Climate-change deniers go to great lengths to convince the public that there’s a legitimate scientific debate about whether humans are the main cause of global warming, but the Trump administration took this pathology to another level last week: Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, plans to form a group to question the merits of climate science. Quoting a senior administration official, E&E News reported that the EPA group “will use ‘red team, blue team’ exercises to conduct an ‘at-length evaluation of U.S. climate science.’” Activists and journalists expressed the requisite alarm.
This new group is just the latest tactical move in what many, including the New York Times’ editorial board, have dubbed the Trump administration’s “war on science.” Pruitt denies the scientific fact that carbon emissions drive global warming. He removed accurate scientific information about climate change from the EPA’s website. He fired almost everyone who currently serves on the Board of Scientific Counselors, which ensures the integrity of the agency’s main science division, and may fill those vacancies with representatives from polluting industries. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Texas Senator Lamar Smith has proposed two bills: one to overhaul the makeup of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), which evaluates the science behind agency regulations; and another to restrict what kind of science the EPA can use to create regulations.
Pruitt and his allies clearly want to undermine basic climate science at the EPA, but it’s important to understand why. It’s not simply that Pruitt wants to mold the agency in his image. It’s because the best available science bolsters the Obama-era policies he wants to repeal, and it will likely show that Pruitt’s own policies would endanger the public—even causing preventable deaths due to pollution and higher temperatures. Pruitt and his allies want to avoid such politically damaging scientific conclusions, so they’re trying to cripple the science itself.
To understand why Pruitt is so eager to change scientific review at the EPA, look at the Waters of the United States Rule. This week, Pruitt moved forward with his long-expected move to repeal the Obama-era regulation, which dramatically expanded Clean Water Act protections for small bodies of water. It’s a controversial rule—more so, perhaps, than any environmental regulation of Barack Obama’s presidency.
But Pruitt faces a rhetorical obstacle. In 2014, the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board released a 103-page review of the science behind the rule, and determined that it was sound: Obama and his allies were scientifically correct when they argued that protecting these waters would have a real impact on protecting human health. Specifically, the report confirmed that the small streams and wetlands WOTUS sought to protect “exert strong influence on the physical, biological, and chemical integrity of downstream waters.” In other words, reducing pollution from small bodies of water has tangible impacts on the quality of drinking water from larger, connected bodies.
Amanda Rodewald, a Cornell University ornithology professor who led the scientific review of the WOTUS science, acknowledged that the report was likely important to the Obama administration when selling the public on the rule. “It was needed especially because the rule was so controversial. It was important for this independent group of scientists to have it vetted and taken seriously,” she said. “The report was needed to show that this wasn’t just some political act. This was actually a regulation based in the science.”
But Rodewald also asserted that her SAB was fiercely independent of the administration, and noted that their review only endorsed the science behind the policy, not the policy itself. “We had a diverse panel of experts—hydrology, geomorphology, aquatic ecology, fishery people, people from industry and consulting,” she said. “There was extended discussion, a lot of testimony from different experts, a lot of groups interested... There were public comments as well, and then we were able to consider all of those in our discussion.” The review took about a year and a half, she said.
Still, congressional Republicans accused the SAB of being politicized, arguing that because some scientists on the board had received grants from the EPA, they were inherently conflicted and biased in favor of the administration. At the same time, Republicans argued that industry representatives who would be directly impacted by EPA regulations had no conflict; and that they deserved more representation on the SAB.
It’s no coincidence that conservatives are pushing changes to the SAB just as Pruitt moves to repeal WOTUS and other Obama-era environmental regulations that were validated by the EPA’s independent scientific experts. Because as Pruitt tries to replace Obama’s rules with weaker ones, he will want that same scientific validation to justify his decisions—and that wouldn’t be possible without stacking the advisory boards in his (and polluters’) favor.
The Science Advisory Board will have little practical impact on whether Pruitt’s weaker environmental rules move forward. But it will provide rhetorical support, so that Pruitt can claim his decisions are based on sound science. That’s what makes these changes so pernicious: They’re meant to influence public opinion, providing cover for Pruitt’s damaging decisions.
That is also partially the goal of Pruitt’s “red team/blue team” plan for debating climate science within the EPA: to get the public on his side, even his side traffics in falsehoods. As the Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni notes, any challenge to climate science from outside the normal peer-review process would be unlikely to sway judges or scientists on the issue. But it could sway the public, which in turn can sway politicians. Plus, by creating this debate format within the government, Pruitt further legitimizes the idea that there’s a scientific dispute over carbon’s role in global warming, when in fact there’s not.
Some believe that the “red team/blue team” plan has a practical policy goal. “The real purpose of Pruitt’s gambit is to lay the groundwork for EPA to overturn the finding it made in 2009 that greenhouse gases endanger our health and safety,” Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. Undoing that finding is a huge priority for the far-right, because it would ensure that the U.S. has no legal obligation to do anything about climate change. But so far, most reporting indicates that that’s not the reason for Pruitt’s climate debate squad.
Rather, Pruitt is creating a smokescreen. He wants to form seemingly legitimate groups to validate his science denial, so he can assure the public his environment policies are sound and embolden science-denying politicians to follow suit.