The Environmental Protection Agency had planned to announce a controversial debate on climate change last November, according to a draft press release obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Six months later, the “Red Team/Blue Team” public debate still hasn’t happened, and maybe never will. But the agency had intended to use it to “critique” a federal report on US climate impacts, according to EPA emails released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Natural Resources Defense Council and obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The idea for a “Red Team/Blue Team” debate was first floated in April of 2017, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by Steve Koonin, a New York University physicist and former energy official under the Obama administration. And days before that article, Koonin had been emailing with EPA head Scott Pruitt about the idea, according to the newly released documents.
Then, on Nov. 2, Koonin wrote another editorial criticizing the upcoming release of a massive federal report on how climate change is impacting the US. The report, which reaffirms that human activities are driving climate change, followed months of speculation about whether the Trump administration would suppress the information. (The EPA contributed to the report.)
The next day, EPA officials circulated internally, and then to outside commenters, a draft press release titled, “Administrator Pruitt Calls For Red Team Exercise On Climate Science Special Report.” The existence of this release was first mentioned in March by the New York Times.
“Today, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt called for a Red Team exercise to critique the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report mandated by Congress every four years,” read the draft release obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Pruitt was quoted in the release, saying, “This report presents an opportunity to evaluate the science around climate change with an open, public ‘Red Team/Blue Team’ exercise.” He added, “A robust, transparent public peer review evaluation of climate change is something everyone should support.”
Per the draft, “EPA is standing up a Red Team peer review of the report. The ‘Blue Team’ represents the authors of the report, and supporting scientists.” The agency had intended to announce its roster of “Red Team” scientists in the following weeks.
The draft also included bracketed notes — “[QUOTE FROM KOONIN]” and “[QUOTE FROM WILLIAM HAPPER]” — referring to two people who have questioned the scientific consensus on man-made climate change: Koonin and William Happer, a Princeton physics professor and director of the CO2 Coalition, a group that advocates for the benefits of carbon dioxide and has received funding from the Mercer Family Foundation.
Former EPA communications head Liz Bowman initially sent the release to Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, and then later that day she shared it with Happer.
“The following is a draft release Administrator Pruitt would like to send. Your contributions even in a small way to the validity of the red team blue team approach would be appreciated,” Bowman wrote in an email to Happer.
Bowman also told Happer “this is not the official announced [sic] by any means but it is envisioned to be a soft launch taking advantage of the release Friday” and Koonin’s related piece.
Happer responded that night with an edited version attached from both him and Koonin, suggesting to call “for interagency sponsorship without minimizing the leadership of EPA.” However, their full proposal was not disclosed.
The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It’s unclear why the EPA decided to ultimately hold off on its announcement. President Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, told EPA officials in a December meeting to drop the idea, according to reporting from E&E News and the New York Times.
“That this notion is so controversial should concern anyone who cares about the integrity of science input to policy decisions,” Koonin told BuzzFeed News by email on Tuesday. He did not respond to questions about his own planned involvement in the debate, or why the announcement was never made.
Happer told BuzzFeed News he only knew about the postponement of the debate from press reports, but that “a red-team/blue-team review of climate science is badly needed.”
Dan Vergano contributed to this story.
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Zahra Hirji is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC
Contact Zahra Hirji at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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