Emails and other documents from the Environmental Protection Agency shed new light on internal deliberations behind one of the most colorful proposals to come out of the agency during Administrator Scott Pruitt’s tenure — an ill-fated attempt to set up opposing teams to debate the science of climate change.
Pruitt pitched the so-called “red team-blue team” exercise as a way to suss out the truth of scientific claims that the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are pumping greenhouse gases into the air and are warming the planet.
A new cache of emails show that EPA staff primarily sought out conservative advocates who have worked for years at the fringes of mainstream climate science for advice on the debate, rather than the staffers who traditionally identify scientific research priorities for the agency.
The emails were provided to The Washington Post by environmental nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council which obtained them as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.
They show Pruitt’s schedulers, press aides and other political appointees were collecting information from outside conservative groups — even putting it in binders for Pruitt to read.
“[T]he ‘Red Team’ idea is superb,” Rodney Nichols, a science and technology policy consultant for the CO2 Coalition, wrote in an May 2017 email to Pruitt aide Lincoln Ferguson. “We will be glad to help the initiative in any way we can.” It wasn’t until last June that Pruitt began publicly floating a red team-blue team debate.
Nichols, whose group argues that additional atmospheric carbon dioxide aides plant growth and boost farm productivity, passed along a paper titled “Carbon Dioxide Benefits the World” for Pruitt’s perusal. By February, Pruitt appeared to latch onto that idea. “We know humans have most flourished during times of what, warming trends,” Pruitt told a Las Vegas television station
Pruitt and his staff pursued the two-sided debate format, popular with military planners, despite the existence of multiple scientific assessments at home and abroad that have concluded man-made climate change is real and poses substantial risk.
Many within the climate science community countered that staging such an exercise was unnecessary because scientists already have plenty of forums, such as academic journals and scientific conferences, where ideas are debated.
After months of back-and-forth with conservative advocates, the White House ultimately stopped the plan. The EPA declined to comment for this story.
The emails show parts of the EPA were not involved at first in the controversial proposal.
One email message suggests career staff at the agency’s main scientific research arm, the Office of Research and Development (ORD), had little to do with its development.
“The red team blue team exercise is not an ORD effort, and we are not involved,” Samantha Linkins, an ORD staffer, wrote to other EPA staffers in response to an inquiry from Democrats on the House Science Committee. “The Administrator is the one who wants to do this and I’m guessing his folks are putting it together.”
Behind the scenes, in November, Rupert Darwall, author of the book “Green Tyranny,” forwarded to Pruitt’s an unreleased Competitive Enterprise Institute paper he authored that echoed that idea, titled “A Veneer of Certainty Stoking Climate Alarm.” Darwall told the EPA chief’s aides that the essay is “best go-to justification for Administrator Pruitt’s red/blue team appraisal.”
Agency staffers also corresponded with a pair of Ivy League professors, J. Scott Armstrong at the University of Pennsylvania and William Happer at Princeton, who have both publicly questioning whether policymakers should be concerned about human-caused global warming despite holding professorships outside climate science.
“Scientists at the EPA who know something about climate science want nothing to do with the Red team, Blue team exercise,” NRDC spokesman Ed Chen said in a statement regarding the released emails. “But a host of outsiders, non-scientists and know-nothings want everything to do with it.”
Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson appeared to be working with Happer, a physics professor, to vet potential red-team members who would challenge climate science in the exercise.
“I am sorry that distractions prevented me for getting this material about potential red team members to you,” Happer wrote to Jackson in a Nov. 2017 email. “Please keep it confidential.”
In a separate message, Armstrong, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, sent a paper he co-authored to EPA staffers that argued Pruitt should impanel a group of judges to decide after the red team-blue team debate whether climate regulation would provide a “substantial net benefit … beyond reasonable doubt.”
Pruitt even conferred with a senior Roman Catholic prelate, who once in a speech called “hysteric and extreme claims about global warming … a symptom of pagan emptiness.”
During a dinner in Italy last June, Pruitt and Cardinal George Pell discussed a April 2017 Wall Street Journal op-ed by New York University professor Steven Koonin, which had first brought the red team-blue team idea to prominence in Washington.
“I am at dinner with Cardinal Pell and Mr. Pruitt,” Pruitt aide Samantha Dravis wrote a Vatican official. “They discussed this article. Can you print a copy for His Excellency?”
The following month, in July, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest general scientific society in the United States and publisher of the prestigious journal Science, asked for a meeting with Pruitt to discuss the red team-blue team proposal.
The newly released emails show Jackson and other political staffers weighing the request, which AAAS sent on behalf of it and more than a dozen other scientific societies specializing in disciplines like limnology (the study of lakes) and herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians).
“Given your interest in the state of climate science, we would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to better understand your perspective and rationale for the proposed activity; and to discuss climate science, including which areas are at the frontiers of scientific knowledge and which are well-established because of thousands of studies from multiple lines of evidence,” the leaders of the scientific societies wrote to Pruitt.
But the AAAS told The Post the meeting never came to fruition.
“We did not hear back from EPA in response to that letter and have not met with the administrator or EPA staff on this matter,” said Joanne Padrón Carney, AAAS’s director of government relations.
Even into January of this year, Pruitt’s staff was coordinating having Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, make a presentation to Pruitt touching on the red team-blue team idea.
“I expect generally that the objective is to discuss the opportunity to examine emissions baselines and economic analyses of climate change in the context of a red-team/blue-team exercise,” Cass asked Pruitt’s aides. “Is that right?”
“We were thinking this meeting could be purely informative in nature, and not necessarily in the context of a specific EPA exercise,” responded Elizabeth “Tate” Bennett, who is currently associate administrator of the Office of Public Engagement and Environmental Education.
Bennett may have hesitated because one month earlier, White House chief of staff John Kelly had made it clear to the EPA it should not move forward with the debate.