to that, but "the ability to measure with precision the human contribution to warming is something that’s very challenging to do."
In contrast, the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists agree that the planet is warming in large part due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal. Pruitt has come under fire from Democrats — and even some moderate Republicans, including former EPA chiefs — for his stance on climate change. Others have raised red flags about the steep budget cuts facing the agency, worrying that its mission to protect human health and the environment could be compromised.
Pruitt has called for a public — possibly televised — debate about climate science.
"The American people deserve an honest, open, transparent discussion about that, and that’s how you ultimately get to consensus," he said. "And I tend to think at times that maybe consensus wasn’t the focus historically, over the last several years. It was to use it as a political issue, to put jerseys on — either you’re for or against."
In the end, he said, his ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions is limited by the 1972 Clean Air Act, whose authority he believes Obama overstepped when he imposed greenhouse gas restrictions for the nation’s power plants.
Pruitt argued that the media’s focus on climate change has distracted from the work he is doing at the EPA on everything from air pollution to regulating dangerous chemicals.
"We’ve got a very positive environmental agenda. [There’s] work to be done, opportunity to achieve good outcomes, a plan to do that, and there’s not very much margin, if any at all, with groups that are liberal, conservative, the rest, at getting those things done," he said.
Pruitt has sought to "reorient" the EPA toward what he argues are its core functions, including reducing air pollution, cleaning up toxic waste sites, regulating chemicals and improving water quality. Pruitt said he organized an internal task force that will soon deliver recommendations on how to improve the agency’s Superfund program, which is designed to clean up the nation’s worst toxic pollution sites.
The EPA administrator laid into Obama, arguing he didn’t do nearly enough to limit air pollutants and sought to severely restrict the use of fossil fuels.
"God has blessed us with natural resources. Let’s use them to feed the world. Let’s use them to power the world. Let’s use them to protect the world," Pruitt said. "But this idea that we as a nation have this abundance of natural resources and the job of this agency — and I’m speaking rhetorically here and facetiously — is to say, ‘Do not touch.’ Where is that in the statute?"