Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue downplayed the immediacy of climate change this week by conflating it with a series of unrelated extreme weather events dating to the 1950s in rural Georgia.
"Climates have been around with us for many, many years," Perdue told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch while participating in the opening of a new headquarters for Benson Hill, an agriculture biotechnology firm, in suburban St. Louis.
"As a personal example, growing up on a farm, we had a major drought in 1954, a major flood in 1993 and a hurricane in 2018. So I’ve seen climate change and will continue to see climate change," he said.
Notwithstanding the fact that Perdue cited three natural disasters over a 47-year span, which is not evidence of climate change, the comments reflect an uptick in recent days by Trump Cabinet secretaries, and the president himself, to stoke confusion and denial about climate science.
Critics say it’s nothing new for Trump appointees to toe the line for the president, even when he obfuscates issues and makes false statements. But the comments also come in the final stretch of a presidential election campaign where climate change is in play and Trump seeks to paint Democratic rival Joe Biden as a climate alarmist.
While visiting California last week for a wildfire briefing, Trump also challenged the state’s secretary of natural resources when pressed about a warming climate’s role in worsening wildfires.
"It’ll just start getting cooler, you just watch," Trump told Secretary Wade Crowfoot during a disaster briefing.
"I wish science agreed with you," Crowfoot responded, to which Trump said, "Well, I don’t think science knows, actually" (Climatewire, Sept. 15).
As Agriculture secretary, Perdue oversees the Forest Service, where much of the government’s science on climate change and wildfire has been generated. Forest Service studies also undergird key elements of the National Climate Assessment, which Trump has said he does not believe.
Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, visiting a newly built petrochemical plant near Pittsburgh on Tuesday, also challenged scientific evidence linking climate warming to disasters.
"We have a lot to learn about what causes changes in the climate, and we’re not there yet," Brouillette said, according to the news outlet StateImpact Pennsylvania.
Responding to a question about the role human-generated carbon emissions have on rising average temperatures, Brouillette replied, "No one knows that" and said that scientists "say a lot of things" (Energywire, Sept. 23).
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the pattern of denial and mischaracterizations of climate science is nothing new. He attributed it to "a lack of any semblance of a conscience" on the part of Trump appointees with respect to scientific inquiry.
"Just because a Sonny Perdue or a Dan Brouillette doesn’t know about climate change doesn’t mean the scientists don’t know, and there is an obligation in their positions to actually acquire some knowledge," Rosenberg said.
He said Perdue’s comments are especially disingenuous given the immense stress that climate change is placing on farmers through cycles of flood, drought and severe storms, along with the northward migration of biological pests and invasive species.
Agriculture is also a significant source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 10% of the nation’s carbon footprint in 2018, according to EPA.
In St. Louis, Perdue challenged the notion that the Trump administration "is dismissive of climate change," noting that his agency has made climate adaptation a priority under its most recent Science Blueprint.
But Perdue also has a history of squelching climate science. A 2019 investigation by Politico found that the department had released only two of more than 45 agency studies on agriculture and climate change (E&E Daily, June 26, 2019).