Here’s Everything Wrong With Scott Pruitt’s Plan to ‘Debate’ Climate Science

by Tim Donaghy

July 17, 2017

The EPA administrator’s proposal for a “red team” vs. “blue team” gauntlet on the facts of climate change is just another attempt to spread climate denial.

Scott Pruitt

Photo by Gage Skidmore / Flickr.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt recently proposed creating a “red team” inside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to directly critique mainstream climate change science. He’s even suggested that the debates be put on television.

We see right through this thinly veiled attempt to peddle science denial from the highest levels of government, and Scott Pruitt we’re calling your bluff.

The EPA’s mission is to “protect human health and the environment,” and we rely on the agency’s scientists to safeguard clean air and clean water and reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Giving polluters a platform inside the agency to spread misinformation could undermine everything the EPA has accomplished in its 47 years of existence.

The concept of opposing “red” and “blue” teams has been successfully used in certain contexts. For example, if everyone is agreed on a goal, critiquing the chosen plan of action can uncover weaknesses and ultimately make the plan stronger. But it’s not appropriate to apply it to scientific findings.

Science already undergoes a high level of scrutiny and skepticism — it’s part of the scientific method. Pruitt’s plan is not rooted in learning about the climate system or promoting an open exchange of ideas. He was hired to dismantle environmental protections and delay action on climate change, and this is just another step in that direction.

With this proposal, Pruitt is trying to obscure the fact that his fossil fuel cronies have long since lost the climate science debate on the merits.

Peer Review Ain’t Broke, So Don’t Fix It

Scientific peer review and open debate are the best means of ensuring scientific information is accurate and trustworthy. Peer review is a standard that has served us well for decades, if not centuries. Before publication, scientific studies are subjected to at least one — typically multiple — rounds of review by experts in the field. Peer review weeds out errors, makes you confront your assumptions, and sharpens your logic. It can be time-consuming, but it is almost always results in a better paper.

And review doesn’t stop with publication. Once a paper is published, it will inevitably be dissected and thrown into the tumult that is the scientific process. Each scientist brings their own perspective to the debate, and the community is not shy about calling out bad arguments. The most important and influential findings are subject to the most exacting, and sometimes the harshest, criticism.

Replacing peer review with political review is a recipe for disaster.

Extraordinary scientific claims require extraordinary evidence, and the scientific consensus about climate change rests on multiple, reinforcing lines of evidence. The major findings have been published in peer reviewed journals. The underlying data and (increasingly) the computer models are open source for anyone to use. For years, the community has supported the exhaustive IPCC process and the U.S. focused National Climate Assessment that summarize and assess scientific findings and communicate them to the public.

In fact, it’s hard to think of a field of study that has received more scrutiny than climate change — which makes it an odd topic to waste taxpayer money re-investigating.

Denial 30 Years in the Making

Let’s not pretend that this red team proposal is in good faith. All the players here are seeking to grab power before the clock runs out on the fossil fuel era. Pruitt’s tenure at the EPA is the culmination of a decades-long scheme, financed by fossil fuel interests like ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, to cast doubt on science and undercut climate action.

The playbook is the same as it was back in 1998 when an American Petroleum Institute task force stated in a leaked memo that “victory will be achieved” when “average citizens understand” uncertainties in climate science. Nearly 20 years later, Pruitt is still singing the melody that Exxon composed … only now with a lot more amplification.

Many people have speculated that this “red team” proposal is actually the opening move in a ploy to overturn the “endangerment” finding that underpins the EPA’s authority to address climate change under the Clean Air Act. Undoing a major scientific finding would face extraordinary scrutiny from the courts, but conservative activists are reportedly lobbying behind the scenes for Pruitt to break climate policy in a way that future presidents will find difficult to fix.

Mother, Should I Trust the Government?

This isn’t the EPA’s first run-in with anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues. Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch Burford, severely damaged the agency before resigning under a cloud of scandal. And under George W. Bush, political interference in science became an epidemic at the EPA and across the government. But given his disastrous budget cuts, his brazen denialism and his savvy assaults on the agency’s workforce, its scientific advisers and its policy apparatus, Pruitt could be the biggest threat the agency has yet faced.

Weaponizing science denialism and using the apparatus of scientific agencies to spread anti-science can only erode trust in our government institutions and put us all at risk. But that is where we find ourselves in the age of Trump. Scott Pruitt is looking to stress test our system of science-based, transparent policy making, and now we’re going to find out just how well those famous checks and balances really work.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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