It was an extraordinary moment one week ago on April 2: Chris Wallace of Fox News--a media entity that has denigrated climate science and climate activism for years--turning up the heat on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for the latter's disavowal of the scientific verdict on climate change.
Obviously, Wallace won’t be joining 350.org anytime soon; the Fox News Sunday host also has a long history of casting doubt on climate science, and pointedly refused to ask any questions about climate change in the third presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump last fall. So why would Wallace hammer away at Pruitt’s rejection of the evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is driving the planet towards climate chaos?
In all likelihood, Wallace felt motivated to press Pruitt on pollution for the same reason that former Secretary of State James Baker felt motivated to urge the Trump administration to support a federal carbon-pricing policy; in both cases, the idea could well be a survival instinct to protect the Republican Party from self-destruction.
Pruitt is arguably the single most controversial figure in the Trump administration; his full-on rejection of the overwhelming data proving that oil, gas and coal threaten the planet as a whole could drive those who are not committed right-wingers away from the Republican Party for good, a problem the GOP absolutely cannot afford. As a loyal, lifelong Republican, Baker has an obvious personal interest in protecting the political health of the GOP; as a Fox News figure, Wallace has an obvious professional interest in protecting the political health of Fox’s preferred party.
According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, “[A]bout half to a majority of Trump voters think global warming is happening and support a variety of climate and clean energy policies...Over half of Trump voters (52%) support eliminating all federal subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, nearly half (48%) support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to reduce other taxes by an equal amount, and almost half (48%) support setting strict carbon dioxide emissions limits on existing coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health, even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies would likely increase.” In other words, a significant portion of Trump voters disagree with Pruitt on climate change--and if their concerns about the climate crisis intensify, they may seek alternate political routes.
Baker doesn't exactly consider himself a climate hawk, and Wallace will never be confused with MSNBC’s climate-conscious Chris Hayes. However, Baker and Wallace clearly understand that the GOP cannot deny the abundant evidence of human-caused climate change in perpetuity, thus risking potentially severe Election Day consequences. One can only wonder when and if Fox’s loudest deny-o-saur, and Trump’s buddy, Sean Hannity will ever wake up and smell the carbon. Given how many times he has spouted outright lies on his program about climate realities—and that’s just the dozen or times I’ve been on his show to spar with him and his climate-denying cronies--it’s impossible to imagine Hannity (or “Inanity” as I call him) ever acknowledging he was wrong. Especially as long as his paycheck, and network’s ratings, depend upon the profits made by perpetuating provocative nonsense. Never mind that the planet’s fate hangs in the balance – let’s mock the tree-huggers at any cost, and denigrate climate scientists too while we’re at it. As if Hannity and Company know more than 97% of experts in their field of focus! But I digress…
The political climate finally appears to be changing in the United States, with a growing number of House Republicans pledging to work with Democrats on climate solutions and major corporations acknowledging the need to curb carbon emissions. If the Trump administration expects to survive politically, it cannot be deaf to the concerns of Republicans who don't buy into the idea that climate science is a conspiracy concocted by the Chinese government.
It's not likely that Pruitt will change his tune on climate change anytime soon, but as ecological and political storms gather, it’s not beyond possibility that his time as EPA Administrator will come to an end sooner rather than later. Those who deny the settled science of climate change were thrilled when Pruitt became EPA Administrator, but they may soon find themselves outfoxed by reality.