Scott Pruitt, President-elect Trump’s selection to run the Environmental Protection Agency by all accounts believes that global warming doesn’t involve human activity, such as coal burning, driving or deforestation. We should admire his skepticism. After all, for centuries scientists have proposed countless theories, widely accepted at the time, but later proven false. Perhaps he knows some newly discovered facts or explanations that would lead to a plausible theory that humankind isn’t the driving factor behind global warming. I look forward to his upcoming congressional confirmation hearings so he might enlighten us.
In a nutshell, global warming theory begins with the observation that Earth has a natural supply of “greenhouse gases.” These capture heat, keeping the planet warm, while allowing sunlight (relative shortwave energy) to reach Earth unimpeded. But, heat from the planet also attempts to re-radiate back into space through multiple atmospheric layers. As radiation moves through the atmosphere on its journey into space, molecules in each layer absorb some portion. Thus, extra molecules of rising carbon dioxide (in our case caused by fossil fuels and deforestation), captivates a bit of radiated energy as it bounces around in one or more of the layers. The more molecules we add and overheat, the less heat that escapes into space, further warming the planet.
Nearly every scientific discipline has been viewed at one time or another with varying degrees of skepticism. And why not? Science isn’t infallible. Reservation, skepticism and conjecture constitute the heart of any system that advances knowledge. In science this plays out in self-critical assessments or peer reviewed claims, both essential in sustaining it’s credibility and value as an engine for progress. Yet, once reputable authorities establish a theory, the skeptic needs to offer up sound evidence to debunk it.
Trump’s transition team refers to Mr. Pruitt as “an expert in Constitutional law” claiming he brings a deep understanding of the impact regulations have on the environment and economy. Pruitt asserts President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will shutter coal-fired power plants, thereby increasing electricity costs, and effectively amounts to a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, which Congress already rejected. True enough. But supporting his stance on the grounds that the environment will be none-the-worse for it, flies in the face of global warming science.
But, it’s also true that fields such as philosophy, history, and, even law and political science, often point to where scientific answers might be found. But unlike law, science adds the necessity for empirical evidence: multiple observations, testing, data, which draw conclusions subject to verification, and the ability to falsify the theory advocated. Unlike law, science discovers, and in so doing expands the body of universal, epistemic relationships—steering clear of emotion, ideology or politics. And, although science works to conserve established theories, it has a capacity to undergo revision when assumptions and data fail to account for what more cogent, deeper analysis or instrumentation reveals. That being said, not every skeptic has a vote.
Those who depend on experts for answers, including elected or appointed officials, should want to know how these specialists justify their claims. Under what conditions do they form hypotheses from small samples of facts to create more encompassing theories? When a scientist reports a year-over-year rise in the Earth’s temperature, what links this to the use of fossil fuels or simply some natural phenomenon? What links empirical evidence of one thing to the causation of another? If Mr. Pruitt disagrees with the majority of experts on the causation of climate change, he should enlighten us about what explains the precipitous thawing of our permafrost, the lengthening of the growing season in middle and higher latitudes, the poleward and upward shift of plant and animal ranges, the decline of some plant and animal species, the earlier flowering of trees, emergence of insects, and egg-laying in birds. Environmental science attempts to answer these kinds of questions, which should serve as points of entry to Mr. Pruitt’s upcoming testimony.
A baseball pitcher needn’t study physics to pitch well, and fans will not much care if the physicist explains why the pitcher’s fastball works well in the ninth inning. Likewise, politics, law, ethics, and other social constructs can reduce to irrelevance the physical part of an undertaking, the slice that science deals with. Politicians simply may not care about the science. But this separation must occur, if through policy, we have any chance in slowing down and finally arresting climate change.
Pruitt can invoke many good reasons for rejecting scientific-like explanations about global warming. Indeed, we look to science itself to help separate true science from junk science. But, the new administration cannot simply reject the current theory based on nothing more than that it may conflict with a constituency’s self-interest or one’s shear lack of understanding. On a more justified level, Pruitt may criticize the science because: (1) reasonably-based competing views or data point in another direction; (2) relevant empirical data cannot be explained by the theory; (3) a model of the phenomenon critical to the theory doesn’t account for an apparent feature or complexity; (4) samples may have been inappropriately drawn in support of a necessary hypothesis; (5) there exists a lack of experimental replication; (6) lack of peer review; or (7) the lack of an ability to falsify scientific claims. Skeptics, such as Mr. Pruitt, who contest the proposition that human activity causes global warming have many places where they might find winnable positions. It remains to be seen if by anyone of these theory-busters Mr. Pruitt can plausibly dispute what has caused an increase in global average surface temperature of about 1°F over the past century, or what accounts for a rise in global average sea level, the increase in ocean water temperatures, or the increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events in some regions of the world.
The union of scientists, worldwide, look to peer reviewers as an established criterion for judging the integrity of scientific claims. Over 13,000 peer-reviewed articles stand for and about 100 against the proposition that humans cause global warming.
The selection of the new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency must have a developed sense for how science, technology and policy can avert this existential threat to humanity. Before confirming Mr. Pruitt, he must acknowledge that scientific theories backed by established convention serve as the best hope in creating sound policy for saving the planet from environmental catastrophe.