Scott Pruitt wants to hijack the peer-review process to push bad climate science

The EPA wants to “critique” climate science.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is undertaking a formal initiative to evaluate climate science, according to reporting from E&E News White House reporter Emily Holden. According to Holden, the program will feature a “red team, blue team” approach meant to provide “back-and-forth critique” of climate science.

But actual climate scientists argue that “back-and-forth critique” already exists in climate science: It’s called the peer-review process.

“The system they describe is precisely what scientific peer-review is,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told ThinkProgress via email. “The reality is that the only thing these folks don’t like is the conclusion that the scientific community (that is, the world’s scientists, literally) has arrived at — that climate change is real, human-caused, and a threat.”

It’s possible that the EPA might use the initiative to begin building a case for rescinding the agency’s endangerment finding, which found in 2009 that greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to public health. That finding provides the basis for federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, and has long been a primary target for industry and conservative lawmakers. Bob Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corporation and a significant financial donor to the Trump inauguration, told Holden that Pruitt promised him he would begin reviewing the endangerment finding “within months,” though Pruitt himself has publicly expressed hesitancy with the idea of rolling back the finding.


The endangerment finding built off of more than 100 published scientific studies and considered several peer-reviewed syntheses of climate change research from, among other entities, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the National Academy of Sciences. Legal experts agree that the finding would be incredibly difficult to roll back, with Harvard law professor Jody Freeman telling Vox in February that “there’s almost no chance that would be upheld [in court].”

Still, even if the new climate critique initiative doesn’t succeed in building a case for rolling back the endangerment finding, it will still likely elevate bad climate science at the expense of good climate science.

The scientific consensus on reality and causes of climate change is overwhelming — scientists are about as certain that climate change is primarily man-made as they are that smoking causes an increased risk of lung cancer. By attempting to balance out the mainstream scientific consensus with science that is critical of that viewpoint, Pruitt’s EPA will be engaging in little more than performative false balance.

“They’re looking to use taxpayer funds to run a pro-fossil fuel industry disinformation campaign aimed at confusing the public and policymakers over what is potentially the greatest threat we face as a civilization,” Mann said. “It is frankly unAmerican.”


While “red team” exercises are not unheard of in the world of climate science — the libertarian think tank the Niskanen Center published a rundown of various instances where “red team” strategies have been used to strengthen climate science — scientists worry that Pruitt’s exercise will amount to little more than shaping scientific debate to support a preordained outcome.

“You don’t set up peer review by finding people opposed and people in favor,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress. “What you find are really good scientists that are willing to put in the time to dig in.”

Pruitt, who was a general managing partner of a minor league baseball team before going into politics, does not accept the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change. In March, he told CNBC that carbon is not a primary contributor to global warming, comments that earned him a review from the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Officer to see if he violated EPA internal policies. (Carbon dioxide, in fact, is a primary contributor to climate change, and 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree with that). He has also ordered the dismissal of 47 of the EPA’s scientific advisers, ostensibly to make room for more industry-friendly scientists on the agency’s review boards. And, in March, he rejected a petition to ban a pesticide that EPA’s own scientists linked to brain damage, just weeks after meeting with the CEO of Dow Chemical, which has sold the pesticide since the 1960s.

“Why would anyone think that Pruitt would construct an independent science-based review?” Rosenberg said. “I think that people like Pruitt and [Secretary of Energy Rick] Perry view all of this stuff as political.”