Donald Trump and Rick Perry

Dancing with Denial


A version of this story ran in the August 2017 issue.

Donald Trump and Rick Perry
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry visiting with Donald Trump in New York on June 20, 2013. As energy secretary, Perry has stated he wants a “red team/blue team” approach to debate climate change.  Rick Perry via Flickr

Rick Perry has danced his way back into the climate denial camp. At his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this year, the secretary of energy admitted that the climate is changing and that “some of it is caused by man-made activity.”

Many wondered if Perry had a change of heart on climate change. For more than a decade as Texas governor, Perry had been an ardent climate denier. He argued that calling carbon dioxide a pollutant was “a disservice to the country” and claimed that climate scientists “have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” In his 2010 anti-federal screed Fed Up!, he claimed the Earth was experiencing “a cooling trend” and called climate science “all one contrived phony mess.”

Perry was so vociferous in his criticism of climate science that he once noted — perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from his past involvement with Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign — that Gore’s “mouth is the leading source of all that supposedly deadly carbon dioxide” and called him “a false prophet of a secular carbon cult.”

So it came as somewhat of a surprise when in his opening statement, Perry acknowledged that the climate is changing and touted the rapid growth of wind energy in Texas during his time as governor. At the hearing, Perry danced around questions from Democratic Senators Al Franken and Bernie Sanders about how human activity contributes to warming and whether he was committed to solving the crisis. But for the most part he emphasized that his views had changed. Perry sailed through the hearing and was confirmed 62-37.

But in the months since his confirmation, Perry appears to have reversed his position yet again, casting doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus that warming is primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity. In a CNBC Squawk Box interview in June, Perry said the oceans and the environment — not carbon dioxide — were the “primary control knob” for climate change. A few days later at a Senate appropriations hearing, he went further, arguing that climate change “is not settled science.” It was time, he said, to take a “red team/blue team” approach so climate deniers and scientists could duke it out and 
figure out the truth about climate change. “What’s wrong with being a skeptic about something that we’re talking about that’s going to have a massive impact on the American economy?” he asked. The energy secretary’s latest missive has induced groans among scientists.

“Perry’s statements acknowledge climate is changing, but flail between misunderstandings and half-truths about the cause,” said Daniel Cohan, an environmental engineering professor at Rice University. “A red team/blue team review is like reviewing if the HIV virus causes AIDS — the more time we waste questioning settled science, the slower we’ll be to act on it.”

“Perry’s statements acknowledge climate is changing, but flail between misunderstandings and half-truths about the cause.”

Perry has also applauded Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord as well as the president’s claim that he wants to achieve “energy dominance.” Under his leadership, the Energy Department is considering closing its climate office, a move that Cohan says could further degrade the United States’ efforts to address climate change on the global stage. “That research is crucial to helping the U.S. lead the way on clean energy technologies and profiting from the jobs that come with it,” Cohan said.