Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said his staff will gauge the “accuracy” of a major federal science report that blames human activity for climate change — just days after researchers voiced their fears to The New York Times that the Trump administration would alter or suppress its findings.
“Frankly this report ought to be subjected to peer-reviewed, objective-reviewed methodology and evaluation,” Pruitt told a Texas radio show Thursday. “Science should not be politicized. Science is not something that should be just thrown about to try to dictate policy in Washington, D.C.”
Pruitt, who has expressed doubts about carbon dioxide’s role as a major driver of climate change, also dismissed the discussions in Washington about man-made carbon emissions, calling them “political."
Scientists called his remarks troubling, especially because the report — part of a broader, congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment — has already undergone “rigorous” peer-review by a 14-person committee at the National Academies. The reviewing scientists backed the report’s conclusion from researchers at 13 federal agencies that humans are causing climate change by putting more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to a clear increase in global temperatures.
The report’s authors implemented the 132 pages of suggestions from the reviewers, and now the Trump administration has one last opportunity to review the document before publication. Agencies are supposed to sign off by Aug. 18 and send their comments to the authors.
“It’s a much more extensive process than a usual peer review, which does not typically come out as a paperback book,” said Bob Kopp, a lead report author and climate scientist at Rutgers University.
Kopp said he has “no idea” what to expect after hearing Pruitt’s comments. Staffers at EPA had already signed off on an earlier draft.
Eric Davidson, president of the American Geophysical Union, said the report has undergone “a very rigorous peer-review” and is “built on 50-some years of published research, and each of those papers went through its own peer review.”
He added that while fears of Pruitt suppressing the climate report might be more imagined than real right now, he didn’t rule it out.
"Certainly it’s a possibility, and if the administration doesn’t understand that it’s already peer-reviewed, that really is a sign of concern that he may not understand the process," Davidson said. "If he’s continuing to question why CO2 is a big deal, that’s also very concerning, because CO2 is a big deal. … To see those quotes continue to come out is definitely disconcerting."
Several climate experts said they welcomed scrutiny of the report, but they also expressed concerns that political biases could color the process.
“The question is will it be reviewed by people who are scientific experts or will it be reviewed by people who have a political agenda?” said Kathy Jacobs, who oversaw the broader National Climate Assessment under the Obama administration and now heads the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.
"The implication of [Pruitt’s statement] is that it hasn’t been linked to the data," she said of the report. "That certainly is not true. This is built on a mountain of evidence."
Even as Pruitt said EPA would review the report for objectivity, he criticized the Times for saying scientists worry that the administration might interfere with its publication.
“The New York Times out there saying they had to release this report because it’s going to be suppressed is just simply legendary," he said. "It’s just made-up news trying to create a distraction from the real work that’s being done in Washington, D.C."
His comments Thursday came the same day that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a separate report confirming that 2016 was the warmest year on record, surpassing the records set in each of the two previous years.
This week’s dust-up over the 13-agency climate report is far from the first climate science dispute for Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general sued to block a series of major EPA regulations. He drew criticism after announcing in June that he wanted to conduct a "red team, blue team" debate of climate science, a move that his detractors said would put fringe views on the same plane as established, peer-reviewed research.
The EPA chief defended his "red team-blue team" strategy in the radio interview, saying that “this debate, this discussion, I think it’s good and healthy for the country.”
Pruitt told the Texas radio show that his agency would review the 13-agency report “like all other 12 agencies and evaluate the merits and demerits and the methodology and accuracy of the report.”
But EPA already plays a role in reviewing that document. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates the agencies involved in the review, lists EPA’s point person as Andrew Miller, a longtime employee and associate director of climate research.
“On the one hand, EPA has been a very productive contributor the entire process, including during this administration,” Rutgers University’s Kopp said. “On the other hand, Administrator Pruitt has said things in the past that contradict sort of mainstream climate science and the findings of the report. But the process has been operating quite well. I’m hopeful that it will continue to operate well.”
Katharine Hayhoe, another report author from Texas Tech University, said she strongly agreed with Pruitt that the report should be peer-reviewed and that science shouldn’t be politicized.
“Thankfully, all of this has already happened,” she said in a lengthy email responding to Pruitt’s comments.
“Science should not be politicized, and I and my colleagues deplore the attempts of politicians to do so, their attempts to pretend as if a thermometer gives us a different answer if we are Democrat or Republican,” she continued. She noted that the report found no alternative explanations for why climate change is happening other than human influence.
Another expert familiar with the process of crafting the report said the standards exceeded the typical scientific process.
Typically, the president’s science adviser signs off on the report, but Trump has yet to appoint one. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates the report, lists Kimberly Miller at the White House Office of Management and Budget as the president’s liaison.
Democrats and other critics contend that Pruitt has criticized climate change policies because he wants to run for the U.S. Senate in Oklahoma, where his stance might resonate with conservative voters. EPA did not comment on that issue.
David Doniger, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate program, said addressing climate change would affect the fossil fuel industries, and Pruitt has “lined up his personal political fortunes” with the economic interests of oil, gas and coal companies.
Science organizations have asked to meet with Pruitt to discuss why he doesn’t acknowledge a link between human action and climate change.
In the radio interview, Pruitt accused the Obama administration of using carbon dioxide as a “wedge issue.”
“Why aren’t we celebrating what we’re achieving with respect to CO2 … why do we continue to engage in this political football?” he said.