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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Will the EPA handle climate change honestly? Have some doubt.

By Phil Plait

Let's talk for a moment about doubt.

Science is, in many ways, all about doubt. If you have an idea that you think explains some phenomenon, it's important to have some healthy doubt about it. Does it explain everything you see? Are you missing some key point? Is it possible you have some bias, some prejudices, that are causing you to prefer your idea over others?

By doubting your findings you make them stronger. That's how science approaches truth.

But there's a key factor here: The doubt has to be honest. Without agenda, without bias, without deception.

It is here that the current political party in power of the United States government parts with science. The entire methodology of the GOP over the past two decades has been to cast doubt on scientific results they disagree with ideologically, but their doubt is in no way honest. It is with agenda, with bias, and very much deceptive.

This is nowhere more obvious than their attacks on the science of climatology. To be clear: The planet is heating up. Rapidly. Faster than it has in recorded history, faster than it has in at least 11,000 years. The basic science on this is very well understood, and has been for more than a century. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere allows the Sun to warm the Earth, but doesn't allow all that heat to escape back into space. The balance is upset, and the planet warms.

Where is that CO2 coming from? Us. Humans. Mostly by burning fossil fuels, we dump 40 billion tons of it into the air every year, far more than any other natural source by a huge factor. Nothing else comes close. When you look at the reasons temperatures are climbing up, the only explanation is human influence.

These are the facts scientists have established over decades of investigation. They did not find them overnight, and initially the field was filled with disagreement over the results, the methods, the measurements. But honest doubt and scientific skepticism honed the ideas, and now we have an excellent grasp on how much the planet is warming, what many of the effects are, and what's causing it.

There is a very strong scientific consensus on it as well, not won by ideology or agenda or bias, but by evidence.

consensus project

[It's pretty much this simple: Global warming is real, and our fault. Credit: The Consensus Project]

It is on this evidence that the GOP has turned their sights. And they have never been more focused, or more able to do damage. They have been sowing the seeds of doubt for decades, and now they are reaping.

Scott Pruitt is a climate change denier. He is also the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), having been nominated by Donald Trump and approved by the GOP-controlled Senate. During that confirmation hearing he made some soft statements downplaying his denial, but in the end his stance was clear (in fact, in March 2017 he flatly stated that carbon dioxide is not a "primary contributor" to global warming).

He also said during the hearing that his personal opinion on climate change was "immaterial" to being the EPA administrator*. That's blatantly false. My evidence?

Last week, Pruitt announced an initiative to attack climate science. This will come in the form of a "red team/blue team" exercise, a standard practice used by the military to evaluate methods and strategy and look for weaknesses. Two teams are assembled, essentially one pro (blue) and one con (red), and the cons look for weaknesses in the pros' strategy.

This sounds superficially like a good idea. And, if this effort were done to evaluate a political decision about policy, for example, or examine a tactic in dealing with a foreign power, I'd be all for it.

But it's not. There is no need for an exercise like this for science, because we already have a similar method to evaluate science. It's science itself.

That is why I think this new initiative is such a sham. Mark my words: It will in no way deliver anything new to the field of climatology scientifically. It will instead just be used to elevate a handful of climate science denial talking points in the public's mind. Plus, this has been the modus operandi of the GOP congresspeople whenever they hold a hearing on climate, from Rep. Lamar Smith to Senator Ted Cruz: An honest approach to the science is never used. It's never even considered. Instead, they stack the panel with deniers who generally either use outdated, disproven arguments or amplify some small amount of doubt in the real science to make an apparent canyon out of a crack.

Not-so-incidentally, this announcement from Pruitt comes on the heels of his suspending the work of the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors, and accusations based on email evidence that EPA officials pressured a scientist on that board to influence her congressional testimony. These are very serious attack on EPA science from the administration itself.

I expect we'll see precisely the same thing with the "red team." I can guess with some confidence a few of the names who will be on that side. One need only look up who has testified before Congress in the recent past. I think of more interest will be who they pick for the blue team. Will it be strong defenders of climate science, people like Michael E. Mann, Gavin Schmidt, Katharine Hayhoe, Zeke Hausfather?

We'll see. By coincidence, I found this short video by climatologist Michael E. Mann describing very nearly this exact thing:

Michael E. Mann: There's a big asymmetry in the public conversation. Scientists live by a covenant to be truthful, to be...

Posted by More Than Scientists on Saturday, July 1, 2017

So do not believe for one second that this is a "good faith" effort to improve the science. Given long history and copious evidence, the conclusion to draw here is that the reasoning behind this exercise is to cast doubt where it is not deserved or needed. And given both Pruitt's record as well as the majority of GOP politicians in power today, this doubt will be anything but honest.

Far more material to his position is his deep entanglement in fossil fuel interests, as well as the nearly $350,000 he has received from the oil and gas industry since 2002.