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Even climate deniers seem to think Scott Pruitt is bullshitting

His inquiries into climate science may not be entirely good-faith.

Scott Pruitt
“I just want more better sciencing, is what I’m saying.”
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said that he wants “true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion” of climate change — something that, in his opinion, the US has never had.

He has proposed a “red-team, blue-team” exercise, modeled on military and cybersecurity decision-making, with one team making the case for climate change (its reality and urgency) and one team against. A series of public exchanges between these teams, he said in a recent interview, would be like “peer review happening in real time.”

Anyone with any faith or confidence in American scientific institutions and practices will recognize that this is terrible idea. But here’s the funny thing. They’re not the only ones.

Guess who said this: “EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s proposal for a Red Team-Blue Team exercise is vague, probably would not be effective, and is unlikely to come about.”

That’s Joseph Bast, CEO of the Heartland Institute, a think tank specializing in climate denial, recording his impressions in a leaked email to staff after discussing the red-team idea with Pruitt.

Bast and the fellow deniers in his circle would very much like a public debate of climate science — they are nothing if not true believers. But if there is to be one, Bast said, it will likely come from some other agency “with more interest than Pruitt has shown in the scientific debate and more likely to stick around to see the results.”

Ouch.

The question before us, then, is this: just how much of a party hack do you have to be for the Heartland guy to see that you’re bullshitting?

That is the subject I would like to explore with you here today.

heartland billboard
A Heartland-sponsored billboard from 2012 comparing people who believe in man-made climate change to the Unabomber.
Heartland

Pruitt has strong but vague reservations about EPA’s climate science

In 2007’s Mass v. EPA, the Supreme Court found that carbon dioxide is eligible for classification as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That means that, if CO2 is found to be a threat to public health, EPA has a legal obligation to regulate it.

In 2008 and 2009, the agency conducted an exhaustive examination of the question. It drew on hundreds of scientists and experts to review the literature and took hundreds of thousands of public comments. Its responses to those comments run 11 volumes, more than 500 pages.

In its 2009 Endangerment Finding, the agency concluded, along with every reputable scientific organization that has ever investigated the question, that yes, CO2 is a danger to humans. The technical support document EPA released alongside the report is just shy of 200 pages, devoted entirely to documenting technical and scientific claims, linking to more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Scott Pruitt, meanwhile, is an Oklahoma lawyer.

Nonetheless, in an interview with Time this week, he cast doubt on his own agency’s finding. "Did this agency engage in a robust, meaningful discussion with respect to the endangerment that CO2 poses to this country?" Pruitt asked, rhetorically. "I think by any definition of that process they didn't."

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 28: US President Donald Trump makes remarks prior to signing an Energy Independence Executive Order at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Headquarters on March 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. The order reverses the Obama-era clim
Just a buncha guys looking for a robust, meaningful discussion.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

He did not elaborate, or offer any details on what a better process might look like. Nor did he say exactly how many volumes of comments, responses, and scientific studies it would take to meet his definition of “robust, meaningful discussion.”

A cynic might suspect that he’s just BSing. And Bast’s reaction after talking to him more or less confirms it.

When Heartland dismisses you as unserious ... well, to fully appreciate that, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on the in the world of climate denial these days.

How climate denialists plan to win

Along with being one of the last, stalwart defenders of alcohol and tobacco, Heartland has carried the sputtering torch of climate denial through the long, dark Obama years. Much has changed in the past two decades, in politics and in science, but for the most part, the arguments of the hardcore climate deniers have not. It was “actually, CO2 is good” in 1998 ... and that’s what it is today. (For a rebuttal of this age-old talking point, see Skeptical Science.)

Heartland’s persistence has now been rewarded: It has a conduit to the White House. It is sending recommendations to Pruitt for his “red team,” scientists and economists who dissent from the broad scientific consensus.

Led by Heartland, a group of around 40 conservative scientists, lawyers, and economists came together for a series of meetings about the red-team process. CEO Joe Bast later sent the notes from the September 28 meeting to his staff. The email leaked — E&E got a copy.

It is fascinating, not only for the dismissive attitude toward Pruitt.

A communications consultant concluded that “The best messages are positive: CO2 increases crop yields, the earth is greening.” Attendees were urged to “stop chasing the other side’s latest argument and focus instead on the benefits of CO2.”

Other select bullet points worth sharing (quoting directly, brackets mine):

—push Pruitt to start a proceeding for reconsideration of the Endangerment Finding ... he won’t do it without pressure.

—get good people onto EPA advisory boards and into the administration. [Pruitt is in the midst of trying to stack his scientific advisory boards with industry representatives.]

—conduct a new survey of scientists to refute the 97% consensus claims. [Like I said, they really, really believe what they say.]

—never use the phrases “windmill farms,” “all of the above,” “carbon pollution,” “social cost of carbon,” or “air pollution.”

—use “industrial windmills,” “reliable and affordable,” “carbon dioxide emissions,” “benefits and costs of fossil fuels,” and “air quality.”

—fundamentally challenge, reform, or replace the National Academy of Sciences, the source of much pseudoscience.

—insist EPA et al. use 7% as the discount rate in their estimates of the social cost of carbon. [See here for more on the lunacy of that proposal.]

—the cost of government failure exceeds the “market failure” supposedly captured by the SCC, so every dollar raised by a “carbon tax” will produce more social harm than good.

But wait, best of all:

—sue a company for not increasing CO2 emissions, force a court to consider the evidence on CO2 benefits.

Good luck with that.

There is no blog post in the world long enough to rebut all of this nonsense, but the moral of the story for Pruitt is: If the Heartland guy is dismissing you as a hack who doesn’t really care about climate science ... you are something special.

(Bast did not respond to a request for comment.)

Pruitt sits for a lovefest with the state press

There’s more, though. Pruitt is notoriously secretive and paranoid. The EPA has recently been bumping critical journalists off its mailing lists.

But Pruitt really opens up when he talks with others in the conservative movements — outlets like Breitbart that will convey his message uncut.

Which brings us to this long, amazing interview Pruitt just did with the Heritage Foundation, another of the interchangeable and seemingly permanent right-wing think tanks that litter DC. It must be seen in its fullness to be believed. With its lickspittle questions and cheerful disinformation, it feels like nothing so much as North Korean state press.

Expanding on this theme — that Obama forced a choice between jobs and the environment — Pruitt says environmentalists want, uh, a fence around the orchard:

It would be like having this beautiful apple orchard that can feed the world and the environmental folks of the past would say, ‘Build a fence. Don’t touch the apple orchard, though it can feed people.’ That’s not the proper approach. They would say it’s so pristine and we shouldn’t touch it. That’s not what we should do. We should harvest that apple orchard.

This is what it sounds when you describe environmentalists from inside the conservative bubble, based on lurid Fox News stereotypes, having rarely or never actually talked with one.

For the record, oil and gas production rose precipitously under Obama. Lots of apples got picked! Also, here’s Obama’s EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in 2013:

For too long we have been focused on a false choice: between the health of our children and the health of our economy — and we have endlessly debated that choice even in the face of 43 years of documented history that proved that it just ain’t so. Today, the truth we need to embrace is that cutting carbon pollution will spark business innovation, will grow jobs, and will strengthen the economy.

McCarthy, like every EPA leader in US history, explicitly denies the choice that Pruitt says she forced on America.

The funny thing is, Pruitt even does the typical conservative thing of praising all the environmental progress the US has made through previous regulations. He notes that “since 1980, there are certain pollutants that we regulate under the Clean Air Act, criteria pollutants, they are called. … We’ve reduced those pollutants over 65 percent since 1980, but we’ve also grown our [gross domestic product] substantially.”

Exactly! Back then, the Pruitts of the day said the Clean Air Act would destroy the economy. It didn’t, a fact the Pruitts of today now celebrate. The same pattern holds true for more or less every air-quality regulation EPA has passed. Conservatives predict economic doom; the economy remains robust; future conservatives join in celebrating our wisdom.

And then they predict that any new air-quality regulations will destroy the economy. Lo, let the circle be unbroken.

regs in california
California hasn’t chosen between its economy and environment.
CA Senate

When asked about climate change, Pruitt first cites his new plan to purge EPA scientific advisory boards of most of their qualified experts, by pretending that any scientist who has received government funding is forever tainted and biased.

As to climate change itself, he is careful to skirt outright denial. He’s just not sure, is all. He wants a discussion, is all. “An objective, transparent, honest discussion about what we know and what we don’t know, with respect to CO2,” he says, has “never taken place.”

Never taken place! The science isn’t just wrong. It doesn’t exist.

It goes on and on like this, just blithe, Orwellian up-is-downism, with Heritage guy hoovering it down, responding with such probing follow-up questions as, “What is your strategy for rolling back cumbersome regulations that hurt small businesses?”

Pruitt talks glowingly of programs that his administration’s budget proposes to slash by a third. He blames the previous administration for “regulatory uncertainty” caused by lawsuits he filed. He lies about what the Supreme Court said about the Clean Power Plan (it did not weigh in on the merits), lies about what the CPP would do (not “declare war on a sector of the economy”), claims, bizarrely, that pollution regulations should not target any particular fuels or sources (not even the ones polluting?), and talks with genuine enthusiasm about the “partnerships” he’s going to strike with big industries and conservative state AGs.

He says he has “tried to exercise good will” in working with career EPA staff, though he has shown dozens of them the door, he doesn’t talk to the ones who are left, he meets almost exclusively with industry representatives, and his private security force is now up to 30 — 30! — and counting.

As for Donald Trump? “I seek every day, and I mean this sincerely, to bless him,” Pruitt says, presumably with a nervous glance at the recorder on the table. “I want to bless him and the decisions he’s making.’

Yes. Bless the Dear Leader and the decisions He is making. Bless His science, may it smite the corrupt government science. Bless His friends in industry, may they flourish under deregulation. Bless His budget cuts, may they unleash glorious prosperity. And above all, bless His very name, may he not smite me until I’m sitting in Jim Inhofe’s Senate seat.

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