WASHINGTON — As a businessman, President Trump was a frequent and scornful critic of the concept of climate change. In the years before running for president, he called it “nonexistent,” “mythical” and a “a total con job.” Whenever snow fell in New York, it seemed, he would mock the idea of global warming.
“Global warming has been proven to be a canard repeatedly over and over again,” he wrote on Twitter in 2012. In another post later that year, he said, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” A year later, he wrote that “global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”
But on Friday, a day after Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate change accord, the White House refused to say whether the president still considers climate change a hoax. As other leaders around the world vowed to confront climate change without the United States, Mr. Trump’s advisers fanned out to defend his decision and, when pressed, said they did not know his view of the science underlying the debate.
“I have not had an opportunity to have that discussion,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary.
“I do not speak for the president,” said Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary.
“You should ask him that,” said Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor.Continue reading the main story
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Mr. Trump offered no opportunity for anyone to ask him that on Friday. But his current views, whatever they may be, presumably shaped his thinking as he evaluated whether to remain in the Paris accord. Given that he promised on Thursday to seek to re-enter the pact on better terms or negotiate an entirely new deal that he said would be fairer to the United States, his acceptance or denial of climate science seems likely to determine his approach.
In his speech announcing his decision, he did not address the science of climate change or repeat any of the skepticism he has expressed for years. Instead, he cast it largely in economic terms, arguing that President Barack Obama agreed to a bad deal for Americans that would handcuff the economy and put the United States at a disadvantage against its international competitors. He did not say the goal itself was pointless, only that it would be too much of a burden.
But administration officials clearly saw no benefit in clarifying. If they affirmed that he still believed climate change to be fake, they would expose him to even more criticism at home and abroad and complicate the lives of those advisers who accept the broad scientific consensus. If they asserted that he had changed his mind and now agreed that climate change is real, then they would have to explain a flip-flop while risking criticism from his own base.
Moreover, recent weeks have reminded White House aides about the dangers of making declarative statements about the president’s beliefs or actions only to have him contradict them within days or even hours. When Mr. Trump fired James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, he sent out his vice president and top aides to give an explanation of his decision that quickly unraveled after he gave an interview with a conflicting version of events.
Climate science deniers, cheered by his decision to pull out of the Paris agreement, seemed willing to live without a clearer statement taking on what they call the bogus claims of environmental advocates.
“I think his withdrawing us from Paris was the greatest action by a president in my lifetime,” said Steve Milloy, who runs a website, JunkScience.com, which aims to debunk climate change and who served on Mr. Trump’s environmental transition team. “And he explained his action brilliantly. Most substantive explanation I’ve ever heard from a president — including Reagan.”
“What he believes,” Mr. Milloy added, “you need to get from him.”
Supporters of the Paris accord said the White House refusal to outline Mr. Trump’s beliefs on climate change indicated that he had not bothered to inform himself on the issue before making a decision with enormous consequences. “By not admitting what his views on this, the White House is just hiding the fact that Trump is too incurious to actually look seriously at the issue,” said Andrew Light, a former Obama State Department official who helped negotiate the Paris pact.
Carol Browner, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator under Bill Clinton and adviser to Mr. Obama, said Mr. Trump’s action seemed founded on misinformation. “Seems he accepts junk science in his decision making which makes you wonder if next he will repeal bans on indoor smoking and put lead back in paint,” she said.
Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the E.P.A. and a longtime critic of what he calls “climate exaggerators,” said the question of what Mr. Trump believed about the science never came up during the administration’s deliberations over the Paris agreement.
“What’s interesting about all the discussions that we had through the last several weeks have been focused on one singular issue: Is Paris good or not for this country?” he told reporters at the White House. “That’s the discussions I’ve had with the president.”
Mr. Pruitt and other administration officials defended Mr. Trump’s decision as a courageous action to protect the United States. “We have nothing to be apologetic about as a country,” he said, noting that the country has reduced its carbon emissions in recent years, attributing that to innovation and technology rather than government regulation.
“So, when we look at issues like this, we are leading with action and not words,” he said. “I also want to say that exiting Paris does not mean disengagement.”
Describing his own views, Mr. Pruitt derided those “climate exaggerators,” who he said make assertions with great certainty. Mr. Pruitt said he has concluded that “global warming is occurring, that human activity contributes to it in some manner” but “measuring with precision, from my perspective, the degree of human contribution is very challenging.”
Mr. Trump has not been so shy in the past about his opinions on the subject. At one point in 2009, he signed an open letter to Mr. Obama published as an ad in newspapers supporting “meaningful and effective measures to control climate change,” although that may have just reflected the influence of the three adult children who also signed.
But he soon found climate change to be a favorite target on Twitter, mentioning the topic scores of times over the years, particularly during cold weather spells. “Any and all weather events are used by the GLOBAL WARMING HOAXSTERS to justify higher taxes to save our planet!” he wrote in 2014. “They don’t believe it $$$$!”
As he opened his presidential campaign, he told Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host, that the weather changed naturally over time and that there was not a major problem. “I’m not a believer in global warming,” he said. “I’m not a believer in man-made global warming.”
After he won the election last November, he tempered his views in an interview with The New York Times, saying that he believed “there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change and promising to look at the issue with fresh eyes.
“I have a very open mind,” he said. “And I’m going to study a lot of the things that happened on it and we’re going to look at it very carefully. But I have an open mind.”
By this week, however, Mr. Trump was no longer speaking his mind on the question of the science, and neither were his aides.
Mr. Spicer said twice this week that he had not had the chance to ask the president. Asked if he would find time to take the question to Mr. Trump, he said, “If I can, I will.”