Sunday, December 10, 2017

Scott Pruitt’s Terrible Plan to “Objectively” Assess Climate Science - by David Roberts

We should use “red team exercises” to respond to climate change, not deny it.

Back in June, E&E’s Emily Holden broke the story that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is planning a “red team, blue team” exercise to critique climate change science.  He told Breitbart he got the idea from a Wall Street Journal editorial by physicist Steven Koonin.  Rick Perry is also a big fan.

Then on Thursday, at his first oversight hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, Pruitt told Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) that he has a timeline: the red team/blue process will be underway by "early next year."

The way Pruitt reportedly plans to do it is, he will assemble a team of climate “skeptics,” who doubt some or all of the results of mainstream climate science, to be one team.  Another group of climate scientists would defend the existing body of research, as the blue team.  And there will be some kind of public debate or exchange between them, perhaps televised.

This is, for many, many obvious reasons, a terrible idea.  But one of its worst consequences is perhaps the least obvious:  It will discredit the idea of a red team, blue team exercise focused on climate change.  That is too bad, because the concept could be used for a more productive conversation about what to do about this gigantic threat.
Red team exercises would be great for climate decision-making
Where red-team exercises excel is in helping with decision-making — figuring out what to do.

Climate science confronts us with a skein of overlapping risks of varying probabilities, some of them high probability and moderately severe, many of them low probability but extremely severe.  Even among the “known” risks, like droughts and crop failures, it is difficult for scientists to predict regional effects with confidence, especially at the temporal scale humans need (decades, not centuries).

Risks arise not only from the physical manifestations of atmospheric heat, but from its social effects — the heat stress, starvation, migration, and conflict it will drive.  Climate is what the military calls a “risk multiplier.”  Faced with these rising and potentially catastrophic risks, and not much time, we very urgently need to figure out what to do.

Blackout after sandy - Science can’t tell you how to deal with a hurricane-driven blackout. (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
And climate science, whatever its merits, can never tell us what to do.

In a large and complex culture, any collective decision involves myriad conflicting interests and influences.  Decisions must take climate science into account, but also how to balance risks, how to judge the economic and political challenges against the atmospheric one, how to weigh lives, money, and time.

Decisions require not just true facts and accurate projections, they require wisdom, a balancing of risks and interests.

The military’s experience making urgent decisions in the face of deep uncertainty will soon prove extremely valuable to all of us.  Like military strategists, we will have to think in terms of risk management, make decisions based not primarily on optimality — the situation is too urgent and too uncertain for economic optimization — but on resilience.  We will need to ruggedize our systems, in Alex Steffen’s words.

We need ways to make good, reliable decisions quickly (especially, I would argue, at the city level).  That is the kind of thing red-team exercises can help with.  Come up with plans, budgets, and strategies and then assign teams to tear them apart:  Point out overlooked risks, challenge the weighting of values, or expose possible unanticipated effects and feedback loops.  Run the exercise until you find a plan that is rugged against multiple attacks, points of failure, and unanticipated outcomes.

Red team exercises are something other parts of the government could adopt from the military to healthy effect.  It will be a shame if their name and reputation are tarnished by Pruitt’s hackish attempt to prosecute old and long-settled disputes over basic science.

Read more at Scott Pruitt’s Terrible Plan to “Objectively” Assess Climate Science

No comments:

Post a Comment