Got Climate Science Questions, Administrator Pruitt? Ask the US National Academy of Sciences

August 4, 2017 | 2:38 pm
Peter Frumhoff
Former Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist

Scott Pruitt, the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, appears to need some help in understanding the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.

Back in March, for example, he expressed doubt that carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels is a primary driver of climate change, stating “I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Apparently, he hadn’t yet taken the time to read the EPA’s own website, which very clearly stated that “carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change.” (Well, perhaps he had:  EPA political officials subsequently removed this and other climate science content from  the EPA website).

He also seems to have not read the multiple assessments of the US National Academy of Sciences and other scientific organizations that have come to the same conclusion. Or asked for advice from the scientific community to help him understand the rigorous, painstakingly documented, peer-reviewed basis for this robust conclusion.

Reading scientific assessments takes time. They can be a real slog. Scott Pruitt is a busy man. And asking for advice can be hard.

I get it.

But it is important that the EPA Administrator have access to the best available scientific advice, including on climate change, to help inform and guide his leadership of the agency.

In June, Administrator Pruitt called for a review of the findings of climate science, “a true legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2.” He intends to set up a “red-team, blue-team” exercise, in which a team of climate “skeptics” would be the ‘red team’ seeking to poke holes in the current body of climate research defended by a ‘blue team’ group of climate scientists. Administrator Pruitt has expressed interest in having this be televised. Reportedly, political appointees at the EPA are consulting with the Heartland Institute (yep – they are the ones that likened people who accept climate science to the Unabomber) to assemble names of red-team candidates.

Few details have emerged for how this might be structured and into the current void, leading scientists and scientific societies have stepped in: to point out that rigorous peer-review at the core of the scientific enterprise is built on healthy skepticism—that, as scientists, we are always seeking to poke holes in one another’s work and that our current understanding of climate change is based on decades of rigorous challenges to and questioning of core assumptions and findings; to ask Administrator Pruitt to clarify, specifically, what policy-relevant testable hypothesis about climate science he has that he believes peer-reviewed science and scientific assessments have not yet addressed; and to call into question his motives for such an exercise: political theater, intended to sow doubt and perhaps, motivated to undermine the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions.

If Administrator Pruitt, or any other federal official, has questions about climate science – or, for that matter, any other area of policy-relevant science – they already at their disposal have a body to whom they can and should turn for legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective scientific advice.  In 1863, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was established by President Abraham Lincoln. The Academy’s charter commits it to provide scientific advice to the federal government “whenever called upon” by any government agency. Time and again, our nation’s leaders have turned to the NAS for timely, policy-relevant scientific advice.

On climate change, the National Academy of Sciences has produced multiple, rigorous independent assessments of the state of the science, and on the implications of scientific understanding for our nation’s climate and energy choices. And it has produced excellent accessible web-content to address “frequently-asked” questions about climate science.

Administrator Pruitt’s call for a review of the findings of climate science echoes in many respects the climate science review that President George W. Bush sought sixteen years ago. In May 2001, shortly after President Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol, he asked the NAS for “assistance in identifying the areas in the science of climate change where there are the greatest certainties and uncertainties” and to do so on a rapid timeline.

In consultation with the Bush Administration, the NAS identified fourteen specific policy-relevant questions about climate science to address. It convened through the National Research Council (NRC, the research arm of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine) a panel of eleven scientists with legitimate and diverse expertise and perspective. Notably, the panel included prominent climate skeptic Richard Lindzen of MIT.

Their report, produced in one month, affirmed that that the Earth was warming due to human activities and that further warming posed significant risks:

“Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century.”

“Global warming could well have serious adverse societal and ecological impacts by the end of this century, especially if globally-averaged temperature increases approach the upper end of the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC projections.”

The NRC’s panel’s findings succinctly reflected the state of scientific understanding in 2001. Of course, the science of climate change has advanced considerably in the past sixteen years.

It can be hard to keep up.

Administrator Pruitt, and other federal officials, certainly have a right to have any questions they may have about the science answered. But if they are serious about doing so through legitimate, objective, peer-reviewed process, they must turn to the US National Academy of Sciences.

Anything less will be rightly seen as an illegitimate, politicized effort to undermine the process by which scientific knowledge informs decision-making.