Part 1: Scott Pruitt’s red-team blue-team is anything but teamwork
By Pam Shaouy
With the pace of news these days, sometimes it’s tough to zoom out and see larger trends or patterns. This two-part blog series helps us do that, putting much-needed context around EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s climate comments and plans to debate climate science.
When you think about our earliest human ancestors, you probably don’t think about them using “scientific consensus” to make decisions. Yet in a fundamental way, they did.
They observed which plants were edible and where they grew. Which natural resources could be used to craft tools. And how the stars and planets moved in the sky to lengthen or shorten daylight. By observing the natural environment and acting on the conclusions they drew from their observations, humans learned to survive, adapt and thrive.
Today, scientists have a time-proven method for arriving at a scientific consensus. Their scientific papers—their observations, hypotheses, experiments and findings—are scrutinized, replicated and corroborated by many other scientists across different fields. Only after their findings have been through this peer review process are they accepted and published.
When a majority of scientists believe something to be true based on their interpretation of all available scientific evidence, a scientific consensus is reached.
Everything old is new again
Occasionally, a scientific consensus threatens the profits of an industry. In the 1950s, scientific consensus showed the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. At the same time, the tobacco industry’s own research showed the same link.
Rather than admit the health problems, tobacco companies prioritized profits. They hired chemical industry consultants and independent scientists to intentionally twist the science. They created doubt in the public’s mind about the scientific consensus so people would keep buying their product.
In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General warned the public that the scientific evidence about the health hazards of smoking was overwhelming. But tobacco companies continued to sow doubt among the public for decades.
Finally, a landmark ruling in 2006 found overwhelming evidence of the tobacco companies’ conspiracy to defraud the public. The industry was ordered to stop lying to the public, among other mandates.
From the time of scientific consensus, it took over half a century to prove and reveal intentional tobacco industry lies. This debacle delayed social action against smoking for over half a century and undoubtedly cost many people their health and lives.
Lather, rinse and repeat
Today, climate science is similarly under attack—both by industry and government.
Over 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing today’s climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels produces CO2. Human activities—primarily the burning of fossil fuels—are releasing CO2 into the atmosphere at a volume and rate that’s causing the planet to rapidly warm. There is scientific consensus that this is happening.
This information isn’t new. In 1859, it was first noted that CO2 was a greenhouse gas that traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere. In the early 1900s, it was predicted that CO2 released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels could alter Earth’s climate. By the 1930s, there was empirical evidence that this was already happening.
Fossil fuel industry profits have been threatened by this news for decades. The world’s largest oil and gas company, ExxonMobil, conducted its own extensive scientific research. Internally, it arrived at the same conclusion—the burning of fossil fuels was warming the planet. And, it could result in catastrophe if CO2 emissions weren’t reduced soon.
ExxonMobil knew this as early as 1977. But, like the tobacco industry, the company embarked upon a campaign of climate misinformation to sow doubt in the public’s mind. In fact, the tobacco and fossil fuel industries used the same consultants to develop the most effective strategies to sway public opinion.
Toward the end of the 1990s, fossil fuel campaign donations were fairly evenly split between Republican and Democratic candidates. But as more industry money flowed to Republicans, it coincided with climate change becoming an increasingly partisan issue.
Today, 91% of fossil fuel industry donations go to Republicans and 9% to Democrats. And perhaps not coincidentally, being anti-climate action has become a common identifying plank of the Republican Party.
Enter Scott Pruitt, the White House’s new Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since February 2017. Pruitt is a notorious climate skeptic known for his strong anti-regulation, pro-oil and gas platform. His campaigns have been substantially funded by the fossil fuel industry.
Pruitt doesn’t deny the climate is changing or that humans contribute to it in some way. But he disagrees that human-caused CO2 emissions are the main driver of climate change, and that it is an existential threat. In a 2016 interview with National Review, Pruitt falsely claimed, “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
In his previous position as Oklahoma Attorney General, he sued the EPA—the agency he now leads—14 times. Pruitt challenged environmental regulations that keep our air, water and land clean and safe—often from CO2 emissions. He lost every lawsuit.
But as head of the EPA, he’s quickly rolled back more than 30 Obama-era environmental regulations. With these regulations gone, it’s easier for the fossil fuel industry to pollute our environment through mining, drilling and CO2 emissions. Along with the White House, the EPA erased climate change information from its website. The website was an incredible resource on climate science, featuring 20 years of carefully vetted data.
Pruitt also dismantled the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, a steering committee for the agency’s research. He canceled all committee meetings scheduled for late summer and fall. And he dismissed dozens of other scientists. Former employees describe Pruitt as politicizing the agency and waging a war on science.
Pruitt disagrees with the thousands of scientists and scientific institutions around the world who agree that people are causing climate change through CO2 emissions created primarily through the burning of fossil fuels. He states, “I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”
Continue reading in part 2 of this series, which takes a deep dive into Pruitt’s proposed red-team blue-team debate of climate science.