Look Before You Laugh: US Energy Sec’y Rick Perry Kinda Sorta Gets Climate Change Right

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Ermigod the Intertubes are absolutely having a field day with Monday’s CNBC interview featuring US Energy Secretary Rick Perry. As chief of the Energy Department, Perry has been promoting renewable energy nonstop and merrily blowing off President Trump’s pro-coal messaging, but in less than two minutes on CNBC he undid all that hard work with some nonsensical comments suggesting that nobody really knows what’s causing climate change.

Perry’s comments made him appear ignorant and dismissive of settled science, which is not a good look for the head of what is essentially a science agency. On closer inspection, though, it seems that Perry cherry picked information straight from the NASA website — so now the more interesting question is why.

NASA And Climate Change

Before we get to the Perry comments, let’s go over to the NASA website and take a look at the official NASA position on carbon dioxide and its relationship to climate change:

Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by more than a third since the Industrial Revolution began. This is the most important long-lived “forcing” of climate change.

That doesn’t give Perry much wiggle room. However, those are just the last two sentences in a three-sentence paragraph. Here’s the first one:

A minor but very important component of the atmosphere, carbon dioxide is released through natural processes such as respiration and volcano eruptions and through human activities such as deforestation, land use changes, and burning fossil fuels.

Okay, so that fleshes out the picture a bit more. Now take a look at NASA’s list of “gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect.” The list is ordered by abundance so carbon dioxide does not come first, despite its key role in climate forcing. The pole position goes to — no, not methane. It’s water vapor:

[Water vapor is] the most abundant greenhouse gas, but importantly, it acts as a feedback to the climate. Water vapor increases as the Earth’s atmosphere warms, but so does the possibility of clouds and precipitation, making these some of the most important feedback mechanisms to the greenhouse effect.

NASA is pretty clear on all these points. With all that in mind, let’s go over to Secretary Perry.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry Opens Mouth, Inserts Foot, Sort Of

You can replay Monday’s Rick Perry interview off the CNBC website, or if you don’t have time for the whole two minutes (okay so 1:50), here’s the money quote from CNBC:

Asked whether CO2 emissions are primarily responsible for climate change, Perry told CNBC’s “Squawk Box”: “No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in.”

Yikes! Did Perry blow it or what?

Well yes, but maybe not as much as he could have.

Actually, “whether CO2 emissions are primarily responsible for climate change” was not the question that the interviewer asked. Go over to that link and take a look at the whole interview.

The actual question was “do you believe CO2 is the primary control knob for the temperature of the earth.” Not to parse words — but we will anyways — “control knob” is not quite the same thing as “primarily responsible for.”

More to the point, when you’re trying to make an accurate statement about causality, “control knob” is not the most precise choice of words.

The interviewer used “control knob” twice to ask the question, so if you were Rick Perry, and you needed to satisfy your boss (that would be climate change-denying President Trump and his shrinking but still enthusiastic base), you might want to take that opportunity to create some space for yourself.

Consider Perry’s answer from the perspective that he’s not dumb. He has built a solid track record of promoting renewable energy during his stint as Texas Governor and more recently as Energy Secretary.

If by “primary control knob” he meant the primary feedback mechanism for climate change, then yes, “ocean waters and this environment we live in” embraces water vapor and a whole lot of everything else. In that respect his answer is consistent with the information that NASA presents.

On the other hand, the pivotal issue with CO2 is not the climate feedback mechanism, it’s climate forcing.

So, Perry mixed up feedback with forcing. Was he being dumb, or did he take advantage of a vague question to pacify Trump and his supporters?

His comment immediately following that answer indicates that Perry is not giving ground on climate science:

“The fact is this shouldn’t be a debate about, ‘Is the climate changing, is man having an effect on it?’ Yeah, we are…”

That’s a forceful if somewhat casual statement about the relationship between human activity and climate change.

Now go back and look at the whole interview with that “shouldn’t be a debate” comment in mind.

In that context, it seems that Perry going out of his way to placate Trump supporters when he argues that it’s okay to be a climate “skeptic.” The debate is over, but folks shouldn’t feel embarrassed if they still want to hash over the science. The rest of the world can and will move on without them. Here’s the comment in full:

“The fact is this shouldn’t be a debate about, ‘Is the climate changing, is man having an effect on it?’ Yeah, we are. The question should be just how much, and what are the policy changes that we need to make to effect that?”

Wait For It…Here Comes The Clean Tech Pitch

Look at the rest of the interview (come on, it’s only 1:50), and you’ll hear Perry make his now familiar pitch for renewable energy, the national laboratories and public-private partnerships.

Ever since he was tapped as Energy Secretary, Perry’s message has been consistent: whether or not you “believe” in climate change, investing in renewable energy (and, for that matter energy efficiency) is sound economic policy, and our national laboratories deserve our support.

Unlike EPA chief Scott Pruitt, Perry has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for his agency’s budget and its clean tech mission That’s not an easy task considering what he’s up against in Congress and the White House.

Perry threw the fossil fuel lobby and the CNBC television audience a honking big bone during that interview and it made him look ridiculous, but he could end up getting the last laugh.

The message he’s been pitching is a close cousin to the one he promoted as the longest-serving governor in Texas history at a time when the iconic fossil fuel state exploded into the vanguard of renewable energy development.

Take a look over at the newly revamped Energy Department website, which Perry launched on June 3 — just two days after Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The entire home page has been redesigned to focus on links to the national laboratories, renewable energy and yes, climate change.

The landing page for the agency’s climate change information does not go into detail about what is causing it — you can click on the link that says “Test Your Climate Change IQ” to get to that — but the Energy Department is clear on the need for action…

Addressing the effects of climate change is a top priority of the Energy Department.

…and on the actions that are needed:

To fight climate change, the Energy Department supports research and innovation that makes fossil energy technologies cleaner and less harmful to the people and the environment. We’re taking responsible steps to cut carbon pollution, develop domestic renewable energy production and win the global race for clean energy innovation. We’re also working to dramatically increase the efficiency of appliances, homes, businesses and vehicles.

Catching up to more recent events, yesterday Perry testified on Trump’s proposed federal budget, which includes steep cuts to the Energy Department. Here’s the Think Progress take on his testimony, with this headline:

Rick Perry avoids defending Trump’s proposed DOE cuts in budget testimony

Here’s the lede:

Energy Secretary Rick Perry offered a lackluster defense of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts on Tuesday, with some of his spending priorities appearing to diverge from the administration’s goals for the Department of Energy.

Ya think?

No, really, what do you think? Was Perry just being a idiot in that CNBC interview? Did he go too far to placate the fossil lobby and the Trump base? Or maybe he welcomed the climate “skeptics” to grumble away to their hearts’ content, so long as they stay out of his way cuz the Energy Department has important work to do.

Or, is he playing a long game that could put him in the White House some day?

Any thoughts, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Follow me on Twitter.

Image (screenshot): via NASA.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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