Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency were privately aghast in early 2017 as their boss, former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, embraced hosting a public debate over the scientific premise of human-caused climate change.
In private emails, top scientists and officials at EPA expressed serious concern that Pruitt’s gambit could set back the cause of combating global warming by legitimizing politically motivated skeptics. Mostly, however, they thought the idea of a red team-blue team debate was a gargantuan waste of time with potential to embarrass the agency.
“I liken it to a bar discussion of the best football team of all time - after 4-5 beers,” Dan Costa, who formerly was the national program director for air, climate and energy at the EPA, wrote on July 25, 2017.
“And one of the more argumentative participants only watches Australian rules football...” Andy Miller, the associate director for climate at the EPA, replied, according to documents uncovered from a FOIA lawsuit by the Government Accountability Project and provided to The Daily Beast.
Ultimately, Pruitt’s climate debate proposition was killed off before it could be launched, nixed by Chief of Staff John Kelly out of concern about blowback. But internal EPA emails from the time period when the idea was being considered illustrate the degree to which the Trump administration left officials within the EPA deeply shaken and fearful of politics overtaking scientific consensus.
Pruitt, at one point, was accused by career officials of having an “agenda” over his decision to try and prevent recipients of EPA grants from serving on the EPA’s Air Science Advisory Committee. When it was reported that the EPA’s internal investigative arm was going to look at the department’s fellowship program, one top official sarcastically emailed: “What a great use of Agency resources—investigate a program with zero funding!”
But nothing ruffled feathers quite as much as the idea of hosting a red team-blue team debate at the EPA to argue the scientific consensus around climate change.
Such an exercise is a straightforward concept that harkens back to high school debate: the red team attacks a topic, the blue team defends it. It’s an approach that has been used by military strategists for decades to plan ahead for battles. Companies have adopted the red team-blue team strategy to figure out sales pitches and competition for a new product, facilities use it to try to analyze building readiness in emergencies, and policymakers use the method to spot holes in their arguments. But Pruitt’s proposal was fundamentally different in one key way: Instead of testing the effectiveness of a strategy or a product, it was testing whether a tried-and-true scientific phenomenon was real.
The idea was first proposed by Steven Koonin, a physicist at New York University, who argued it would “strengthen” climate science in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Pruitt then publicly floated the idea in an interview with Breitbart News in early June of 2017, arguing that it was important for Americans to have a “true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2.”
Inside his department, not everyone saw the merits, noting that the federal government’s Climate Science Special Report functionally performed the type of debate that Pruitt wanted. But it wasn’t outright rejected either.
Costa wrote Miller that his first impression was to actually back the effort, “but only if everyone is playing by the same rules.” There was opportunity, he added, in proving that the skeptics didn’t have the same scientific foundation for their positions as did the believers.
“It’s an interesting discussion, and to me it confirms that he doesn’t really understand what he’s getting into with the science,” Miller wrote on June 12, 2017. “If people think CSPAN is boring, make them watch a bunch of scientists arguing about the level of uncertainty associated with an ensemble of model results for different scenarios. He’s looking at this as though it were evidence presented at a hearing or trial. He can set that up, but it’s not anything the EPA could use as the basis for any decisions.”
“Agreed,” Costa replied. “I’ll light a candle tonight.”
As time went on, concerns seemed to mount. Miller wrote colleagues on June 15 that if the debate was “not handled in an appropriate manner, it could have enormous detrimental impacts on how science is evaluated for the purpose of use in policy development and decisions.” A day later Robert Kavlock, the EPA’s since-retired acting science adviser, would write back to Miller that, “an honest broker would be absolutely essential to avoid a kangaroo court.”
The specific construction of the red team-blue idea was of particular concern to officials. On July 25, 2017, the Washington Examiner reported that the White House and the EPA were tasking the Heartland Institute, a group that has repeatedly questioned climate change and called for replacing the EPA, to help it recruit scientists to staff the skeptic team in the forthcoming climate change debate. Passing the article on to colleagues, Miller wrote, “Good for us to be no closer than the sidelines.”
By late summer 2017, however, scientists outside of the EPA were beginning to speak out. On July 31, the Washington Examiner reported that a group of scientists had asked to speak to Pruitt about the red team-blue team idea. Days later, Costa emailed Miller his hopes that, perhaps, the group could make clear to Pruitt that the “outcome won’t be accepted as scientifically valid.”
“Politically, though, Pruitt would need to have a face-saving out at this point. I don’t think he could simply say he’s changed his mind—that would be seen as caving into the alarmist cabal by those he is channeling,” Costa added.
As Costa predicted, Pruitt wasn’t deterred. He sought to announce the debate that fall but was rebuffed by the White House. It would take a few more months, however, for Kelly to finally kill it.
Contributing reporter: Adam Rawnsley