04/04/2018 - EPA Mission Tracker

Misleading on Climate Change Science

The EPA recently nominated a climate change skeptic to one of its advisory committees and previously distributed “talking points” to its regional offices instructing them to use language that casts doubt on the validity of climate change science.

In spite of overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that human-caused climate change is a serious threat that requires immediate action, the EPA under the Trump administration repeatedly casts doubt on climate science. This is in keeping with a decades-long effort by some in the fossil fuel industry to discredit climate science as a means of averting government action. For months at the beginning of the administration, the EPA perpetrated a form of passive disinformation on climate by hiding information about climate science that it used to make public on its website, while leaving increasingly out-of-date information for visitors to search in archived web pages. In 2018, then-Administrator Pruitt escalated his own active disinformation campaign.

As first reported by the Huffington Post, the EPA’s Office of Public Affairs sent an email to staff in the agency’s program offices and 10 regional offices directing staff to promote “consistent messages about EPA’s climate adaptation efforts.” But the email also provided climate-denying talking points that mirror Pruitt’s own misleading public statements.

In particular, two of the eight bullet points in the talking points memo fly in the face of established science. One reads: “Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.” The other states: “While there has been extensive research and a host of published reports on climate change, clear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.”

These statements are only arguably true in a narrow, technical sense – and even then, not really.

Climate experts – including the federal government in 2017 – have said that “it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.” Scientists can estimate with increasing accuracy just how much we are affecting the climate. If EPA staff rely on these “talking points” with stakeholders and the public, then the public will be misled as to the “precision” of the current state of climate science and the existence of “clear gaps” in the science. This is, however, representative of a pattern with then-Administrator Pruitt’s public statements about climate change. During his tenure, Pruitt wondered whether a warming climate is “necessarily is a bad thing,” and questioned science’s ability to measure “with precision” how humans affect the climate.

Raising the stakes of this disinformation campaign, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler recently appointed a climate change skeptic, John Christy, to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. The Science Advisory Board is one of the independent, expert committees that advises the EPA on critical issues the agency must consider and tasks it must perform. Christy is a controversial professor of atmospheric science who rejects the fact that global warming is largely driven by human activity and has been outspoken against regulating greenhouse gas emissions. By appointing skeptics like Christy to the EPA’s expert committees, Wheeler is undermining the scientific expertise those committees are meant to provide and is creating a threat to the effectiveness of the EPA’s standards for protecting human health and the environment.

Furthermore, the Washington Post recently reported that the White House is considering proposing a new federal panel: the Presidential Committee on Climate Security. If formed, the committee would conduct an adversarial review of recent scientific and national security studies in order to advise the President on whether climate change poses a threat to national security. A leaked discussion paper regarding the draft executive order to form the committee states that William Happer, a National Security Council senior director and climate skeptic, is leading the effort. Not only is Happer not a trained climate scientist, he has publicly stated that he does not believe that carbon-dioxide is a pollutant and is active in advocacy efforts to reject climate science.

In elevating doubts about climate science rather than promoting current research and understanding of the challenge, the administration is taking further steps to prevent the EPA and federal advisory committees from relying on the best available science, while, at the same time, advancing to a more active mode of disinformation on climate science.

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