By Dino Grandoni
July 4, 2017 - Ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, we were treated to some early fireworks when it was revealed that the Trump administration was indeed taking seriously a proposal to start a formal government-wide effort to challenge the long-standing scientific consensus on climate change.
While “there are no formal plans within the administration to do anything about it at this time,” a senior administration official said according to The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin, Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt has expressed interest in the idea of formally challenging the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is involved in the effort too, two officials said. E&E News first reported the news on Friday.
Such an effort, if it comes to fruition, would in effect seek to undo a scientific project between multiple agencies (EPA, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration...) across multiple presidencies (Barack Obama’s, Bill Clinton’s, even George W. Bush’s...) that has established and strengthened the link between the rise in both global temperatures and the emissions of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity.
It would also raise the question: What is the point of such an exercise?
That science largely took place within the traditional peer review process, in which scientists submit their work for evaluation by other researchers in the same field. An academic journal will only publish a paper if the work is up to snuff in the eyes of those peers.
As Pruitt and Perry would have it, climate science would instead be subject to new scrutiny in what’s called a “red team-blue team” exercise. Born out of military analysis and spelled out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Steve Koonin, a former undersecretary of energy for science in the Obama administration, such an exercise would have a “red team” write a critique of the scientific consensus with a “blue team” writing a rebuttal to that critique. That back-and-forth commentary, all taking place in public view, would then be evaluated and written up by a commission.
But it’s unlikely the result of such an exercise would sway many within the scientific establishment, both here and abroad, who are accustom to seeing science done through the peer review process.
It also seems unlikely a “red team-blue team” approach would have standing in the legal system. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases from automobiles if the agency determined such planet-warming emissions were a danger to human health. Two years later, with Obama in office, the EPA did just that by issuing a formal “endangerment finding,” which created the basis for that administration’s regulation of greenhouse gases.
Undoing that endangerment finding requires going through a rigorous rescission process, which would take time and be subject to legal challenges in court. At its face, the “red team-blue team” exercise would do little to contribute to any effort to the legal dismantling of the endangerment finding, a Holy Grail of some GOP politicians and activists in that doing so would force future presidential administrations to start over in creating a legal basis for regulating greenhouse gases.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, praised the idea:
Excellent idea: @EPAScottPruitt formal red team/blue team review to ensure climate policy is based on actual science & data, not politics.
Indeed, early reporting indicates that the back-and-forth critique may not take aim at the endangerment finding. Dennis and Eilperin report that two sources with knowledge of the “red team-blue team” effort “said its purpose was not explicitly to help target the agency’s 2009 finding,” though “that idea is still under discussion among administration officials.”
So what is the point of this potential taxpayer-funded effort, should it happen, if not to change the minds of judges or scientists?
It may be to sway the rest of us.
Polling shows that those like Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general dismissed the scientific consensus behind climate change, are currently losing the debate over the issue with the U.S. public. The portion of U.S. adults who believe global warming is cause by human activities jumped to 68 percent from 55 percent over the past two years, according to Gallup. The portion of the population who say they worry a great deal about global warming went to 45 percent in 2017 from 32 percent in 2015.
One of the virtues of the “red team-blue team” approach, according to Koonin, the former Energy Department official who wrote about it in the Wall Street Journal, is the public display it would make.
“The process would unfold in full public view,” Koonin wrote. The approach would, he said, create a “traceable public record that would allow the public and decision-makers a better understanding of certainties and uncertainties.”
Pruitt has proven to be one of the more media-savvy members of Trump’s Cabinet. He advocated on television for the United States to withdraw from the Paris climate accord while those members of the Trump administration who privately pushed the president to stay in the agreement did not take to the airwaves to advance their position with the public. Ultimately, Pruitt won out with his TV-obsessed boss.
Pruitt seems to see the value in a publicizing the climate change debate as well.
When discussing Koonin’s op-ed on a Breitbart News radio program in June, Pruitt said: “What the American people deserve is a true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2.”
-- The New York Times’ Coral Davenport has a tally on just how effective Trump’s EPA has been at undoing the previous administration’s legacy: “Scott Pruitt has moved to undo, delay or otherwise block more than 30 environmental rules.”
By comparison: Other Trump Cabinet heads seemed far less sure of themselves in taking the helm of their respective departments or agencies.
-- On Thursday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., introduced a bill that would prevent the closure of any regional EPA office.
The context: The regional EPA office in her home state has been among the more vocal federal bureaus pushing back against the Trump administration. “Employees at the agency’s regional office in Chicago have participated in nearly a half-dozen public protests over the agency’s budget and administration policy decisions, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement,” The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Emma Brown reported on Sunday.
What the EPA says: Last month, Pruitt used a congressional hearing to shoot down a rumor that the EPA will close its regional Chicago office, calling the notion “pure legend.”
-- The science division of White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is now empty after the three remaining Obama-administration staffers left last week. Under the previous administration, the science division had nine employees, CBS News reported.
-- Environmental groups, led by Earthjustice, are threatening to sue the Trump administration over its move to take Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly population off the endangered-species list.
“With grizzly deaths spiking, now is not the time to declare the great bear recovered and federal protections unnecessary,” Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso said in a statement.
The Trump administration made the decision to remove the bears from the endangered species list last month. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called it “one of America’s great conservation successes.”
After four decades, the bear population had improved to about 700 bears in the park, from just 136 when protections were first established.
The groups, including the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club, filed the formal notice with the Fish and Wildlife Service warning they would file a lawsuit in 60 days if the administration does not reverse its decision.
-- The U.S. government has warned American businesses about hacking threats to nuclear and energy sectors, Reuters reported. The threats use “phishing” emails to hack into the businesses’ networks, according to Reuters, citing a report from the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Energy firms have been on high alert regarding potential hacks following cyber attacks that led to power cuts in Ukraine in the last two years.