Explaining climate change
President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is raising concern among senators important to her confirmation and diplomats in New York over her skeptical views on climate change.
Kelly Craft, currently serving as Trump’s ambassador to Canada, drew the attention of foreign dignitaries in 2017 when she said “both sides of the science” had merit in the climate debate. But at the U.N. – where climate science is no longer subject to disagreement, where the threat tops the organization’s concerns and has the rare effect of unifying member states – her appointment underscores Trump’s dismissal of the perils of a warming Earth and his administration’s general contempt for the U.N. itself.
Craft’s position on climate change – and the message it sends to the world, should she be confirmed as U.N. ambassador – will be a central topic for Democrats in her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, congressional staffers say.
Three Democratic senators wrote Craft a letter on Friday seeking assurances that she “will put our nation’s interests ahead of your personal financial interests,” citing the work of her husband, Joe Craft, CEO of Alliance Resource Partners, one of the largest U.S. coal producers.
The letter reveals that Craft’s financial disclosures show $63 million in personal investments in oil, gas and coal assets, according to a copy obtained by McClatchy.
“We are writing to seek additional information about your views on the Paris agreement and international climate policy, as well as any potential conflicts of interest you may have,” wrote Democratic Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Markey and Merkley are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which is expected to hold Craft’s confirmation hearing later this spring.
The four-page letter includes a list of 13 questions for Craft, starting with: “Do you acknowledge that climate change caused by humans is real? If not, why not?”
An adviser to Craft, speaking on condition of anonymity, dismissed concerns that Craft would not make a suitable representative for the United States, noting that Craft had served as ambassador to Canada when the two governments were engaged in contentious trade negotiations.
“She was U.S. ambassador for Canada when there were significant risks,” said the adviser. “She was at the center of it and she handled a lot of these issues with great deft and tact and diplomacy as a diplomat should.”
But diplomats also say they are cognizant of Craft’s energy ties.
“Everyone is aware of the background of the president’s nominee, and people will likely consider the lobbies she’s affiliated with,” one European diplomat told McClatchy. “It’s made an impression, of course, but I don’t think people are particularly surprised that we’re getting that kind of nominee from this kind of administration.”
A second European diplomat concurred, noting that every country in the U.N. had entered the 2016 Paris climate accord. Trump announced his intent to withdraw the United States from that agreement the following year.
One American diplomat, who worked at the U.S. mission to the U.N. under Trump during Nikki Haley’s tenure as ambassador, acknowledged Craft’s view could affect her leadership role because climate science is not questioned at the U.N.
Markey, the Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal proposal that seeks to tackle climate change, said that he plans to question Craft on her climate change views at her nomination hearing.
“I have deep, deep concerns about her ties to the coal industry,” Markey told McClatchy in an interview. “This nomination sends a deeply troubling signal to the rest of the world that not only does the president believe that climate change is a Chinese hoax, but that he is going to name a U.N. ambassador with extremely close ties to the coal industry.”
One former Republican senator, John Danforth of Missouri, who served six months as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. under President George W. Bush, said he expects Craft’s views to matter little.
“The ambassador to the U.N. represents the policies of the administration and that’s what the focus is on,” said Danforth, who was at the U.N. in 2004. “It’s not about any particular ambassador, it’s about ‘What is the position of the administration?’ ”
To foreign diplomats, that is part of the problem. In Craft’s case, they struggle to distinguish between her personal skepticism of the science fundamental to understanding climate change and the administration’s dismissive approach to the issue.
“Obviously people are somewhat dismayed at these sorts of comments, and I think people will be disappointed. But I’m not sure it’ll impact her credibility more broadly, to be honest,” the first European official continued. “ I think she’ll be judged more on how she manages the politics of the U.N.”
While several senior figures in the administration – including officials leading the Domestic Policy Council, the Council on Environmental Quality and the Council of Economic Advisers – recognize climate change as a national security threat, other forces within the White House support the establishment of a review that would question the premise of interagency concerns. Climate assessments commissioned by Congress state that unmitigated carbon dioxide emissions are warming the planet, prompting rising sea levels, extreme weather events, widespread drought, uninhabitable lands and the deaths of entire ecosystems.
Among those entertaining a review is the president himself, who privately fumed when the most recent national climate assessment was released last November under his name. That report found the effects of climate change are “intensifying” across the country and would result in “substantial damages on the U.S. economy, human health, and the environment.”
“I think something’s happening,” Trump told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in October. “Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man-made.”
A senior administration official told McClatchy that the president “takes seriously the issue of climate change, and it is important that policies and decision-making be based on transparent and defensible science.”
But Erin Pelton, who served as spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the U.N. under Obama-era Ambassadors Susan Rice and Samantha Power, said the United States is already an outlier on climate change on the international stage.
“The U.S. is already so alone on climate change that the primary drivers on climate change at the U.N. have already written the U.S. off,” she said. “They’re moving forward without us.”
She suggested Craft’s views are in line with Trump and many other Republicans and questioned instead whether Craft’s limited experience would play a larger factor in how she is received at the U.N. Craft has received favorable reviews from Canadian officials as ambassador in Ottawa, the new role would be more expansive.
“It’s a much more high-profile role that she’s going to have to navigate with a limited diplomatic track record and these are tricky issues,” said Pelton, now managing director at the public affairs firm Mercury.
She added that acting U.N. ambassador Jonathan Cohen last month was nominated to be ambassador to Egypt and could soon be departing. “There’s not a lot of support in the mission at the most senior levels to guide her and steer her,” she said.
Craft is not expected to retain the Cabinet-level status that her predecessor, Haley, won from Trump at the outset of his presidency. During her tenure, Haley pushed back against the widespread impression that Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement reflected his disbelief in climate change.
“Just because we pulled out of the Paris accord doesn’t mean we don’t believe in climate protection,” Haley said at the time. “We’re not saying that climate change is not real. It is real.”