Opinion

Opinion | John P. Holdren

The perversity of the climate science kangaroo court

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EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is reportedly giving serious consideration to investing the taxpayers’ money in a “red team-blue team” effort to determine whether current scientific understandings about climate change are actually right. The idea is that a “red team” made up of officials from government agencies with responsibilities related to climate would try to poke holes in mainstream climate science, while a similarly constituted “blue team” would have the task of defending the mainstream consensus against this critique. Supposedly, this process would shed new light on what is known and what is not about human influence on the global climate. But the argument that such a process would be helpful is some combination of naive and disingenuous.

All of science works through the continuous application of the skeptical scrutiny of key findings by essentially everybody working in a given field. This happens in part through the peer-review process that findings must survive before being published in a scientific journal. It happens far more widely through the scrutiny of the wider community of experts in any given field once the findings have been published. That scrutiny is intense, not least because scientists make their reputations in substantial part by providing corrections and refinements to the published findings of others. This is the essence of the cumulative and self-correcting nature of the scientific enterprise as a whole.

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Precisely because climate science has policy implications that appear to challenge the status quo in global energy supply, moreover, the degree of professional skeptical scrutiny to which key climate-science findings have been subjected has far exceeded even the already pervasive and rigorous norm. Climate science has been repeatedly “red-teamed,” both by groups of avowed contrarians sponsored by right-wing groups and by the most qualified parts of the world’s scientific community. The right wing’s “red team” efforts have consistently been characterized by brazen cherry-picking, misrepresentation of the findings of others, recycling of long-discredited hypotheses, and invention of new ones destined to be discredited. Almost none of this material has survived peer review to be published in the respectable professional literature.

Of course, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself, which works under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, can be regarded as a “red team-blue team” operation, in which every conclusion must pass muster with a huge team of expert authors and reviewers from a wide variety of disciplines and nations (including from Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers inclined to be skeptical). The IPCC has produced five massive assessments of climate science (in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007, and 2013-14), each more emphatic than the last in its conclusions that human-produced greenhouses gases are changing global climate with ongoing and growing impacts on human well-being.

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Climate-change science has likewise been reviewed regularly by committees of the US National Academy of Sciences, the United Kingdom’s Royal Society, the World Meteorological Organization, the American Geophysical Union, and many other reputable bodies, all of which have contributed to and confirmed the overwhelming consensus of knowledgeable scientists on the five key points that really matter for policy: (1) The Earth’s climate is changing in ways not explainable by the known natural influences; (2) the dominant cause is the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that has resulted from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, and from land-use change; (3) significant harm to humans and ecosystems from these changes is already occurring; (4) the harm will continue to grow for decades because of inertia in the climate system and society’s energy system; and (5) the future harm will be much smaller if the world’s nations take concerted, aggressive evasive action than if they do not.

What, then, could explain the interest in a new “red team-blue team” effort on climate science organized by the federal government? Some proponents may believe, naively, that such a rag-tag process could unearth flaws in mainstream climate science that the rigorous, decades-long scrutiny of the global climate-science community, through multiple layers of formal and informal expert peer review, has somehow missed. But I suspect that most of the advocates of the scheme are disingenuous, aiming to get hand-picked non-experts from federal agencies to dispute the key findings of mainstream climate science and then assert that the verdict of this kangaroo court has equal standing with the findings of the most competent bodies in the national and international scientific communities. The purpose of that, of course, would be to create a sense of continuing uncertainty about the science of climate change, as an underpinning of the Trump administration’s case for not addressing it. Sad.

John P. Holdren is a professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard University and codirector of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. He served as president Barack Obama’s chief science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
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