US Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt made his international debut on Sunday at a climate conference in Bologna, Italy, but left halfway through the first day of the two-day event.
At the annual meet-up for environment ministers from Group of Seven (G-7) countries including Canada, Germany, and the UK, one of the main agenda items was advancing the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
Not so for Pruitt, who has repeatedly questioned the scientific consensus on climate change and was representing the only country at the talks planning to exit the agreement. Instead, his itinerary was filled with events and one-on-one meetings with foreign counterparts, called “bilaterals,” discussing ways to jointly tackle environmental problems such as air pollution, water resources, and food waste.
This is consistent with Pruitt’s “back-to-basics” agenda for the EPA, one that prioritizes supporting clean air and clean water over curbing global warming. Science experts have criticized his approach, arguing that the agency will more effectively protect the nation’s air and water resources by responding to growing greenhouse gas emissions, and related warming temperatures and sea level rise.
Pruitt’s early departure back to Washington, DC, to attend a cabinet meeting, though planned in advance, didn’t make for great optics. But it’s not so surprising, experts say. Dismantling US climate policy “will be Pruitt[‘s] signature issue in the administration,” David Victor, a professor of global policy and strategy at UC San Diego, told BuzzFeed News.
“What happens in DC matters a lot more for his political strategy than what happens in Italy,” Victor said.
Pruitt was not around for the joint statement issued by the G-7 ministers on Monday, where the US stood apart from its peers on climate change. The six other ministers reaffirmed their “strong commitment to the swift and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement” and welcomed “the continued support that the Paris Agreement has received from other countries, and subnational and non-state actors around the world.”
Meanwhile, the US position was clarified in a footnote. “The United States will continue to engage with key international partners in a manner that is consistent with our domestic priorities, preserving both a strong economy and a healthy environment,” US officials wrote. The US noted that it did not join the sections of the statement on climate action and climate aid.
Despite leaving early, Pruitt and his team were confronted on climate issues in bilateral meetings, keynote speeches, and conference discussions.
In an approximately 20-minute discussion with Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna on Saturday night, McKenna asked Pruitt about the U.S. approach on Paris going forward. The two officials also discussed ways to work with the US on clean air, protecting the Great Lakes, and transportation, Canadian spokeswoman Caitlin Workman told BuzzFeed News.
“I was very pleased to see the very strong commitment of almost all countries to advance the Paris agreement,” said McKenna at a press conference at the end of the meeting. “The Paris agreement is irreversible and the momentum that the world is showing is so critically important for our planet.”
Pruitt also held one-on-one meetings with Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK, EPA spokesman Lincoln Ferguson wrote in an email. According to the EPA, these conversations focused on “discussing the importance of engagement and environmental issues including conservation, food waste, climate, marine litter, and resource efficiency.”
The other countries told Pruitt they were disappointed that the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement, Germany’s environment minister Barbara Hendricks said in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News. “They made it clear that the Paris Agreement is irreversible and its momentum cannot be stopped.” She added that the US did commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions at the gathering.
Pruitt left the conference after joining for a group photo. Tweeting it out, he wrote: “Spent meaningful time with my G7 counterparts this wknd. Engagement is essential to protecting and using our natural resources. #G7ItalyUS”