Part 2: Scott Pruitt’s red-team blue-team is anything but teamwork

Scott Pruitt red team blue team climate debate

Part 2: Scott Pruitt’s red-team blue-team is anything but teamwork

By Pam Shaouy

Don’t miss part 1 of this series, which gives background on the history of climate science and Scott Pruitt’s early actions as EPA Administrator.

Alternative reality TV

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is leading a formal Trump administration program to plan a debate about climate change. He wants to recruit government scientists to challenge other scientists about the scientific consensus on climate change. “What the American people deserve, I think, is a true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2,” Pruitt said.

Well, that doesn’t make sense. As discussed in part 1 of this series, we already have rigorously peer-reviewed scientific research. This would simply be a re-litigation of climate science—and it might air on television.

Pruitt proposes a “red-team blue-team” debate. The red team of government scientists would challenge key scientific findings. The blue team would have the opportunity to respond. Red-team blue-team is a tactic used by the military to identify vulnerabilities. The red team “thinks like the enemy.” It simulates an attack on a system—for example, a computer system—to see how the system holds up. The blue team has an opportunity to respond and strengthen any system weaknesses so the system is more resilient in the next simulated attack.

What does any of this have to do with “proving” scientific data? Absolutely nothing. As David Roberts reported for Vox, this type of exercise is a great way to help figure out what to do about a problem. But, he said, “It’s not necessarily suited to determining what’s true, scientifically speaking.”

World Resources Institute climate debate

There is overwhelming scientific consensus on one side of this “debate.” Graphic from the World Resources Institute.

Many scientists have cried foul. The science is settled and the debate over. In fact, a new study asserts that in every contrarian climate science paper, the assumptions, methodologies or analyses are flawed. When corrected, the papers fall in line with scientific consensus.

A red-team blue-team debate with the same number of team members in each team also creates a false equivalency. The red team represents 3% of scientists worldwide—not 50%. Unless the red team has three scientists and the blue team 97 scientists on stage, the optics alone are misleading.

Where do citizens stand?

A recent national survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows what registered voters across party lines currently believe about climate change:

  • 71% think global warming is happening
  • 56% think global warming is caused mostly by human activities
  • 68% think the U.S. should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions
  • 52% think global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress

We’re finally starting to come to public agreement. We know from the tobacco industry scandal that public debate over science can create skepticism in the public’s mind for decades. A televised debate could weaken our public agreement and thwart progress. It offers ample opportunity for false claims to be presented with authority, and for critical scientific information to be cut off with the sound of buzzer as a segment times out.

We must also consider Pruitt’s track record and question if ulterior motives exist. He’s a steadfast climate skeptic who is leading the Trump administration’s agenda to remove environmental protections. Because of the many regulations he abolished, the climate science data he erased, and the scientists and other staff he’s eliminated, the fossil fuel industry is now more free to mine, drill and otherwise increase the CO2 emissions driving climate change. Is Pruitt really suddenly eager to be proven wrong so he can redo everything he so rapidly dismantled?

And who are the government scientists on the red team? Are they respected scientists with peer-reviewed research? Or are they industry lobbyists like the ones the tobacco industry hired for decades to twist the scientific evidence linking cigarette smoking and cancer?

For that matter, is this whole exercise really concerned with finding the truth, or with creating confusion and doubt? Because history has taught us that technique works. If you sow enough doubt about scientific evidence in the public’s mind, you can stall action being taken on an issue for decades. And every minute, hour and day you stall action, financial profits continue to be reaped.

And what better way to sway the maximum amount of people than through a televised event? Especially when your boss is a reality TV star.

Back to basics

As people outside of the scientific community, we might not be able to understand all the scientific data that explains climate change. But we can trust in the scientific method. It’s the same method that enabled us to create all the scientific and technological innovations that make America one of the greatest nations on Earth. That method isn’t suddenly failing.

And we can still do what our ancestors have always done.  We can observe the natural environment: Global temperatures rising. Warming oceans. Shrinking ice sheets. Glacial retreat. Declining Arctic sea ice. Decreased snow cover. Ocean acidification. Sea level rise. And more extreme, catastrophic weather events like back-to-back Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma.

This is all undeniable evidence that we can see, feel, hear and touch. It’s evidence of a rapidly warming planet calling for climate action. But this time, we don’t have half a century to circle back to what scientific consensus already tells us.

Let’s not be fooled by an unnecessary, contrived climate change debate, televised or not. After all, we still need to take our cues from nature to survive, adapt and thrive.

Pam Shaouy
As a child, Pam refused to let her parents cut down a maple tree, even though its roots were causing plumbing problems. Today, she's a semi-retired copy and scriptwriter with deep experience writing about IT solutions that help industries work smarter and more sustainably.