“The modern environmental movement is about government control and rule by experts,” said Myron Ebell, climate change denier and adviser to President Donald Trump’s White House transition team, in a speech in Brussels on Wednesday.
Ebell, who directs environmental and energy policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian advocacy group in Washington, rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. When he took to the lectern, environment experts soon came under attack.
“Whenever you hear environmental expert, think urban eco imperialist,” said Ebell. “The climate-industrial complex has figured out how to get rich on the basis of [alarming] people about climate.”
On his way into the venue, Ebell experienced the anger of some 100 opponents holding up a large sign which read, “Make the planet great again”.
Their public expression highlighted the growing concern about the future of science and evidence under Trump and was the latest sign of how people are preparing to stand up to the policies of the new White House.
Met by boos from protestors and surrounded by media and police, Myron Ebell recognised he was, as he called it, in “unfriendly territory”.
However, the host of the conference Daniel Hannan, UK MEP, and one of the key Brexit influencers, dismissed the “dishevelled, dreadlocked protesters” and contrasted them with the “respectable-looking people wearing ties” at the meeting.
Inside, the drama was not yet over: Ebell still had one protestor left to shake off. During his address a man stood up and waved a sign which read “Resist”. His message to Ebell before being escorted out by security was, “You shouldn’t be a keynote speaker in the heart of Europe”.
A little shaken by the most recent heckling, Ebell held a defiant tone and mocked policymakers’ efforts to set regulations to fight climate change. “As Conservatives, we know, if you want a system that doesn’t work, you put the government in charge of it,” he said.
Ebell no longer works for the Trump team but his views are consistent with the president’s public comments.
The speech in Brussels did little to soften the mounting concerns that the Trump administration is on a path to frustrate delicate international cooperation on climate change.
Speaking to reporters after his speech, Ebell, more amiable face-to-face than behind a lectern, reiterated many of the messages he had given in previous days during his mini-tour of Europe.
He said Trump believes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is standing in the way of economic growth, is likely to withdraw from the landmark Paris agreement signed by 190 countries, axe funding for UN climate programmes and roll back environment policies put in place by President Obama.
Former UK energy and climate change minister Greg Barker, another speaker at the event, clashed with Ebell, countering with more conventional views on government’s role in limiting the damage of climate change.
“This denigration of experts needs to stop,” said Barker. “I hope Ebell continues his trips outside the Trump bubble and talks to more people.”
Barker is very worried about the protectionist winds blowing out of the US. “I don’t say intervention by government is always right – it’s not. But it is necessary. You have to be thoughtful about it,” he said.
Trump v science
Trump's first week and a half as US president has not been viewed as a great time for science.
Within hours of taking office, web pages with information on climate change disappeared from the White House website. Grants and contracts at the EPA were frozen, and it was reported that the Trump team was restricting the external communication of staff who track the effects of global warming on the environment.
A letter sent to UK prime minister Theresa May from the House of Commons’ cross-party Environmental Audit Committee last week spelt out “grave concerns about the new president’s views on climate change and his reported plans to abandon the Paris agreement”.
As the world’s second-largest polluter, the US is considered central to efforts to save the planet from global warming.
A protester in Leopold Park in Brussels
May, the first leader to visit Trump in Washington, was urged to challenge him on his view that climate change was a hoax by the Chinese to hamper other economies. However, it is unclear if climate change was addressed by the two leaders, when they met on Friday.
Researchers, academic officials and big tech companies have also expressed alarm at Trump’s order to temporarily bar entry to the US to people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“This is playing politics with the world’s knowledge pool and with academics’ and students’ lives,” said Lesley Wilson, secretary general of the European University Association. “A major knowledge economy like that of the US cannot allow itself to be closed off.”
Adding to a rising drumbeat of anger, reports that Trump is to end federal funding of the US National Endowment for the Humanities, were seen as underlining his disdain for experts.
The reports drew a rare response to US science policy from the European Parliament. “Cutting funds that only represented 0.003 per cent of the federal spending in 2016 and eliminating the national support for social science and humanities, is a very questionable decision by Donald Trump,” said German MEP Christian Ehler, chair of the US delegation in the Parliament.
“Social sciences are a pillar of society and should therefore not be left aside. We are willing to continue our proven cooperation with American universities and organisations in the field of research and innovation, emphasising projects concerning social sciences and humanities,” Ehler said.
Scientists become more assertive
After the administration made an apparent directive to government science institutions to put a hold on tweeting, more than a dozen self-described rogue versions, purportedly linked to agencies such as the EPA, the Agriculture and Health and Human Services Departments and NASA, sprung up on Twitter, and continue happily broadcasting science facts.A Facebook page advertising a big public rally by scientists in Washington on April 22 has attracted more than 1.3 million supporters, a big statement for a group not famous for taking to the streets en masse.