HOW DOES A DEMOCRACY DECIDE SCIENTIFIC FACTS? SCOTT PRUITT’S RED TEAM/BLUE TEAM CLIMATE REALITY SHOW

Posted on July 19, 2017 by Karl Coplan

Reuters reports that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, responding to a suggestion in a Wall Street Journal editorial, is planning to set up a “red team/blue team” war-game style debate to resolve the question in his mind about the validity of scientific predictions of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. According to Administrator Pruitt, this “debate” would be televised. Pruitt said that this debate was “not necessarily” meant to undermine EPA’s 2009 Endangerment Finding that triggers Clean Air Act regulation of greenhouse gases, and added that he would prefer that Congress weigh in on the matter.

The prospect of a reality television show style competition designed to resolve for the United States a matter of scientific consensus reached by just about every other nation in the world should concern anyone hoping that EPA’s initial moves to regulate greenhouse gases might survive the Trump administration. But this prospect also illustrates tensions between the administrative state that allows a coherent system of environmental regulation to exist, and the American polity’s identity as a self-governing democracy where political truth is determined by trial in the “marketplace of ideas” guaranteed by First Amendment freedom of expression.

This “marketplace of ideas” metaphor, of course, was first voiced by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his eloquent dissent in Abrams v. United States :

But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

In a later dissent, in Gitlow v. United States, Holmes expressed that his commitment to the results of this free competition in ideas was so strong that should the arguments in favor of a proletarian dictatorship gain majority approval, he must accept that result.

The foundations of the administrative state are in tension with this notion of popular resolution of scientific and economic truths. Administrative agencies are given authority to resolve scientific and technical issues while carrying out broad Congressional mandates, such as the Clean Air Act mandate to regulate air pollutants that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” The basic theory behind this delegation of authority is threefold – 1) that agencies will be staffed by experts better able to resolve technical and scientific issues than Congress; 2) that Congress lacks the resources and attention to engage in the details of regulatory decisionmaking; and 3) that some policy decisions must be at least partially insulated from the political process.

But this delegation of scientific and economic factfinding is always conditional – Congress always retains the power to withdraw the delegation or overrule agency determinations through affirmative legislation.

Is the urgency of climate change a political truth on the order of the choice between socialism and capitalism? Is our commitment to the verdict of the marketplace of ideas in a democracy stronger than our commitment to urgent action to address climate change?

On the other hand a television reality show format may not be what Justice Holmes had in mind when he posited his marketplace of ideas. Further thoughts on this topic appear in an article I wrote a few years back, “Climate Change, Political Truth, and the Marketplace of Ideas.”