EPA Science Integrity Panel Says Pruitt’s Climate Denial Is Permissible

A complaint was filed after Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator said on CNBC that carbon dioxide isn’t a main cause of global warming.

Scott Pruitt. Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
In response to a complaint about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's comments, an EPA official wrote that the Scientific Integrity Policy "explicitly protects differing opinions." Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty

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An internal review by the Environmental Protection Agency has found that its administrator did not violate its scientific integrity policy when he contradicted a fundamental tenet of climate science by denying that carbon dioxide pollution is the principal agent of global warming.

The policy “explicitly protects differing opinions” held by any agency employee, including Administrator Scott Pruitt, on any matter of science informing agency policy decisions, said a review panel convened by the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Committee.

The panel addressed its finding to the Sierra Club, which had filed a complaint after Pruitt, whose views of climate science often skirt around the mainstream consensus on the causes and the urgency of the climate crisis, said in a television interview that he “would not agree” that carbon dioxide “is a primary contributor to the warming that we’re seeing.”

“The freedom to express one’s opinion about science is fundamental to EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy even (and especially) when that point of view might be controversial,” wrote Thomas Sinks, an agency science official, in a letter to the Sierra Club.

In a caustic thread dissecting the letter on Twitter, John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council called it a “gambit” designed to give Pruitt and other agency officials “the right to have wackadoodle beliefs tolerated as ‘opinion’.”

The intense argument is over a momentary, if brazen, moment of public climate denial, a seemingly offhand answer to a simplistic question on the business cable channel CNBC. But it goes to the heart of one of the crucial matters on Pruitt’s extensive deregulatory agenda: whether the agency ought to stand by its scientific determination under President Obama that carbon dioxide is a harmful pollutant that must by law be regulated under the Clean Air Act. (Energy Secretary Rick Perry has said much the same thing, and the two are hardly alone in an administration replete with climate deniers of various shades.)

The ruling comes at a time of mounting dissent among government scientists and President Donald Trump’s political appointees at the EPA and also at the Interior Department, the Energy Department, the Agriculture Department and elsewhere.

One manifestation came this week when a 30-year EPA veteran, Elizabeth Southerland—a career scientist—left the agency with a stinging, personal blast at Pruitt and his policies, which she called “a temporary triumph of myth over truth.”

In a resignation letter posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, she declared: “The truth is there is NO war on coal, there is NO economic crisis caused by environmental protection, and climate change IS caused by man’s activities.”

The irony is that the plainest of truths are under assault while the protections afforded those who insist on speaking them to the powerful are co-opted by those whose views are most readily demonstrated to be false.

In this setting, mainstream scientists are frustrated that it’s hard for them to get a hearing, and anxious that Pruitt is contemplating a “red-team, blue-team” scientific tug-of-war as a way of amplifying the kind of dubious claims he’s being challenged over.

In a letter about this notion sent to Pruitt on Monday, leaders of 16 scientific societies cautioned that “the integrity of the scientific process cannot thrive when policymakers—regardless of party affiliation—use policy disagreements as a pretext to challenge scientific conclusions.”