The Trump administration is debating whether to launch a governmentwide effort to question the science of climate change, an effort that critics say is an attempt to undermine the long-established consensus human activity is fueling the Earth’s rising temperatures.
The move, driven by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, has sparked a debate among top Trump administration officials over whether to pursue such a strategy.
A senior White House official, who asked for anonymity because no final decision has been made, said that while Pruitt has expressed interest in the idea, “there are no formal plans within the administration to do anything about it at this time.”
Pruitt first publicly raised the idea of setting up a “red team-blue team” effort to conduct exercises to test the idea that human activity is the main driver of recent climate change in an interview with Breitbart in early June.
“What the American people deserve, I think, is a true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2,” Pruitt said in an interview with Breitbart’s Joel Pollack.
But officials are discussing whether the initiative would stretch across numerous federal agencies that rely on such science, according to multiple Trump administration officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because no formal announcement has been made.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who once described the science behind human-caused climate change as a “contrived phony mess,” also is involved in the effort, two officials said.
At a White House briefing this week, Perry said, “The people who say the science is settled, it’s done — if you don’t believe that you’re a skeptic, a Luddite. I don’t buy that. I don’t think there is — I mean, this is America. Have a conversation. Let’s come out of the shadows of hiding behind your political statements and let’s talk about it. What’s wrong with that? And I’m full well — I can be convinced, but let’s talk about it.”
The idea, according to one senior administration official, is “to get other federal agencies involved in this exercise on the state of climate science” to examine “what we know, where there are holes, and what we actually don’t know.”
Other agencies could include the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA, according to the official, all of which conduct climate research in some capacity.
EPA officials on Friday declined to comment, and DOE could not immediately be reached for comment.
A plethora of scientific assessments over the years have concluded that human activity — such as the burning of fossil fuels — is driving climate change, and it poses grave risks to the environment and to human health. In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that it is “extremely likely” that, since the 1950s, humans and their greenhouse gas emissions have been the “dominant cause” of the planet’s warming trend.
But that conclusion, shared by the vast majority of experts in the United States and around the world, has done little to stop Pruitt, Perry and other administration officials from raising doubts.
The idea of a “red-team blue-team” exercise stems in part from a Wall Street Journal commentary by New York University professor Steven Koonin. E&E News on Friday reported that Pruitt intended to formalize the “red team, blue team” effort to challenge mainstream climate science. But should Perry and other agency leaders join the effort, the move would embed the Trump administration’s approach to climate science across the government in a very public way.
Kelly Levin, a senior associate with the World Resources Institute’s major emerging economies objective, wrote in a blog post last month that the kind of adversarial process Pruitt is advocating is better suited for policy debates than for scientific findings. Scientific arguments, she wrote, are mediated through a peer-review process in which experts in the same field evaluate one another’s work.
“Scientific understanding, unlike proposals for what to do about a given problem, is well established through the scientific method,” wrote Levin, noting that 97 percent of peer-reviewed papers on climate change support the idea that humans play a contributing factor. “If skeptics want their voices heard in scientific discourse, they should try to get their findings published in the peer-reviewed literature. They would then be assessed on their merits through peer review.”
Some members of EPA’s scientific rank-and-file, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, questioned Pruitt’s plan.
“It’s an obvious attempt to cast doubt on climate science under the guise of a common sense-sounding process,” said one EPA employee who focuses on climate issues. “But of course, we already have a process for scrutiny of the science — the peer review process is a much more robust assessment of scientific integrity than a childish color war.”
The employee called the effort “incredibly insulting” and said the red team-blue team idea “is a weaker process than we already have in place for peer review and scientific assessment.”
The efforts to question the existing science on climate change has raised questions within the government and among industry officials about whether Pruitt intends to try to roll back the EPA’s 2009 “endangerment finding,” which determined that greenhouse gases posed a risk to public health and created the basis for Obama-era regulations on emissions from power plants, automobiles and other sources.
Two people with knowledge of the “red-team blue-team” undertaking — one inside the Trump administration and one lobbyist — said its purpose was not explicitly to help target the agency’s 2009 finding that emissions of greenhouse gases linked to climate change constitute as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, though that idea is still under discussion among administration officials
President Trump questioned the link between human activity multiple times during the 2016 campaign, though he has not addressed the issue directly since his inauguration. In his most recent remarks, in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace in December, Trump said that “nobody really knows” if climate change is real.
After the president announced a month ago that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, multiple reporters have asked White House officials to clarify the president’s views on climate science. But they have declined to do so.
Pruitt’s EPA also took down an agency website in late April that was focused on climate change and highlighted the scientific consensus that it is caused by humans.
Steven Mufson contributed to this report.