The Trump Administration Wants To Debate Climate Change On TV. Here’s What Scientists Think About It.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency revealed plans for a TV debate on climate change. But scientists said that would be a terrible idea.

This is Scott Pruitt, the man President Trump appointed to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. On Tuesday, he said the agency was working to host a public climate change debate, which could potentially air on TV.

Pruitt revealed the debate plan in an interview with Reuters. He said the idea was inspired by a pair of articles he read, including one in the Wall Street Journal that suggested a "red team/blue" team approach to debating climate science.

The debate envisioned by Pruitt would involve a group of scientists who would have "a robust discussion for all the world to see." He also suggested it could be televised, adding that "the American people would be very interested in consuming that."

The EPA did not respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment on Tuesday, and Pruitt did not tell Reuters when the debate might take place or who might participate.

But climate scientists contacted on Tuesday by BuzzFeed News said Pruitt's debate proposal was a terrible idea.

Peter Gleick, a scientist who cofounded the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank, called Pruitt's proposed debate "bullshit." In an email, Gleick said that climate change has already been reviewed and assessed by "every national academy of sciences on the planet," and is already debated "every day by the very process of science itself."

"The effort by Pruitt and Trump's EPA to pretend to put together a 'debate' is no more than another attempt to open the door to the voices of climate denial, delay, and confusion that have already postponed international action almost to the point of disaster," Gleick added.

Michael Mann, a climatologist and geophysicist at Penn State University, said that a debate is already going on and "it's called science." He also said the debate amounts to a "bad faith effort."

"What Pruitt and his ilk really want is to stack the deck against mainstream science by giving cronies and industry lobbyists an undeserved place at the science table," Mann said.

Linda Duguay, who directs multiple environmental programs at the University of Southern California, said that "there is not much to debate" regarding the scientific consensus on climate change. Duguay also expressed skepticism that Pruitt and his team "would put together an honest forum on the subject."

"The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community and the great majority of nations around the world that signed the [Paris climate agreement] accept it as a reality," she said.

John Seinfeld, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who studies the atmosphere, said that "there’s nothing to debate," unless the discussion focused on "remediation measures."

"Climate change is a done deal," he added.

And Philip Mote, who studies climate change at Oregon State University, said that debating "settled" scientific topics such as climate change "is silly, counterproductive, and perpetuates a false sense of what’s true and what’s not."

Pruitt's "robust discussion" idea comes as the Trump administration works to undo Obama-era environmental policy and finds itself at odds with members of the scientific community — some of whom said the debate would cause more confusion than clarity.

In June, Trump, accompanied by Pruitt, announced that the US would pull out of the Paris climate deal, a landmark 2015 agreement between nearly all of the world's countries. The announcement was greeted with dismay and anger by the scientific community.

Pruitt — who in March said he didn't believe carbon dioxide is a "primary contributor" to climate change — also recently tried and failed to delay an Obama-era rule on monitoring methane leaks.

Katharine Reich, associate director of the UCLA Center for Climate Science, pointed to Pruitt's record and said, "we’ve seen evidence that his team kind of tries to stack the deck against the evidence."

"There are plenty of interesting debates to have within climate science and climate policy," Reich told BuzzFeed News. "But the 'whether or not climate change is occurring and whether or not climate change is attributable to human activity,' those debates are closed."

She added that the debate is a problem because it gives scientists and those who deny science equal weight.

"That is inherently confusing to the public," Reich said.

At least one study seems to confirm that. Earlier this year, John Cook — a George Mason University researcher whose previous work showed a 97% scientific consensus on climate change — published a paper that found that providing climate change skeptics and scientists equal voices lowered people's perception that there was a consensus.

"I found that presenting climate change as a debate decreased acceptance of climate change," Cook explained to BuzzFeed News in an email. "It lowered people's perception of scientific consensus."

Cook added that he is "disturbed that this denialist strategy is getting institutional support."

Advocacy groups that work on climate change were similarly against the idea of holding a televised climate change debate.

Brett Hartl, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, called the idea of a public, televised debate on climate change "destructive." Hartl referred to the proposed discussion as a "fake debate" that marginalized actual scientific discourse.

"This is going to tarnish the EPA's legacy for decades to come," he said.

Kimiko Martinez, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told BuzzFeed News that the "science is clear," and that Pruitt's proposal "isn’t about scientific debate. It’s bad policy in search of excuses."

"The public isn’t buying Trump’s retreat from climate progress," she added, "and it won’t buy into this cheap charade."


Linda Duguay directs multiple environmental programs at the University of Southern California. An earlier version of this post misstated the university.

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