Next wave of EPA science advisers could include those who question climate change

Source: By Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

People who have questioned aspects of mainstream climate research appear on a list of 132 possible candidates for positions on EPA’s influential Science Advisory Board, which the agency has opened for public comment until September 28. The board currently has 47 members, but 15 have terms ending in September and could be replaced by some of the candidates.

One candidate believes more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will “confer great benefits upon future inhabitants of the globe” by driving plant growth. Another has said of the climate change debate that “scare tactics and junk science are used to secure lucrative government contracts.” Five candidates have challenged the Environmental Protection Agency’s own science on the warming of the planet in court.

The board nomination process is an open one — anyone can nominate anyone else for consideration — and an EPA official involved in the process said that there had been “no whittling down” of the names submitted, other than making sure those nominated were indeed interested. The list includes scientists with diverse subject matter expertise and a long lists of credentials.

But the inclusion of a handful of climate contrarians has caused early concern among environmental groups and some employees at the agency.

“We should be able to trust that those who serve the EPA are the all-stars in their fields and committed to public service,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He said the upcoming round of appointments will test whether EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is “remotely interested” in independent scientific advice. “He already has a parade of lobbyists and advisers providing him with the perspectives from oil, gas, and chemical companies. The Science Advisory Board is a check on political influence and can help the agency determine whether the special interests are telling it straight.”

The EPA official, who requested anonymity because the selection process is ongoing, said that after the public comment period ends, staff members likely will scale down the list of nominees to a smaller group of qualified candidates, with an emphasis on balancing out the board and trying to make sure there are experts across a range of disciplines, from hydrology to microbiology to statistics. But the final decision of who winds up advising the EPA resides with one person.

“Administrator Pruitt ultimately makes that decision,” the official said.

E&E News last week identified about a dozen board candidates that it said had previously expressed skepticism of widely accepted findings of climate science.

Even though none may ultimately end up on the board, the current list is raising eyebrows in light of Pruitt’s own statements questioning the human role in climate change and the agency’s removal of an informational website that publicly presented established climate science.

“There are definitely some inappropriate names on there,” said one EPA scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “I don’t know how concerned to be. But I’m hoping that the scientific community comments actively on the list.”

Several of the candidates are affiliated with the Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based conservative think tank with a long history of questioning various aspects of climate change science. E&E News reported that it had suggested a number of the names.

“We applaud any effort by Administrator Pruitt to bring qualified non-alarmist scientists onto the EPA’s advisory boards,” Heartland spokesman Jim Lakely told the publication.

One Heartland-affiliated scientist who is now a candidate for the EPA board is meteorologist Joseph D’Aleo, a co-founder of the Weather Channel and currently chief forecaster with WeatherBELL Analytics LLC. D’Aleo was one of 13 scientists who submitted an amicus brief in litigation over the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, challenging the agency’s science, including its key finding that atmospheric carbon dioxide, by driving climate change, endangers human health and welfare.

“EPA has no proof whatsoever that CO2 has a statistically significant impact on global temperatures,” the scientists, including D’Aleo, wrote. “In fact, many scientists feel no such proof exists.”

D’Aleo reiterated his skepticism that humans are driving a steady warming of the globe through greenhouse gas emissions, instead saying he thinks urbanization is creating pockets of heat where people live. “I really believe that virtually all of the warming is due to population building out cities and even building out small towns,” D’Aleo said.

D’Aleo also has opposed the agency’s 2009 “endangerment finding,” a scientific document that provided the basis for the Obama administration’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. “If I was asked to participate, I would want to find out how much I can do and what they plan to do with the endangerment finding before I made my decision,” he said.

Four other scientists who co-authored a legal brief challenging EPA’s conclusion regarding human-caused climate change also appear on the list of advisory board candidates.

One of them, astrophysicist Gordon Fulks, wrote in The Oregonian in 2010 that he is “concerned that many who promote the idea of catastrophic global warming reduce science to a political and economic game.” Fulks also is a policy adviser with the Heartland Institute.

Asked his take on the causes of global temperature change, Fulks responded by email that the Earth has seen “modest warming as we have come out of the Little Ice Age since about 1830 in ice core temperature reconstructions.  That surely says that the warming over the last almost two centuries is natural in origin.”

He also said that the Science Advisory Board has suffered from conflicts of interest and that “my hope is to make sure that the decisions that the EPA makes regarding regulations are firmly based in science and not superstition.”

Another scientist, Craig Idso, is chairman of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, where he has written that “the modern rise in the air’s CO2 content is providing a tremendous economic benefit to global crop production.”

Yet another scientist, Richard Keen, is a meteorologist and author who traveled with the Heartland Institute to Rome in 2015 for a “prebuttal” to Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change. There, he argued that “in the past 18 years and how many months, four months, there has been no global warming.” Another candidate, Anthony Lupo, is an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Missouri. In 2014, he told a local Missouri media outlet, KOMU 8, that “I think it is rash to put the climate change completely on the blame of humans.”

Under Pruitt, the agency has already removed a Web page devoted to climate change science that presented the scientific consensus view that it is largely caused by humans, and Pruitt has endorsed the idea of a “Red Team”/“Blue Team” exercise, in which a group of outside critics would interrogate the validity of mainstream scientific conclusions. The agency also has begun taking steps to roll back Obama-era climate regulations, while President Trump has proposed deep cuts to climate research.

The EPA has already seen a controversy involving a separate advisory board, the Board of Scientific Counselors, where a number of researchers expecting to have their terms renewed were informed by the new administration that they would not be retained.

The EPA said in a public notice that for the Science Advisory Board, it is seeking expertise in a wide range of areas, extending far beyond fields generally relevant to what is happening with the climate, such as “chemical safety; green chemistry; homeland security; uncertainty analysis; and waste management.” But it is also looking for expertise in “atmospheric sciences,” where much climate knowledge lies.

“The Science Advisory Board of the EPA hardly ever takes on the issue of [is] climate change real,” said William Schlesinger, a current board member and the president emeritus of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies. “They take on things like, what should be new emissions standards for the oil and gas industry, or just recently, what would be standards for performance for the airline industry.”

For his part, D’Aleo says that on climate change, the Science Advisory Board needs more diversity of opinion.

“You don’t go anywhere,” he said, “if you just put together a committee of like minded people that just share the same opinion.”