Like a television executive peddling reality shows, 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 is to confuse the public and distract from the serious damage Pruitt is doing to our air, water and health.
Here’s the first red flag for anyone who cares about science: A legitimate climate exercise would be organized by scientific leaders in the field – rather than by officials with a political motivation for seeding doubt.
That’s like Pope Gregory trying Galileo Galilei back in 1633, OJ searching for the real killers, or Trump looking for 3 million illegal votes. Pruitt’s “Red Team-Blue Team” exercise – for which his agency is now soliciting participants – is a show based on everything but reality.
Science: grueling and unglamorous work
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 drawn from such data have been challenged and refined countless times by the international scientific community. That includes NASA, the National Academies of Sciences and every globally recognized scientific organization.
A new and trust-worthy science inquiry, in other words, would move on to important, still-open questions and not waste everybody’s time with what’s already known.
Cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer, after all?
Now you’re thinking, “Okay, if the science is so strong, what’s the harm?”
But just imagine the Federal Drug Administration suddenly holding a public trial to determine whether smoking actually causes lung cancer.
Then consider the FDA letting tobacco companies appoint a team that presents clever-sounding theories “proving” that smoking isn’t so dangerous, after all – just to protect their business. All that would do is sow confusion among non-experts.
It’s even worse in the case of climate change, because the details are less well-known by the general public and the issue is caught up in our partisan divisions.
Beware of “alternative facts”
Pruitt is a clever man and will pick “reasonably-sounding” advocates for his position to build excuses for inaction. Growing doubt about whether climate change is real would be a huge victory for the polluting industries that enabled Pruitt’s political career.
A real science inquiry would not solicit participation by fringe groups such as the Heartland Institute, known for comparing climate scientists with the Unabomber. It would hear from a range government agencies with deep climate expertise, such as the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA – and, of course, experts at Pruitt’s own agency.
2 or 4 degrees? Questions remain.
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 global decisions evolve and emissions rise or fall.
What year will Earth cross the 1.5-degree centigrade temperature threshold? Exactly what level of global sea rise should we expect by 2100?
Just as public health experts don’t gather to explore whether or not viruses cause disease, climate scientists today are focused on the real questions in their field.
Treating Pruitt’s reality TV show like a legitimate exercise in scientific inquiry would accomplish just two things: Setting back our effort to solve the largest environmental crisis facing us, and create baseless confusion.