I have been worried about how the Environmental Protection Agency would be run ever since President Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, to oversee it. The past few months have confirmed my fears. The agency created by a Republican president 47 years ago to protect the environment and public health may end up doing neither under Pruitt’s direction.
As a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush to run the agency, I can hardly be written off as part of the liberal resistance to the new administration. But the evidence is abundant of the dangerous political turn of an agency that is supposed to be guided by science.
The EPA’s recent attack on a reporter for The Associated Press and the installation of a political appointee to ferret out grants containing “the double C-word” are only the latest manifestations of my fears, which mounted with Pruitt’s swift and legally questionable repeals of EPA regulations – actions that pose real and lasting threats to the nation’s land, air, water and public health.
All of that is bad enough. But Pruitt recently unveiled a plan that amounts to a slow-rolling catastrophe in the making: the creation of an antagonistic “red team” of dissenting scientists to challenge the conclusions reached by thousands of scientists over decades of research on climate change. It will serve only to confuse the public and sets a deeply troubling precedent for policy-making at the EPA.
The red-team approach makes sense in the military and in consumer and technology companies, where assumptions about enemy strategy or a competitor’s plans are rooted in unknowable human choices. But the basic physics of the climate are well understood. Burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. There is no debate about that. The link is as certain as the link between smoking and cancer.
A broad consensus of scientists also warn of the influence of the warming climate on extreme weather events. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the enormous wildfires in the Western United States and widespread flooding from monsoons in Southeast Asia are potent reminders of the cost of ignoring climate science.
As a Republican like Pruitt, I too embrace the promise of the free market and worry about the perils of overregulation. But decisions must be based on reliable science. The red team begins with his politically preferred conclusion that climate change isn’t a problem, and it will seek evidence to justify that position. That’s the opposite of how science works. True science follows the evidence. The critical tests of peer review and replication ensure that the consensus is sound. Government bases policy on those results. This applies to liberals and conservatives alike.
There are two sides, at least, to most political questions, and a politician’s impulse may be to believe that the same holds true for science. Certainly, there are disputes in science. But on the question of climate change, the divide is stark. On one side is the overwhelming consensus of thousands of scientists at universities, research centers and the government who publish in peer-reviewed literature, are cited regularly by fellow scientists and are certain that humans are contributing to climate change.
On the other side is a tiny minority of contrarians who publish very little by comparison, are rarely cited in the scientific literature and are often funded by fossil fuel interests, and whose books are published, most often, by special interest groups. That Pruitt seeks to use the power of the EPA to elevate those who have already lost the argument is shameful, and the only outcome will be that the public will know less about the science of climate change than before.
The red-team idea is a waste of the government’s time, energy and resources, and a slap in the face to fiscal responsibility and responsible governance. Sending scientists on a wild-goose chase so that Pruitt, Rick Perry, the energy secretary, who has endorsed this approach, and President Trump can avoid acknowledging and acting on the reality of climate change is simply unjustifiable. And truly, it ignores and distracts from the real imperative: developing solutions that create good jobs, grow our economy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change.
Policy should always be rooted in unbiased science. The EPA is too important to treat like a reality TV show. People’s lives and our country’s resources are at stake. Pruitt should respect his duty to the agency’s mission, end the red team and call on his agency’s scientists to educate him. No doubt they’re willing and eager to impart the knowledge they’ve dedicated their lives to understanding.
If this project goes forward, it should be treated for what it is: a shameful attempt to confuse the public into accepting the false premise that there is no need to regulate fossil fuels.
Christine Todd Whitman, president of the Whitman Strategy Group, was the EPA administrator from 2001 to 2003 and the governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001.
The New York Times