The Slatest

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Wants to Enlist a “Red Team” to Sow Doubts About Climate Change

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt testifies about the fiscal year 2018 budget during a Senate Appropriations hearing on June 27, 2017.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Scott Pruitt is hatching a new plan to turn his personal and unreasonable denial of the accepted science on climate change into official federal policy: He’ll employ military tactics to review climate science to assess the “truth.” Or, as a new report in E&E News’ ClimateWire put it, Donald Trump’s EPA chief is “leading a formal initiative to challenge mainstream climate science:”

The program will use “red team, blue team” exercises to conduct an “at-length evaluation of U.S. climate science,” the official said, referring to a concept developed by the military to identify vulnerabilities in field operations. “The administrator believes that we will be able to recruit the best in the fields which study climate and will organize a specific process in which these individuals … provide back-and-forth critique of specific new reports on climate science,” the source said.

“We are in fact very excited about this initiative,” the official added. “Climate science, like other fields of science, is constantly changing. A new, fresh and transparent evaluation is something everyone should support doing.”

This Red Team strategy has been gaining traction among conservatives in recent months, beginning with an April op-ed in the Wall Street Journal penned by New York University theoretical physicist Steven Koonin, which suggested that this method would provide a rigorous way to reassess the science that would allow for an answer that is “not preordained.” A trio of outspoken and outside-the-mainstream climate scientists then lent their own voices to the idea in March during a House hearing organized by Republicans to challenge the current climate consensus. By the start of this month, the message had reached its intended audience. “The American people need to have that type of honest, open discussion, and it’s something that we hope to help provide as part of our leadership,” Pruitt told Breitbart in reference to Koonin’s proposal. It seems he’s now ready to put that plan in motion.

So how would it work? Here’s how Koonin laid it out in his op-ed:

The focus would be a published scientific report meant to inform policy such as the U.N.’s Summary for Policymakers or the U.S. Government’s National Climate Assessment. A Red Team of scientists would write a critique of that document and a Blue Team would rebut that critique. Further exchanges of documents would ensue to the point of diminishing returns. A commission would coordinate and moderate the process and then hold hearings to highlight points of agreement and disagreement, as well as steps that might resolve the latter. The process would unfold in full public view: the initial report, the exchanged documents and the hearings.

At first blush, that sounds all well and good—what’s the harm? Koonin himself admits that it may result in a policy that suggests climate change is less serious than we thought, but it could also result in a mandate to take climate change more seriously. But that’s why it’s so dangerous: It sounds reasonable without actually being so. For one thing, there’s the issue of who Pruitt will pick to join the Red Team. As ClimateWire reported:

“The administrator believes that we will be able to recruit the best in the fields which study climate and will organize a specific process in which these individuals … provide back-and-forth critique of specific new reports on climate science,” the source said.

Should we trust the selection of a politician who has been steadfast in his refusal to accept scientific consensus and one whose career has been funded heavily by the petro-interests that benefit most from our carbon status quo? He’s already cleared his organization of academic scientists in an admitted attempt to clear the way for more industry representatives.

And anyway, the “honest, open discussion” Pruitt claims the American people deserve already exists. It’s called peer review—and it’s a process by which roughly 97 percent of published papers support the conclusion that climate change is real and that man is responsible for the majority of the recent warming.

Peer review isn’t perfect in practice, but when taken together all those papers paint a fair picture of the accepted scientific view on a matter. Sending in a Red Team of devil’s advocates would give the false impression—or, given the false balance that often finds its way into mainstream coverage of the issue, reinforce the false impression—that there are two equal sides to this debate.

There are not equal sides to the debate over climate change. Plenty of recent research suggests we have underestimated, not overestimated, the effects. And Pruitt’s strategy highlights something insidious to the Republican party and its understanding of science: For all the March of Science signs claiming that people want their evidence-based science “after peer review,” this is an excellent reminder of the fact that peer review, and this new form of peer review-plus, is an inherently conservative idea at its heart. As my colleague Dan Engber recently wrote, “The people making the rules right now are looking for excuses not to act. Calls for peer review will only help them.”

In a perfect world, a Red Team could help climate scientists get a better understanding of exactly how bad this is going to be, and how soon. But in Pruitt’s world, the strategy risks boiling away such nuance, which would conveniently allow Republicans and their like-minded industry allies to continue to pretend that man-made climate change remains an open question. And as long they can keep doing that, it frees them from the responsibility of actually finding solutions.