Pruitt got climate tips from groups backed by GOP megadonors

By Scott Waldman | 05/11/2018 08:06 AM EDT

A network of conservative groups funded by influential GOP donors has been providing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt with briefings and heaps of documents that reject mainstream climate science.

EPA consulted with Princeton University emeritus physics professor William Happer about its plans to publicly debate climate science.

EPA consulted with Princeton University emeritus physics professor William Happer about its plans to publicly debate climate science. Ken Cedeno/Greenpeace

A network of conservative groups funded by influential GOP donors has been providing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt with briefings and heaps of documents that reject mainstream climate science.

The Mercer Family Foundation, established by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, has donated millions of dollars to a coalition of groups with members who reject the notion that humans are the primary driver of climate change and are warming the world through the burning of fossil fuels. They include the Heritage Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the Manhattan Institute and the CO2 Coalition (Climatewire, Jan. 26).

Those groups have been briefing Pruitt and other top agency officials with a series of findings that the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide does not present a threat to humanity and that climate policy models are fatally flawed, according to a trove of emails obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act.


The Mercers have been major donors to Trump, to scientific organizations that fall outside of mainstream research and to alt-right media, including the Breitbart News Network. The family foundation has contributed more than $10 million in recent years to groups that attack mainstream climate science, public tax records show.

The EPA emails show officials actively seeking guidance from members of those groups as Pruitt pushed for a debate aimed at challenging mainstream climate science.

Mercer-backed organizations have offered up the names of dozens of researchers to EPA, including some now installed as science advisory board members. In May 2017, Pruitt traveled to the Manhattan Institute’s offices in New York to speak to an audience that included a number of board members. Emails show that Rebekah Mercer was scheduled to be present, although it is unclear if she attended.

Pruitt’s EPA has also ignored requests to meet with some leading scientists. In July, the American Association for the Advancement of Science requested a meeting with Pruitt to discuss a climate science debate, the emails show. The group never heard back, a spokeswoman for the group said yesterday.

Another series of emails from last summer shows that Pruitt did take meetings with a group whose mission is to tout the benefits of carbon dioxide.

In July, a consultant who works with the CO2 Coalition, Mark Carr, thanked Pruitt and his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, for face-to-face conversations between Pruitt and members of the coalition about the "accurate science of Carbon Dioxide."

Carr wrote, "Your boss asked us good questions at those times and to come in and brief him. We value his scarce time and want him to be exceptionally successful. To this end, what is the time horizon for such a briefing?"

He went on, "Many of the initiatives on which you are working now will be easier to manage and communications thereon targets of less viable criticism if senior political and policy leaders at your Agency and across the Executive had a more robust understanding of the true role (or lack of one) CO2 plays in the physical world," Carr wrote.

Mandy Gunasekara, a senior aide to Pruitt on air and climate policy and a former staffer for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), was enthusiastic that EPA officials were working with the CO2 Coalition. In February 2015, Gunasekara handed Inhofe a snowball on the Senate floor as a prop to claim that climate change concerns were unfounded.

"I’ve worked with the CO2 Coalition for a while — they are great," she wrote in an email last year.

The president of the CO2 Coalition, William Happer, is an emeritus Princeton University physics professor who was once considered a top pick to become Trump’s next science adviser. The CO2 Coalition received $150,000 in funding from the Mercers in 2016, the most recent public tax filings show.

Happer was working last year with senior EPA staff to develop a debate over climate science, an idea he has long advocated and Pruitt has championed since becoming administrator.

Jackson reached out to Happer on a Saturday morning in November to see if he could suggest possible members for a military-style "red team" climate debate. Happer appears to have sent some names of scientists who could contribute, but they were not disclosed in the emails. Jackson also mentioned that he was working with Steven Koonin, a former Obama Energy Department official, on the red-team, blue-team idea, and he said to Happer that "part of the idea is really spearheaded from your work."

Happer was recently at EPA headquarters for the rollout of Pruitt’s plan to restrict agency science used in regulations to only research where the data is made public. Critics contend the plan was crafted by industry to downplay key air pollution health studies, where patient health data cannot be made public.

Earlier this year, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Oren Cass gave a personal briefing to Pruitt that followed an earlier briefing to senior EPA staff. Cass accepts mainstream climate science but contends that the economics behind a number of climate regulations are faulty. Cass said he presented his research to Pruitt in January, emphasizing his belief that the economics of climate regulations are inflated because they rely upon on extreme-case future scenarios. He also emphasized that he thinks the social costs of climate risks are inflated because they don’t account for adaptability, such as using air conditioners to save lives during heat waves.

"I don’t think the emphasis on scrutinizing climate science is the most constructive place to focus attention; I think what really needs scrutinizing is economic analyses," Cass said he told EPA officials.

‘Evidence we are flying over the right target’

As the agency’s red-team, blue-team plan became public, groups that fight against mainstream climate science became emboldened, emails show.

Joseph Bast, the former president and co-founder of the Heartland Institute, touted the number of climate skeptics his organization sent to EPA, some of whom are now on advisory boards. He also sent EPA officials a link to a story in the journal Nature that quoted researchers worried about the implications of a public climate science debate amid the upcoming publication of the fourth National Climate Assessment, a sweeping 600-page report.

"Evidence we are flying over the right target," he wrote in an email. The recipient is unclear in the documents released under FOIA.

The EPA team also included the perspective of Heartland-affiliated researchers in briefings for the red team. Scott Armstrong, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, reached out with suggestions for how to fairly structure the red team, including how to look for bias in regulations. Armstrong, who has a doctorate in management, received an award from the Heartland Institute for "Lifetime Achievement in Climate Science" in 2017.

"The Red team-Blue team approach recognizes that it is hard for people — including scientists and public officials — to be objective about public policy issues," he wrote. "The solution that it provides is akin to the adversarial system that we use in our courts."

EPA staffers wrote in an email that his suggestions for reforming science at the agency should be placed into a daily briefing for Pruitt.

"Putting this in his binder for the week. I’ll make sure he sees it," wrote Lincoln Ferguson, senior adviser for public affairs at EPA.

Pruitt has met with a group of former EPA transition officials and prominent climate change skeptics to discuss policy multiple times at the Heritage Foundation headquarters in Washington, D.C. As the agency was crafting the red team, Pruitt traveled to the Heritage Foundation late last year to announce publicly that it was coming in early 2018. However, the red team has not been rolled out, amid pressure from the White House. It’s not clear whether it will happen.

The emails show EPA officials spoke with Rupert Darwall, author of "Green Tyranny: Exposing the Totalitarian Roots of the Climate Industrial Complex," at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, last November. After they had returned, Darwall sent to Gunasekara a copy of a paper to be published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute that he wrote about the red-team idea. He noted that it was "the best go-to justification for Administrator Pruitt’s red/blue team appraisal."

"Instead of debating, highlighting, and where possible, resolving disagreement, many mainstream climate scientists work in a symbiotic relationship with environmental activists and the news media to stoke fear about allegedly catastrophic climate change, providing a scientific imprimatur for an aggressive policy response while declining to air private doubts and the systematic uncertainties," he wrote.