Ryan Zinke's Troubling Road to Interior Secretary

by Robert Glicksman

January 19, 2017

Rep. Ryan Zinke, a congressman from Montana and Donald Trump's pick for the next Secretary of the Interior, said some encouraging things in his Senate hearing on January 18. First, he acknowledged that the climate is changing and that "man has had an influence," disavowing Trump's notorious statement that climate change is a hoax. Second, he stated in strong terms his opposition to divestiture of the lands and resources owned by the federal government, declaring that "I am absolutely against transfer and sale of public lands. I can't be more clear." Third, he reiterated his support for continuing congressional financing of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has enabled federal, state, and local governments to acquire millions of acres of land for recreational purposes since its creation in 1965. 

Each of these positive sentiments comes with significant caveats attached to them, however. Let's start with climate change. Zinke's agreement that human activity has had "an influence" on climate is light years away from a full-throated acceptance of the scientific consensus of the critical role that greenhouse gas emissions from activities such as fossil fuel consumption have had in disrupting the climate. When pressed to elaborate, Zinke referred to "debate" on "what that influence is and what we can do about it." 

That response is in line with the apparently well-coached party line position of other Trump cabinet nominees – including Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson, and Rick Perry – on climate change. That position is to back away from the embarrassing and indefensible assertion that climate change is not occurring or that human activity plays no role in it, while at the same time emphasizing continuing uncertainty on the degree of human influence, the scope of the problem, and the value of doing anything about it. 

Zinke's refusal to commit to address, prepare for, or respond to climate change in any way also took the form of another standard GOP climate change disclaimer, as he stated that "I'm not an expert in this field." Presumably to help him get up to speed on the issue, he suggested that the U.S. Geological Survey engage in "objective science" to clear up the debate. That phrase sounds suspiciously like "sound science," which opponents of environmental regulation have used for years to describe scientific information that supports policies with which they disagree. It also echoes Zinke's own pronouncement in 2014 that climate change is not "proven science." 

If the nominee really does intend to study the problem, he should start with the "objective" facts that each of the last three years has been the warmest on record and that 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2000. That's quantifiable information. He should also study the correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and climbing temperatures, rather than prioritize greater fossil fuel development on the lands managed by the Interior Department. 

Zinke's position on selling federal lands also bears watching. Just since the new Congress began earlier this month, Zinke, in his role as Montana's member of the House of Representatives, voted in favor of a bill that, by redefining the costs to the nation of disposing of public lands and resources, would have made it easier for the federal government to do so. Asked if he would vote for that bill again today, Zinke said no. What changed in the last ...

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