The Trump administration is in the beginning stages of forming an adversarial "red team" to play devil's advocate in a plan to debate the facts behind global warming and take on what skeptics call climate alarmism.
The White House and the Environmental Protection Agency are recruiting scientists by enlisting the help of the Heartland Institute, considered to be the lead think tank for challenging the majority of scientists on climate change.
The institute has its own red team, which is the antithesis to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which it calls, unabashedly, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change.
"The White House and the Environmental Protection Agency have reached out to the Heartland Institute to help identify scientists who could constitute a red team, and we've been happy to oblige," Jim Lakely, the group's communications director, told the Washington Examiner.
"This effort is long overdue," he said. "The climate scientists who have dominated the deliberations and the products of the IPCC have gone almost wholly without challenge. That is a violation of the scientific method and the public's trust."
The Heartland Institute has been a long proponent of a red team "to critically examine what has become alarmist dogma rather than a sober evaluation of climate science for many years," Lakely said. "In fact, Heartland has worked closely with a red team that has been examining the science for several years: the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, or NIPCC."
What the Trump administration may pull together in creating its red team might look a little like what Heartland has created.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt "believes that we will be able to recruit the best in the fields which study climate and will organize a specific process in which these individuals ... provide back-and-forth critique of specific new reports on climate science," a senior administration official told the news service Climatewire late last month.
"We are, in fact, very excited about this initiative. Climate science, like other fields of science, is constantly changing. A new, fresh, and transparent evaluation is something everyone should support doing," the official said.
The Heartland team continues to publish reports challenging IPCC and other climate scientists, which it began eight years ago. The group has produced four volumes of "Climate Change Reconsidered," with a fifth coming out later this year, Lakely said.
"Hundreds of scientists have reviewed and helped produce those volumes, which have been published by the Heartland Institute," Lakely said. The reports total more than 3,000 pages.
The irony behind the Trump administration taking up the approach is that it was suggested by a former Obama administration official, Steve Koonin, who suggested a red team-blue team approach to clear out the politics and address the science. Koonin teaches at New York University.
He suggested the idea in an April op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. The exercise would include a red team, representing climate skeptics, squaring off against a blue team, representing the majority of scientists who believe the Earth's temperature is warming because of increased greenhouse gas emissions caused by manmade activity.
The team approach was created by the military during the Cold War era to test assumptions about the Soviet Union's military capabilities. For climate change, it would offer an adversarial approach to challenge assumptions and form different conclusions when considering how much of warming is due to carbon dioxide emissions and how much is from natural changes.
"It's a great opportunity for this country to have a conversation about the climate and get the politics out of it and bring the scientists together," is how Energy Secretary Rick Perry floated it in June before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the fiscal 2018 budget.
"As a matter of fact, the undersecretary of energy for President Obama, Steven Koonin, has said, who is a theoretical physicist and was over at the department and knows this issue rather well, and he says it's probably time for us to have a conversation with all the politics out of room."
Perry was the first administration official to suggest the idea in public, although he suggested it hypothetically, with no plan to implement the team.
But EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is setting the plan in motion.
"It's my understanding that Scott Pruitt is trying to hire Koonin to be in charge of the whole thing," said Myron Ebell, Trump's former EPA transition chief, who is environment director at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Neither the EPA nor Koonin returned calls to confirm his being tapped for the post of red team leader.
But Ebell points out the logic in having him participate. "He's an honest broker, right?" Ebell said. "He served in the Obama administration but he thinks we haven't had a sufficient debate. He would have a lot of credibility, I think, running the whole process.
"I don't know what they have in mind in how to do it, and I certainly don't know what Koonin has in mind," Ebell said. "In general, we need to go beyond what they establishment says whenever they're confronted, which is, ‘You can trust us.' I don't think we can trust them."
Ebell says he would rather "trust, then verify," using former President Ronald Reagan's old adage when dealing with the Soviet Union. "I'm not saying the scientists are Soviets. I just think that's a good approach to take, particularly when the policies being advocated are going to cost trillions of dollars over the next several decades."
A group that is often tapped to bring different groups together to work out difficult political issues is not sure about how the administration will shape the teams or what the goal of the process will be.
"It's still not entirely clear what the scope of the ‘red team-blue team' exercise will be, but in our evaluation, human activity is having an impact on the climate," said Tracy Terry, director of the energy project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "With climate change occurring, the exercise could be useful if it focuses on the range of potential impacts and best approaches to mitigation and adaptation."
A scientist with the environmental think tank World Resources Institute says it is clear that the approach is wrong.
"Indeed, it has been used by major companies in internal strategic exercises, but it is entirely inappropriate for science," Kelly Levin wrote in a recent blog post. "It has no place in determining the science of a changing climate."
Levin heads the group's program to track carbon emissions in the developing world.
"The overwhelming majority — 97 percent — of peer-reviewed papers in the literature support the consensus view that human activities have contributed to the majority of recent warming," with a "vanishing small proportion" of published research rejecting the scientific consensus, she said.
But "giving equal, 50-50 weight to both the red and blue teams in the exercise would mislead the public into thinking there is a debate when there isn't one," Levin said. "And the Trump administration is likely to stack the red team with fossil fuel industry interests, as it has done with its Cabinet positions."