Trump’s Latest Attack on Federal Climate Science May Backfire
As planet-warming gases reach levels not previously seen in human history, the Trump administration’s bid to restrict how federal scientists conduct the next National Climate Assessment risks delaying urgent action required to curb emissions and climate change.
But the administration effort could also backfire, becoming yet another loss for a president whose deregulatory efforts struggle to meet basic legal standards while hardening the resolve of career government researchers trying to uphold the scientific method.
Last fall the White House released the second volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a 13-agency analysis of peer-reviewed climate science required by Congress at least every four years. The release cast a shadow over President Donald Trump’s historic assault on environmental regulations and buttressed the United Nations’ dire and widely reported warnings released a month earlier. The National Climate Assessment projected disease, death, and destruction due to extreme weather, sea level rise, and disruptions to ecological systems.
It was no surprise when the Trump administration published the report on Black Friday, the shopping bonanza following Thanksgiving, in what many interpreted as a cynical ploy to bury the report.
Now environmental advocates are questioning officials’ suggestion that the White House might change the methodology of the next report in response to scrutiny the administration didn’t expect to receive over the last one. Admitting he hadn’t yet read the full assessment, Andrew Wheeler, then the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, accused the 300 scientists who authored the National Climate Assessment of political bias and vowed to “take a look at the modeling” to ensure “more realistic projections.”
That effort appears to be making headway, according to a report published Sunday in The New York Times.
The US Geological Survey’s newly appointed director, James Reilly, a former astronaut and oil geologist, ordered the agency to limit its climate model projections to just 21 years out. That’s meant to set the stage for similar changes to the next National Climate Assessment, which is in its early stages and could be released as soon as 2021.
Myron Ebell, the climate change denier at the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank who led Trump’s EPA transition team in 2017, suggested the National Climate Assessment could exclude “worst-case scenario” projections that calculate how much destruction the current rate of warming will wreak.
Keeping the National Climate Assessment from projecting beyond 2040 would violate the Global Change Research Act of 1990, which explicitly requires a report that “analyzes current trends in global change, both human-induced and natural, and projects major trends for the subsequent 25 to 100 years.”
“Any effort to limit climate projections to the year 2040 would be plainly illegal,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
It’s “particularly ironic” that the Trump administration suggests that “worst-case scenario” forecasts, in which emissions continue increasing relatively unabated, are unrealistic, said Susan Joy Hassol, the former senior science writer on the National Climate Assessments that came out in 2000, 2009, and 2014.
“The people doing everything they can to keep us in a high-emissions scenario don’t want us to analyze the ramifications of being in a high-emissions scenario,” said Hassol, now the director of the North Carolina-based nonprofit Climate Communication.
Politicizing the report isn’t a new tactic. In 2000 the incoming George W. Bush administration tried to bury the first National Climate Assessment after scientists had already completed the report. The administration then delayed the second National Climate Assessment and tried to censor entire sections. The ensuing legal battle ended up delaying the release of the report until 2009.
“There was interference, but nobody ever said, ‘You can’t use a high-emissions scenario,’ ‘You can’t use a business-as-usual scenario,’ or ‘You can’t look out a century,’” she said. “That’s just not the way science is done. It’s crazy.”