Like a magician who distracts the audience to accomplish his trick, Scott Pruitt has decided to stage an exercise pitting the well-established science of climate change against a grab bag of fringe theories. It will be marketed by the Trump administration as an effort in the best traditions of scientific inquiry, but the real goal will be to confuse the public and distract from the serious damage Pruitt is doing to our air, water, and health.
Like Pope Gregory trying Galileo, OJ searching for the real killers, or President Trump looking for 3 million illegal votes, the “Red Team-Blue Team” exercise is a show based on everything but reality.
Ignoring how science works
Pruitt claims he simply wants to test current climate science, but he ignores one of the most fundamental facts about how science works: Our current knowledge about the way pollution is causing dangerous changes to our climate comes from decades of testing, researching, and challenging by thousands of scientists worldwide.
Climate science is not speculation devised by a clever professor alone in his study – it’s based on satellite images, ice core samples, temperatures records, sea level measurements, and millions of other data points across the globe since long before we put a man on the moon. The conclusions have been challenged and refined and challenged and refined countless times.
The only result of pretending to now “test” it in one highly publicized event will be to confuse the public that the long and rigorous scientific process is somehow on equal footing with the dubious theories that will be arrayed against it. And like the reality shows from which President Trump emerged, there will be far more manipulation behind the scenes than the audience knows.
Is it okay to question the science?
If you’re thinking – “okay, if the science is so strong, what’s the harm?” – imagine the FDA holding a public trial of whether smoking causes lung cancer. Then consider that the tobacco companies will be allowed to appoint one of the teams and present clever sounding theories that protect their business model. The result would be that anyone knowledgeable on the subject would see the strength of the real medical science, but for most non-experts the arguments would be enough to sow confusion.
It’s even worse in the case of climate change. Because the subject is less well known in the public mind than the health impacts of smoking ― and it’s caught up in our partisan divisions ― there’s an even greater likelihood for confusion. Pruitt is a clever man and will certainly pick “reasonable” sounding advocates for his position – to build excuses for not acting. And that doubt will be a huge victory for the polluting industries that have enabled his political career.
So is there nothing to debate about climate science? Is every detail settled? No, of course not. Scientists around the world continue to explore the details and impact of climate change, as well as the best possible solutions. What year will the earth cross the 1.5 degrees centigrade temperature threshold? What is the exact amount of global sea level rise to be expected by 2100 as the result of polar ice sheet melting? Real scientific conferences go on all the time. But just as public health experts don’t gather to explore whether or not germs cause diseases, climate scientists are focused on the real questions in their field.
How would a real scientific inquiry look?
So what would a legitimate climate science exercise look like?
1. It would not be organized by officials who have a political motivation for seeding doubt, as Mr. Pruitt and President Trump have clearly demonstrated, but by scientific leaders in the field.
2. It would acknowledge data that has been established by the international scientific community, NASA, the National Academies of Science, and every major American Scientific organization – and move on to important open questions.
3. Agencies across the government – the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and others with relevant experts – would be involved. Not just Pruitt’s EPA and their handpicked participants.
4. It would not solicit participation by fringe groups like the Heartland Institute, known for its comparison of climate scientists to the Unabomber. Instead only non-political scientific organizations and individuals would participate.
Treating Mr. Pruitt’s reality show like a legitimate exercise in scientific inquiry could do serious damage. It will set back our effort to solve this problem and create confusion about well-established facts. That increases the likelihood that we’ll leave an even greater burden to our children.