Scott Pruitt, the United States' top environmental official, has strongly rejected the established science of climate change, outraging scientists, environmentalists, and even his immediate predecessors at the Environmental Protection Agency.
"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, so no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see," Pruitt, the newly installed EPA administrator, said on the CNBC programme Squawk Box. "But we don't know that yet," he continued. "We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis."
His comments represented a startling statement for an official so high in the US Government, putting him at odds not only with other countries around the globe but also with the official scientific findings of the agency he now leads.
President Donald Trump in the past has called the notion of human-fuelled climate change a hoax. Other Cabinet members, including Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, have questioned the scientific basis for combating global warming.
But Pruitt's attempt to sow scientific doubt where little exists alarmed environmental advocates, scientists and former EPA officials, who fear he plans to use such views to attack Obama-era regulations aimed at reining in pollution from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels.
"The world of science is about empirical evidence, not beliefs," Gina McCarthy, the EPA's most recent administrator, said. "When it comes to climate change, the evidence is robust and overwhelmingly clear that the cost of inaction is unacceptably high. Preventing the greatest consequences of climate change is imperative to the health and wellbeing of all of us who call Earth home."
She added, "I cannot imagine what additional information the administrator might want from scientists for him to understand that."
As criticism mounted, White House press secretary Sean Spicer batted back a question about Pruitt's comments from a reporter who cited Pruitt's words and how they contradict the scientific consensus on climate change. "That's a snippet of what Administrator Pruitt said," said Spicer. "I don't think we know conclusively, this is what we know."
Pruitt, who was visiting the energy industry conference CERAWeek in Houston, waded into related controversial topics during his CNBC interview. He questioned whether it was the EPA's role to regulate carbon dioxide emissions - something undertaken through the agency's Clean Power Plan, the Obama Administration's most significant policy to combat climate change. Pruitt also dismissed the international Paris climate agreement, which the Obama Administration helped lead and which was joined by nearly 200 countries in late 2015, as a "bad deal" for the US.
"It's one thing to be talking about CO2 internationally," Pruitt said. "But when you front-load your costs, as we endeavoured to do in that agreement, and then China and India back-loaded their costs for 2030 and beyond, that's not good for America."
On the science of climate change, Pruitt's statements fly in the face of an international scientific consensus, which has concluded that it is "extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century". They also contradict the very website of the agency that Pruitt heads. The EPA's "Climate Change" website states: "Recent climate changes, however, cannot be explained by natural causes alone. Research indicates that natural causes do not explain most observed warming, especially warming since the mid-20th century. Rather, it is extremely likely that human activities have been the dominant cause of that warming."
Pruitt spoke with CNBC amid growing anticipation that the Trump Administration will soon begin a formal rollback of President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, an EPA policy capping emissions from electricity generating stations, such as coal-fired power plants.
Pruitt himself sued the EPA over the Clean Power Plan in his previous role as the Attorney General of Oklahoma - one of many lawsuits that he filed against the agency. Others were over mercury and air pollution, the agency's attempts to regulate pollution of waterways, and methane emissions from oil and gas facilities.
Lisa Jackson, Obama's first EPA administrator and now vice-president of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives at Apple, told the Washington Post: "Relying on science is something that we do every single day. So now if we're going to question science, I think it has an impact on more than just some federal rules, or some law, it has a huge impact on human health, the environment, and our economy."
Bid to stop youths' lawsuit
A groundbreaking climate lawsuit, brought against the Government by 21 children and youths, has been hailed by environmentalists as a bold new strategy to press for climate action in the United States. But the Trump Administration is doing its best to make sure the case doesn't get far.
The Trump Administration this week filed a motion to overturn a ruling by a federal judge back in November that cleared the lawsuit for trial - and filed a separate motion to delay trial preparation until that appeal is considered.
The lawsuit - the first of its kind - argues that the federal Government has violated the constitutional right of the 21 plaintiffs to a healthy climate system.
Environmental groups say the case - if it's successful - could force even a reluctant government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take other measures to counter warming. "It would be huge," said Pat Gallagher, legal director at the Sierra Club, who is not involved in the case. "It would upend climate litigation, climate law, as we know it."
The landmark lawsuit was originally filed during the Obama Administration. The 21 plaintiffs, now between the ages of 9 and 20, claim the Government has consistently engaged in activity that promotes fossil fuel production and greenhouse gas emissions, thereby worsening climate change. They argue this violates their constitutional right to life, liberty and property, as well the public trust doctrine.
In November, District Judge Ann Aiken denied motions filed by the Obama Administration and the fossil fuel industry to have the lawsuit dismissed, ordering that it should proceed to trial.
The move allowed the case to join the ranks of climate lawsuits filed in other nations, which could upend the way environmental advocacy is conducted around the world.
Shortly after President Donald Trump's inauguration, the plaintiffs submitted a request that the Department of Justice preserve all documents that could be relevant to the lawsuit, including information on climate change, energy and emissions, and to cease any destruction of such documents that may otherwise occur during the presidential transition. The request came just days after reports began to surface of climate information disappearing from White House and certain federal agency websites.
The Trump Log
•Legal challenges against Donald Trump's revised travel ban mounted yesterday as Washington state said it would renew its request to block the Executive Order and a judge granted Oregon's request to join the case. The events happened a day after Hawaii launched a lawsuit, and Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said New York state also asked to join his state's legal effort. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said the state is joining fellow states in challenging the revised travel ban. Trump's revised ban bars new visas for people from six predominantly Muslim countries: Somalia, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen. It also temporarily shuts down the US refugee programme. Unlike the initial order, the new one says current visa holders won't be affected.
•Trump was not aware that his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had worked to further the interests of the Government of Turkey before appointing him, the White House said. The comments came two days after Flynn and his firm, Flynn Intel Group, filed paperwork with the Justice Department formally identifying him as a foreign agent and acknowledging that his work for a company owned by a Turkish businessman could have aided Turkey's Government.
•The Wall Street lawyer chosen by Trump to head the Securities and Exchange Commission has worked on many of the kinds of deals the agency regulates and represented some of the world's biggest financial firms. A financial disclosure report that Jay Clayton filed with the Government reveals clients that pose potential conflicts of interest for the SEC job. They include Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Barclays and UBS. He may have to recuse himself from some cases that come before the agency. If confirmed by the Senate, his responsibilities will include enforcing SEC rules written under the 2010 law that reshaped financial regulation after the 2008-09 financial crisis and Great Recession.