Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler did not voice alarm Wednesday about the dire predictions in the government's recent climate report, and instead said the Trump administration deserves credit for a decline in carbon emissions in his first remarks since the government released a devastating report Friday on the growing impacts of climate change.
"In the first year of the Trump administration, we've seen a 2.7% reduction in CO2 from 2016 to 2017," Wheeler told an audience at a Washington Post event.
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The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the administration the day after Thanksgiving, concluded the effects of rising temperatures will devastate the US economy, result in thousands of premature deaths and lead to severe weather events.
Wheeler, who is the acting administrator of the EPA and Trump's pick to lead the agency, said he had not finished reading the report and had not yet discussed it with President Donald Trump, a clear sign of the priority the administration is giving the report.
"I'm not aware of a formal process within the administration" to incorporate it into decision-making, Wheeler said.
He also noted "a 14% reduction in CO2 emissions in the United States since 2005," a time period that includes the Obama administration, which implemented strict environmental policies Wheeler and the Trump administration have sought to reverse, amend or eliminate.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat who has taken the administration to court over car emission standards, spoke at the event after Wheeler and said "they don't deserve credit for that."
"It's frustrating when someone tries to take credit for things that are occurring because they just happen to be sitting in the seat of that agency," Becerra said. "But for their intransigence and their backsliding, can you imagine how much more we would have gotten done?"
Wheeler also said the report does not take into account "innovation that we've seen already in the marketplace."
"I think we really need to take a hard look at where the markets are going, where technology is going, where innovation is going, and what has driven the reduction in CO2, and we need to give credit for that CO2 reduction," Wheeler said.
President Donald Trump has cast doubt on the report as well. Before boarding Marine One on the way to a political rally in Mississippi Monday, Trump was asked about the report.
"I don't believe it," he responded.
Wheeler said he respects the efforts of career government scientists who worked on the report, but noted that the work was begun under the Obama administration and that the Trump administration did not play a part in the work.
"We did not review it. I did not see the report until it was released," Wheeler said.
There is an open question, however, about whether the administration directed the report be released amid the holiday weekend in an effort to bury it. People who worked on the report said it was scheduled for release in December. The executive director of the US Global Change Research Program, which released the report, has not answered repeated questions about the timing. Wheeler was not asked nor did he provide information on the report's timing.
Asked to name three EPA policies that are contributing to cleaner air, Wheeler struggled to answer.
"I'm not sure I'm going to be able to give three off the top of my head," he said.
Of the three he listed, two are proposed regulations that would dial-back back Obama-era rules that aimed to reduce pollution.
Wheeler argued that the report authors focused on worst-case scenarios. However, the report looked at the impacts of multiple scenarios, and cited a study conducted by EPA scientists in 2017.
A separate climate report released Tuesday by the United Nations said those worst-case scenarios are not at all far-fetched. Emissions are falling short of targets that would limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the goal of the Paris climate accord, the report said.