EPA Chief Pruitt’s 'Red Team' on Climate Science Is an Eight-Year-Old Talking Point Pushed by Heartland Institute

Scott Pruitt

Like many of his Trump administration colleagues, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt has never really been down with the whole climate science thing.

Pruitt has denied that carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning is the key driver of climate change, instead hedging his bets with an assortment of ifs, buts, and maybes.

Now, Pruitt is suggesting that what the American public really needs is more debate, more false equivalence, and more delay on policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview on a Breitbart online radio segment, Pruitt has backed the idea of pitting climate science deniers up against actual climate scientists in what he called a “Red Team, Blue Team” debate.

Citing an idea from a column in the Wall Street Journal, Pruitt suggested “those scientists get into a room and ask, ‘What do we know? What don’t we know? What risk does it pose to health in the United States and the world, with respect to this issue of CO2?’”

According to Pruitt, this would be a “true, legitimate, peer reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2” — a discussion “the American people deserve.”

On the face of it, the suggestion might seem reasonable.  What’s wrong with a good old debate, right?

Before we look at the people who have been pushing this “red team” idea, it’s worth clarifying something.

The Real Red Team

A version of this “red team” process already exists, and it’s called scientific peer review. 

Scientists do research, write-up their findings, and submit them to a journal. The journal sends the paper to other qualified scientists who critique the work, sometimes mercilessly. That work may get published; at which point other scientists can build on the findings or find ways to reject them.

This is partly why, after the publication of tens of thousands of research papers going back a century or more, science academies and institutions around the world agree that global warming is real, is caused by humans, and is a serious problem.

So in the blue corner, you have all the credible and reasonable science, and in the red corner, you have something else.

In reality, the climate science denial industry has been touting itself as a viable “red team” for more than a decade. 

Media Matters for America (MMFA), a think tank that monitors media outlets for “conservative misinformation,” has traced some of the history of the “red team” talking point back to a 2014 submission to the EPA from Professor John Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

After the submission, Christy continued to promote the idea in congressional testimony and to receptive media, says MMFA.

Heartland Institute as the Red Team

But before all this, one of America’s most notorious groups pushing climate science denial — the Heartland Institute — was touting the “red team” concept.

Since 2009, Heartland has been paying contrarian scientists to produce a report that specifically aims to undermine the scientific assessments produced by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Heartland calls its reports the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC). Others call them cherry-picked, selective pseudo-science.

In Heartland’s first NIPCC report in 2009, the group framed their critique as an innocent and disinterested “Team B.”

It is a time-honored tradition in science to set up a ‘Team B’ which examines the same original evidence but may reach a different conclusion,” the preface mused.

In a follow-up 2011 “interim report,” Heartland again touted its credentials as a “Team B,” explaining its formative roots at a meeting in Milan in 2003 organized by Fred Singer and his Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP).

But in the following 2013 report — Climate Change Reconsidered II — the language had been tweaked. What was “Team B” was now a “Red Team.”


Heartland's 2013 NIPCC report used the term “red team.”

Long-serving Heartland scientist and NIPCC coordinator, the late Australian Dr. Bob Carter, wrote about the “red team” in a September 2013 column for the Rupert Murdoch–owned tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, based in Sydney.

Carter wrote: “In classic Green Team: Red Team tactical management style, the NIPCC has the role of providing an alternative Red Team view of the science of global warming, acting as a sort of 'defense counsel' to verify and counter the arguments mounted for climate alarm by the IPCC's Green Team prosecution.”

China Crisis

Later that year, Carter was in California to present the NIPCC report to the Ayn Rand Institute, alongside Singer and Heartland president Joe Bast.

Bast outlined how his institute had identified climate change in the early 90s as “the mother of all environmental scare stories” but then suggested the science was actually a sinister cover for something else entirely.

Groups on the left understand if we can control energy, you can control human beings, and that’s what it was all about,” claimed Bast.

Environmentalists were trying to “shut down the engines of the world,” Bast said, without saying why they might want to do any of those things.

This was a search for a scientific justification for a political agenda,” Bast added. “The whole idea is to control energy.” (As a group that tirelessly defends the use of fossil fuels while attacking renewable energy, you have to wonder if it’s actually Heartland that wants to “control energy.”)

We concluded we have to go after the science,” he said, adding Heartland’s “products and programs” would look to reach “all the way down to elementary school classrooms.” In recent weeks, Heartland has been mailing a condensed version of its NIPCC report to tens of thousands of school teachers across the country.

Bast told the room that two NIPCC reports had been “peer reviewed by the authors themselves,” which, by the way, is not how peer review works.

Bast said the NIPCC report had been “translated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences” while his communications director, Jim Lakely, held the Chinese version aloft.

After a round of applause, Bast said he hoped “other academies of science,” including Australia, would follow suit, implying the Chinese Academy of Sciences had somehow endorsed the report.

At the time of the Chinese version being released, Bast had issued a press release claiming a “historic moment” for global warming science. He sent Heartland staff, including Carter, to Beijing for a press opportunity.

But as DeSmog reported, the CAS issued a statement saying:  “The claim of the Heartland Institute about CAS’ endorsement of its report is completely false.”

Bast was forced to apologize and had to pull the publication from his website and withdraw the original press release. But once Carter was out of China, Bast re-issued the press release and rejected the criticisms of the CAS.

Oddly, none of this detail made its way into Bast’s opening remarks.

Fake Discussion

Heartland, remember, once ran a billboard campaign with a picture of terrorist Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski with the message: “I still believe in Global warming. Do You.”

That ill-fated 2012 ad campaign saw many of Heartland’s corporate backers pull their funding. But as DeSmog has shown, one of Heartland’s most generous backers is the family foundation of hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer — also a major financial backer of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as well as several of the conservative groups the Trump administration has drawn on to fill positions.

Not forgetting too, that Mercer is a major investor in Breitbart, which all brings us neatly back to Scott Pruitt.

The American people need to have that type of honest discussion and that’s something that we hope to provide as part of our leadership,” Pruitt told the Breitbart radio segment.

No. 

The people who desperately need that fake “honest discussion” are the fossil fuel interests and conservative ideologues desperate to retain power and influence in a world that so desperately needs a cleaner democracy and cleaner energy.

Main image: Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Credit: Gage SkidmoreCC BY-SA 2.0