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Bill Straub: Kentucky native Pruitt in position to carry out Trump’s environmental dirty work

WASHINGTON – Kentucky has quite admirably endeavored over the past 30 years or so to transform its once moribund system of public education into something at least reaching for excellence, an effort that has fortunately met with some success.

But every once in a while the commonwealth is confronted by one of its failures, proof that it still has work to do. Sometimes that evidence is embarrassing. The most recent example comes in the person of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a product of Lexington Lafayette High School, the University of Kentucky and Georgetown College, who has been tapped by President-elect Donald J. Trump (Gasp!) to run the federal Environmental Protection Agency, presumably into the ground he intends to despoil.

Pruitt, Danville bred and Lexington raised, is what is popularly known as a global climate change denier or skeptic, one who rejects or doubts the scientific claim that planet earth is heating up, resulting in dire environmental consequences, thanks in no small measures to humanity’s activities around the globe, specifically the burning of fossil fuels.

Apparently Pruitt received either inadequate teaching in the sciences during his academic career in the commonwealth or he skipped those classes to play baseball, something he was said to be quite good at.

Regardless, he now seems destined to join that pantheon of science skeptics determined to march civilization backwards, a club that already includes the likes of Samuel Rowbotham, whose teachings led to the founding of the International Flat Earth Society, and Pope Urban VIII, who referred Galileo to the Italian Inquisition for his belief in heliocentrism – the theory that earth and the other planets revolve around the sun.

As the man ostensibly about to be charged with protecting the nation from environmental catastrophe, where a background in the sciences other than the political – his major at Georgetown – might prove beneficial, Pruitt is dismissing with a wave of the hand the findings by a veritable multitude of climatologists that the extensive burning of fossil fuels is causing earth to grow warmer.

The National Climate Assessment determined that the years 2000 to 2009 constituted the hottest decade in at least the past 1,300 years. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880. The six-month period from January to June was also the planet’s warmest half-year on record, with an average temperature 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the late nineteenth century.

Scientists know what’s causing this. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, like methane and carbon dioxide – caused by the burning of fossil fuels — permit visible light to pass through from the sun to the earth but they absorb infrared light. This absorption causes the earth to heat up. The warmer atmosphere creates something of a cycle – it emits more infrared light that then tends to be re-absorbed.

The impact could ultimately prove disastrous. Rising sea levels — arctic sea ice at the peak of the summer melt season now typically covers 40 percent less area than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s – presents a worldwide threat to coastal areas.

Global climate change is further expected to have a severe impact on weather, threatening at least in some instances the food supply. The National Resources Defense Council notes that a warmer climate creates an atmosphere that can collect, retain, and drop more water, changing weather patterns in such a way that wet areas become wetter and dry areas drier.

Drought conditions jeopardize, among other things, access to clean drinking water, provides fuel for wildfires and result in dust storms. Heavier rains, meanwhile, cause streams, rivers, and lakes to overflow, threatening life and property, contaminating drinking water, creating hazardous-material spills and promoting mold infestation and unhealthy air.

Pruitt’s response as Oklahoma attorney general is dismiss the clear science as so much talk, consistently attacking the agency he is about to lead with a flood of lawsuits and dismissing the global climate change threat, all the time kowtowing to the Sooner State oil and gas interests that continue to prop up his political career.

Writing in the National Review, William F. Buckley’s old conservative rag last May, Pruitt asserted that the debate over global climate change “is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.’’

Well, no, unless you’re talking about the political science community as opposed to the climate science community. And given the current conservative disaffection for anything dealing with expertise, he may be. The debate simply does not exist in the true science society save for a literal handful of outliers who, like Pruitt, are tucked firmly into the hip pocket of the fossil fuels industry.

Placing Pruitt in charge of the EPA is like appointing Bernie Madoff to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, giving Willie Sutton free reign within the Treasury Department, hiring Billy Clyde Gillispie to coach the University of Kentucky basketball team

Pruitt has been more than just words. He has been fighting like a pit bull the Obama administration’s efforts to address the global climate change issue, joining other right wing state authorities in filing lawsuits hoping to stop, among other initiatives, the Clean Power Plan, designed to curb dangerous greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“Time and again, he has fought to pad the profits of big polluters at the expense of public health,’’ said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “He’s sued the EPA over commonsense safeguards like the Clean Water Rule and Clean Power Plan and sent letters to federal officials that were written almost entirely by the oil and gas industry. And like fellow Oklahoman, (Republican) senator (James) Inhofe, Pruitt is an outright climate denier who has ignored settled science for political points.”

Placing Pruitt in charge of the EPA is like appointing Bernie Madoff to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, giving Willie Sutton free reign within the Treasury Department, hiring Billy Clyde Gillispie to coach the University of Kentucky basketball team (sorry, I couldn’t resist). He is such a bad choice that many environmentalists are convinced that Trump (ugh!) is dispatching him there not just to undermine the agency but destroy it from within.

Trump, you may remember, has characterized global climate change as a “hoax’’ perpetuated by the Chinese government, vowing to roll back almost every climate initiative sparked by the Obama administration, including the far-reaching 2015 Paris Agreement.

Throughout his presidential campaign Trump certainly hinted that he would like to abolish the EPA, which he views as anti-business, ignoring the important clean air, clean water and health initiatives it undertakes. There’s little doubt, if the agency survives, that he and Pruitt will work to cut it off at the knees, rendering it virtually powerless.

In an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday last year, Trump called the EPA “a disgrace,’’ maintaining, “every week they come out with new regulations.’’

Asked by Wallace who will protect the environment, Trump answered, “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”

So now Trump has his environmental hit man Pruitt ready to perform his dirty work – literally. He’ll effectively undermine the EPA to your last breath – again literally.

What a fine example of the Kentucky education system.


Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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