Experts call for creation of 'red teams' to challenge climate science
By CHELSEA HARVEY | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 30, 2017
Prominent scientists operating outside the scientific consensus on climate change urged Congress on Wednesday to fund "red teams" to investigate "natural" causes of global warming and challenge the findings of the United Nations' climate science panel.
The suggestion for a counter-investigative science force – or red team approach – was presented in prepared testimony by scientists known for questioning the influence of human activity on global warming. It comes at a time when President Donald Trump and other members of the administration have expressed doubt about the accepted science of climate change, and are considering drastic cuts to federal funding for scientific research.
A main mission of red teams would be to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, including the work of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports are widely considered the authority on climate science.
"One way to aid Congress in understanding more of the climate issue than what is produced by biased 'official' panels of the climate establishment is to organize and fund credible 'red teams' that look at issues such as natural variability, the failure of climate models and the huge benefits to society from affordable energy, carbon-based and otherwise," said witness John Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, in his prepared testimony. "I would expect such a team would offer to Congress some very different conclusions regarding the human impacts on climate."
Wednesday's hearing, which focused on "the scientific method and process as it relates to climate change" is the latest in a series of recent House science committee hearings to challenge the existence or seriousness of climate change. In their prepared testimonies Wednesday, witnesses called by the committee's Republican majority suggested that organizations such as the IPCC present a biased view of climate change, and do not represent the views of the entire scientific community.
They argued that policymakers would benefit from assembling groups of experts to conduct assessments that challenge the accepted climate narrative.
"A scientist's job is to continually challenge his/her own biases and ask 'How could I be wrong?'" Judith Curry, professor emeritus at Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and president of the Climate Forecast Applications Network, said in her own testimony. "Playing 'devil's advocate' helps a scientist examine how their conclusions might be misguided and how they might be wrong. Overcoming one's own biases is difficult; an external devil's advocate can play a useful role in questioning and criticizing the logic of the argument."
Curry also suggested that red teams or similar panels presenting diverse opinions on climate change could take on this role.
Red teams are special groups designed to improve an organization's performance by assuming the role of a rival, challenger or devil's advocate. They have sometimes been used by agencies such as the CIA and the Defense Department to help test out security operations or military tactics by assuming the role of enemies, hackers or foreign governments.
But using them to challenge accepted climate science is "a completely ridiculous proposition," said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The National Academy of Sciences already provides independent scientific advice to the government, he said, and it has consistently supported the scientific consensus that climate change is largely driven by human activity.
"The scientific community, in its various forms and in professional journals, has a very well-established, time-tested and by-and-large quite effective process for evaluating alternative hypotheses about any body of science – and that's called independent peer review," he told The Washington Post.
"The notion that we would need to create an entirely different new approach, in particular for the specific question around global warming is unfounded and ridiculous and simply intended to promote the notion of a lack of consensus about the core findings, which in fact is a false notion."
Indeed, studies have consistently found that the vast majority of scientists agree that the burning of fossil fuels is the main driver of climate change.
However, Curry and Christy question the extent of human activity's influence on the changing climate (although both acknowledge that it does play a role).
Christy points to his own research which suggests that the projections of certain climate models fail to match with observed temperature data (although other analyses have shown climate models agreeing well with observational data). Curry has also questioned certain aspects of mainstream climate science, such as the relative influence of human activity versus natural climate variations. The third majority witness, University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr. has generally acknowledged the human influence on climate change, but has been known to question the severity of global warming's impact on events like hurricanes or flooding.
Although research suggests that such viewpoints are outliers within the general scientific community, Christy suggests that the idea of a consensus is a "political notion." And therefore, he argues, policy should be informed by a more diverse set of viewpoints than the conclusions presented by bodies such as the IPCC – hence the red team idea, which he says he's proposed at other congressional hearings in the past as well.
"What's happened in the IPCC is they've just stopped selecting people who disagree with the consensus," Christy told The Washington Post. "So you have a consensus of those who agree with the consensus."
Curry, in her testimony, said the IPCC's authority "marginalizes skeptical perspectives and is operating to the substantial detriment of climate science, as well as biasing policies that are informed by climate science."
But climate scientist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, called as a witness at Wednesday's hearing by the committee's Democratic minority, said such bias claims are "hogwash." Policymakers who suggest a need for alternative views on climate change are cherry-picking the science they choose to trust, Mann said.
"These folks start out with their ideology and then work backwards to decide which science they like and which they don't," he said in an emailed comment to The Washington Post. "But that's not how scientific research works. It's not a buffet where you get to selectively pick and choose what to believe. It's not about belief. It's about evidence."
In an era when funding for scientific research of any sort may soon become more scarce than ever, the idea of a red team approach for climate science may never be more than a proposal.
But if it did come into being, it could be used to justify the actions of an administration that has vowed – and, in fact, already begun – to undo numerous climate-related regulations and goals established under the Obama administration. Members of the new administration, including President Trump, have expressed doubt about the accepted science of climate change, and suggested that climate action is therefore unwarranted and wasteful.
However, funding panels aimed at presenting alternative viewpoints would essentially be amplifying a set of contrarian opinions that are vastly discredited by most other experts. According to Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists, assessing scientific evidence is already the responsibility of bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences, which have weighed the existing research and concluded – over and over – that the overwhelming burden of evidence supports the idea that human greenhouse gas emissions are the primary driver of climate change.
"That's exactly why you have independent scientists on a scientific panel," he said. "To provide that independent scientific – not political, but scientific – evaluation of the science that's relevant to policy-making. That's why science advisory boards are established for various federal agencies. That science needs to be independent of politics."