"Alternative Facts" about Climate Change


Recently, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have called for the establishment of an adversarial “Red Team/Blue Team” (RT/BT) process to assess the credibility of key findings of climate science. These highly publicized requests echo earlier calls for an RT/BT process by New York University physicist Steven Koonin. The underlying premise is that previous assessments of climate science are untrustworthy, self-serving, underestimate key uncertainties, and lack participation from critical voices. The implicit message in RT/BT requests is simple: only the current administration can conduct a fair and unbiased assessment of climate science.

Both the underlying premise and the implicit message are wrong. Climate science has been reviewed for decades, by the national academies of dozens of countries, relevant professional societies, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and many other entities with real domain expertise. Review processes are arduous. They typically involve industry stakeholders and a variety of non-governmental organizations. Critical voices are not excluded. They are part of the review process. If critical voices fail to persuade, it is because their scientific arguments are weak. It is not because their arguments are ignored. In the fierce scientific marketplace of ideas and theories, only the science that passes “extreme vetting” stands the test of time.

Likewise, key uncertainties are not “confined to hushed sidebar conversations at academic conferences,” as Prof. Koonin has argued. Uncertainties are the daily bread and butter of every climate scientist, and of every scientist. Science is a never-ending quest to understand, quantify, and reduce important uncertainties. That is where the action is—at the uncertain frontiers, where much is left to uncover and discover.

The RT/BT requests play into the recurring narrative of the self-serving climate scientist, who is solely motivated by the desire to secure more federal funding. This myth is pervasive and wrong. The basic currency of science is not money or power. The coin of the scientific realm is originality, depth and breadth of understanding, and reproducibility of results. Scientists are judged by their peers on whether they got the science right, and whether their theories were confirmed by independent data.

Climate science is an open endeavor. Many petabytes of climate observations and climate model simulation output are freely available to anyone in the world. The analysis of data and simulations is performed under the bright light of the entire world scientific community. If there truly were definitive “evidence of absence” of a human fingerprint on global climate, surely some brilliant researcher would have already found that exculpatory evidence. Many have tried; all have failed. The glittering prizes go to those who overturn conventional wisdom and destroy existing scientific edifices—not to those who add, one painstaking brick at a time, to the foundations of climate science.

Reality is not fungible. It is not partisan. It cannot be altered by denying its existence. Yet another RT/BT process—a process that was already tried three years ago, but failed to undermine the basic findings of climate science—will not change the reality that humans are affecting global climate. Human actions have contributed significantly to warming oceans and land, rising sea level, retreat of snow and ice, and changes in extreme events. Nature will not save us from the consequences of these actions. Only human wisdom and intelligence can do that.

The RT/BT requests seek to muddy the waters, to confuse, to delegitimize and devalue decades of well-established science. These efforts to sow doubt are dangerous, and should be called out by all citizens—not just by climate scientists. We all lose if we cannot discriminate between objective reality and declared reality. 



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