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Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 18, 2017.J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press

President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency testified Wednesday that climate change is real, but he raised questions about the degree to which humans are causing it and whether dramatic action is needed to avert a looming crisis.

The Senate confirmation hearing for Oklahoma Attorney-General Scott Pruitt came on a day when two U.S. federal agencies confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year in modern record keeping and said the 100-year increase in global average temperature was "driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere."

Under grilling from Democratic Senators, Mr. Pruitt rejected well-publicized Twitter comments by Mr. Trump from 2012 and 2013 stating that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

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"The climate is changing and human activity contributes to that in some manner," he said in response to a question from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. "It is the ability to measure it and the extent of that impact, and what to do about it that is subject to continued debate and dialogue."

Mr. Pruitt was introduced at the hearing by his "mentor" Senator Jim Inhofe, the former chair of the committee who has expressed deep skepticism about humanity's role in climate change. As Oklahoma's attorney-general, Mr. Pruitt launched a number of suits against the Environmental Protection Agency, including one challenging President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would force states to reduce their reliance on coal-fired power.

Republicans on the committee applauded his determination to rein in the EPA. However, Mr. Pruitt said he would ensure the agency continues to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as required by a 2009 federal court ruling. He also said he would review whether to keep Obama administration regulations in place  that will require a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency for automobiles and trucks – rules matched by Canada and aimed at driving down emissions in the transportation sector.

The skepticism of the incoming Trump administration toward climate-change action presents a major challenge to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Ottawa and several provincial premiers are implementing carbon pricing plans and other costly regulations to drive down GHG emissions.

Conservative critics argue those measures will further hurt the Canadian economy at a time when Mr. Trump is pledging tax cuts and border measures that could undermine Canada's competitiveness. Mr. Trudeau argues the country needs to prepare for and take advantage of the long-term transition to a lower-carbon world.

Mr. Pruitt insisted the EPA would continue to enforce environmental laws and regulations, but he said the agency had lost touch with average people, was often heedless of the cost of the regulations, and intruded in state jurisdiction. Democrats accused the nominee of acting on behalf of oil companies during his time as state attorney-general, noting that they joined him in legal challenges against the EPA and helped fund his political campaigns.

As Mr. Pruitt was being questioned Wednesday morning, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released their annual assessment of global temperatures. They said average temperatures in the United States were the second warmest on record, while temperatures in the Arctic and around the world had set a new modern high point.

They said there will likely be a cooling trend this year due to the end of the El Niño phenomenon, which drives temperatures higher. "We don't expect record years every year, but the ongoing long-term warming trend is clear," said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.