EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s proposal to hold a TV debate on climate change science makes a lot of sense.
This idea is very different from the Red Team exercise that he mentioned previously, which has seen a great deal of discussion, such as here and here. The Red Team exercise would be a highly technical scientific debate. In contrast a TV debate would be designed to, as Pruitt puts it, reach the American people. It could also be a great teaching tool.
How to design such a debate raises some challenging issues. These include how many debaters should participate and who should they be, what the format should be, and at what education level should the scientific issues be discussed?
Taking the last issue first, some detractors are likely to say that the average American cannot understand the scientific debate, because it is simply too technical. It certainly can be technical, but consider this. Many States have adopted the new, so-called Next Generation Science Standards and these have climate change science being first taught in middle school, which is defined as grades 6 through 8. So the average 12 to 14 year old is expected to understand the basics of climate change science.
The average American has more education than middle school. My guess is that many of the people who are likely to watch a climate change debate will have attended some college, although they may not have taken much science there. So I would shoot for a high school level, or perhaps a bit more. If someone cannot present their side of the climate debate at this level then they should not be on the stage.
The number of debaters is not a trivial question. There is a broad range of opinion on both sides, so having just two or three people is probably not a good plan. For example, on the skeptical side there are Lukewarmers who accept the hypothesis of human caused climate change (but think it benign) as well as hard line Skeptics who do not accept it. So it might be best if there were two teams but the team members did not have to agree among themselves. If this seems complicated, that the debate is complex is an important point to get across.
As to format, long speeches should be prohibited because it is important to have as much back and forth as possible. Debate matches are a common collegiate exercise so it is likely that there are a number of well tested models to choose from. But as with the Presidential debates, in no case should there be judges or scoring. The object of this exercise is to let the American people see the debate, not to pick a winner.
Who should debate is also a tough question. While it might make sense to have leading scientists, it is far more important to have articulate communicators. Some scientists do have experience with television and radio and they might be best. But the public does not care how many unreadable papers a speaker has published. They just want to understand what is being said. So perhaps the debaters need not even be scientists; they might even be teachers.
A very tricky issue is whether or not to allow slides. Much of the debate concerns data from observations and from climate models. This is why in the climate blog world slides and graphs abound. But most of these displays take a long time to understand, which defeats the purpose of a live debate. Perhaps it should all be verbal.
All things considered an official TV debate on climate change science might be just what the American people want and need. They need to see the scientific debate in action, to see that the science is far from settled.