Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt says he wants the “true, legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO₂” that Americans deserve. He’s pitched a “red-team, blue-team exercise” ― a public, potentially televised debate about the threat of carbon emissions ― to shape the national conversation about climate change.
HuffPost has obtained a list of prominent climate deniers that the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank, assembled and submitted to the agency in May. The Illinois-based group, which has ties to the fossil fuel billionaires who run Koch Industries, boasted in July that the White House “reached out” for help identifying scientists for these debates. This appears to be the list the Heartland Institute provided.
The list includes Edwin Berry, the self-funded researcher who compares belief in climate change to Aztec human sacrifices; Alan Carlin, the so-called “whistleblower” who challenged the EPA’s finding that rising greenhouse gases warm the planet; and, for good measure, Joe Bastardi, Fox News’ favorite yelling meteorologist.
Heartland Institute spokesman Jim Lakely declined to comment. The EPA did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. It’s unclear whether the list has narrowed since the Heartland Institute convened two meetings in June and September to discuss the “red team.” A final meeting is scheduled for next month.
The names included on the list suggest that the Heartland Institute wants the debate to go directly after the scientific and legal underpinnings of the EPA’s regulations on climate change. Rather than debating the regulatory approaches, they want to undermine the conclusion that climate change is a real problem.
“This is not a good-faith debate,” Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University who tracks climate change denial groups, told HuffPost. “They’re not just misinformation people, they’re either ‘CO₂ is good for you’ or ‘climate change can’t possibly be happening.’”
The Heartland Institute has been among the loudest cheerleaders of President Donald Trump’s aggressive rollback of regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, availing its dozens of fellows to provide commentary feting the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement or admonishing scientists for linking the recent series of deadly hurricanes to global warming.
But while Trump and Pruitt have begun rolling back regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, so far they have not attempted to undo the 2009 finding that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health and the environment ― a conclusion known as the endangerment finding. It was the EPA under George W. Bush that first made that determination in response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, but it never acted on that finding. The Obama EPA did, and, once that conclusion was reached, the agency was required by law to issue regulations under the Clean Air Act. Ninety-seven percent of peer-reviewed research agrees with the conclusion that burning fossil fuels, deforestation and industrial farms are enshrouding the planet in heat-trapping gases, and a research review published last November found significant flaws in the methodologies, assumptions or analyses used by the 3 percent of scientists who concluded otherwise.
“If Scott Pruitt tried to challenge the endangerment finding, he’d be laughed out of court,” David Doniger, director and senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program, told HuffPost. “Sometimes I think Scott Pruitt talks up the red-team, blue-team thing as a way of avoiding the regulatory or legal attack on the endangerment finding, which he’s bound to lose.”
Calls for the red-team, blue-team exercise began in April, one month before the date marked on the top of the documents. On April 20, the day before the March for Science protest in Washington, D.C., New York University physicist Steve Koonin published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for a red-team, blue-team exercise to “put the ‘consensus’ to the test, and improve public understanding, through an open, adversarial process.” The next day, Judith Curry, a retired climatologist known for mocking other scientists as “alarmists,” and Anthony Watts, who runs a popular climate change denial blog, endorsed the idea. The next week, Pruitt met with Koonin for an hour, according to schedules published by The Washington Post.
All three pundits’ names made it onto the Heartland Institute’s list in May. In June, Robert Murray, the chief executive of coal giant Murray Energy Corp., told E&E News that Pruitt assured him the agency would review the endangerment finding in the coming months.
In an interview with Time Magazine last week, Pruitt said he planned to model his red-team, blue-team debate on Cold War-era discussions of the Soviet nuclear threat and suggested that he believed his agency did not “engage in a robust, meaningful discussion” about the threat posed by carbon dioxide before adopting the endangerment finding.
But Heartland CEO Joseph Bast thinks even that rhetoric from Pruitt isn’t enough.
Aztec priests told people they must cut out their beating hearts to bring better climate for their crops. The people believed them.
Edwin Berry, a self-funded researcher
“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,” Bast wrote in an email published last week by E&E News that summarized a Sept. 28 meeting at the group’s headquarters just outside of Chicago.
The meeting included “about 40 climate scientists, economists, lawyers, and other experts to discuss the possible creation by the Trump administration of a Red Team – Blue Team exercise on climate change,” he wrote. He noted this was the second “Red Team briefing,” following an initial gathering on June 14 in Washington, D.C. A final summit is scheduled for Nov. 8, the day before the Heartland Institute’s America First Energy Conference in Houston.
The Heartland Institute wants to go after the endangerment finding directly and thinks it’s the group’s job to push Pruitt. “He won’t do it without pressure,” Bast concluded.
This seems to be the goal of the list, which includes 145 scientists and 60 economists who have long been on the fringes of the climate debate, making their names as contrarians given to bombastic public statements. In his email, Bast said he assembled a list “of around 150 climate experts,” which he sent “to folks at EPA in response to their request for recommendations.” A source who requested anonymity provided the list to the watchdog Climate Investigations Center, which shared it with HuffPost.
“The Heartland Institute has been spearheading a ‘red team’ campaign for the past six months to use Scopes Monkey Trial theatrics to undermine climate science and the EPA’s endangerment finding on carbon pollution,” Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center, told HuffPost. “Their red team campaign has been a failure. Pruitt hasn’t done anything but talk.”
Some of the debaters proposed by the Heartland Institute have a lot to say, about the endangerment finding and more. Berry’s assertions include tweeting 18 times about Islam over the past year, calling the religion a “death cult,” “our enemy” and a “cancer that invades and can kill.” His arguments about climate science strike a similar tone.
“Aztec priests told people they must cut out their beating hearts to bring better climate for their crops. The people believed them,” he wrote in a December 2015 blog post. “Today’s climate priests tell people they must cut out their CO2 emissions and pay penances to other nations, like China, to save our climate. The people believe them.”
In an interview with HuffPost, Berry said he did not know his name was on the list but would serve on the red team if asked.
“I would go right down to the core, starting with the question, ‘How much do human emissions increase atmospheric carbon dioxide?’ That’s the first assumption the blue team makes, and they have to prove that that’s true,” he said. “In my opinion, the red team would win that debate on the carbon dioxide.”
Carlin spent decades as an economist working at the EPA before becoming a conservative media darling for publicly accusing the agency of muzzling his criticism of the endangerment finding. He was never assigned to work on climate change and holds a doctorate in economics, not atmospheric science or climatology, and his comments on the finding were deemed to be the “product of rushed and at times shoddy scholarship,” according to a 2009 analysis by The New York Times. Yet he submitted the 93-page report suggesting the research behind human-caused climate change is “more religion than science.”
“It is very clear without a shadow of doubt that the endangerment finding is wrong,” he told HuffPost, adding that he would participate in the debate. “It is my view that this is one of the most important public policy issues that the U.S. has and that the outcome is extremely important.”
Bastardi, a meteorologist at the New York-based forecasting firm WeatherBELL, said he was invited to earlier meetings by the Heartland Institute but did not attend because he was covering hurricanes. But past clips of his appearances on “The O’Reilly Factor” offer a hint at how he might have approached the debate, and why the Heartland Institute took interest in him.
In 2010, he sparred with science advocate Bill Nye on the show, citing CO₂ calculations from Heartland Institute fellow Joe D’Aleo to refute global warming. In 2009, Bastardi, then working at Accuweather.com, deployed pixelated charts that appear to contradict conclusions about climate change, and he suggested that wildfires in California were the result of cooling temperatures. (The deadly spate of wildfires this month in California, widely attributed to climate change, cast doubt over these assumptions.)
“For years Heartland was a minor think tank that defended the tobacco industry by fighting for ‘smoker’s rights’ but then moved into climate change and has gradually become arguably the leading denial organization,” Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who monitors climate deniers, told HuffPost. “It attracts a wide range of professional and amateur deniers, hardly any with solid credentials in climate science. Giving it a crucial role in selecting a denial ‘red team’ to debate a team of leading climate scientists is like letting Putin select a team to investigate Russia’s role in the last election.”