The National Climate Assessment, the United States’ primary contribution to climate knowledge, stands out for many reasons: Hundreds of scientists from the federal government and academia are joining forces to compile the best available information on change climate. The results, published only about twice a decade, shape years of government decisions.
Today, as time is running out for President Trump’s tenure, the climate assessment has gained a new accolade: it is one of the few major US climate initiatives that his administration has attempted, but in large part, to undermine.
How the Trump White House attempted to score the report, and why those efforts failed, demonstrates the resilience of federal climate science despite the administration’s haphazard efforts to hinder it. This article is based on interviews with nearly a dozen current and former government officials and others familiar with the process.
In November, the administration removed the person responsible for the report’s next edition and replaced him with someone who downplayed climate science, although at this point it seems to be too little, too late. But the efforts began in 2018, when officials kicked out a senior official and relied on scientists to soften their findings – the scientists refused – then later attempted to bury the report, which did not neither worked.
“Thank goodness they didn’t know how to run a government,” said Thomas Armstrong, who under the Obama administration led the US Global Change Research Program, which produces the assessment. “It could have been a lot worse.”
What makes the failure to hamper the climate assessment remarkable is that Mr. Trump has made undermining efforts to tackle climate change a top priority. And on most fronts he has succeeded, overturning dozens of environmental rules, easing restrictions on air pollution and opening up new land for oil and gas drilling.
The national assessment is uniquely important, bringing together the work of scientists from across the federal government. The law requires a new one every four years.
For Mr. Trump, who called climate change a hoax, the assessment posed a particular challenge. Trying to politicize or dismiss climate science is one thing when the warnings come from Democrats or academics. But this report comes from his administration’s own agencies.
The first evidence of this tension came in the summer of 2018, as federal scientists were completing the fourth national climate assessment. The report warned that climate change would endanger public safety and economic growth. And he said that the reduction in emissions “can significantly reduce climate-related risks,” at odds with the Trump administration’s efforts to reverse those cuts.
Stuart Levenbach, a politician who was then chief of staff to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the assessment, urged the scientists preparing the document to tone down the conclusions of their report summary, according to the people involved in the discussions.
Dr Levenbach, who is now a senior adviser to the White House National Economic Council, said in a statement he just wanted the summary to be clearer on the assumptions it was based on for future broadcasts.
Career staff refused to make these changes. This refusal came at a cost: Virginia Burkett, a climatologist at the US Geological Survey who was president of the Global Change Research Program, was forced to step down. However, the language of the report remained intact.
The White House referred questions about Dr. Burkett to the Geological Survey. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The administration then released the document the day after Thanksgiving, in an apparent attempt to downplay the attention. (A White House spokeswoman, who declined to be identified by name, said via email: “The day after Thanksgiving is a federal working day, and it is not unusual for federal business be conducted on the days preceding federal holidays. ”)
This approach backfired: many news agencies interpreted the opportune moment as proof of the report’s importance, giving it prominent coverage.
Having failed to modify or bury the report, Mr. Trump and his senior officials then attempted to dismiss it.
President Trump, when asked about the assessment’s findings that global warming could devastate the economy, replied, “I don’t believe so. Her press secretary at the time, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the assessment was “not based on facts.” Ryan Zinke, who was Home Secretary at the time, said his findings focused on “worst case scenarios”.
After the climate assessment was released, the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy, which oversees the global change research program, decided it was best to stop talking about it at all, according to the reports. involved persons.
The office has ceased any activity that might draw attention to the evaluation. Additional reports, meant as periodic updates, have ceased to be published. Plans for the authors to meet local officials in places threatened by climate change and talk about their findings have been shelved.
The White House spokeswoman called descriptions of the White House’s actions “bogus.” She refused a request to make the senior officials involved in the assessment available for an interview.
Urging staff not to talk about his work has managed to keep him off the radar of Mr. Trump and his senior officials, at least for a while. This helped energy lobbyists focus on the actions of other parts of government, whose regulations directly affected their businesses.
But the decision to avoid attention came at a cost, officials say, reducing public awareness of the report’s findings and slowing work on the next one.
Another White House move would also help keep the climate assessment out of the news: Scientific bureau chief Kelvin Droegemeier has delayed the release of the next episode, to 2023 from 2022, people close to them say of his decision.
The Global Change Research Program website now says the “scheduled delivery” for the next report is 2023. The White House spokeswoman said the final timeline has not been set.
But that delay had a silver lining, said Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane University who edited two chapters for the previous assessment. Every report builds on the scientific research it draws on – and under the Trump administration, new climate research has slowed down, Dr Keenan said.
Delaying the release of the next assessment “will give us an opportunity to catch our breath and get results next year” from federal scientists, he said.
This year, the White House has once again turned its attention to the climate assessment.
An important step in the creation of each new version is the appeal to authors, who shape the tone of the report. The notice, which usually also provides an overview of what will be covered, has been delayed by several months by the Trump administration, according to several people familiar with the decision. And when it was finally released in October, the wording had been changed: Policy appointees had removed information on specific topics to be covered.
Federal scientists were concerned the change would indicate a plan to truncate the scope of the assessment – allowing the administration to follow the letter of the law, while avoiding topics that could go against what the White House wanted to hear.
The White House spokeswoman said that “organizing the information into specific chapters remains a work in progress.”
These concerns intensified in November, when the White House dismissed the head of the research program on global change, Michael Kuperberg, a climatologist at the Department of Energy. Dr Kuperberg has been replaced by David Legates, a man named Trump at NOAA who previously worked closely with groups that deny climate change.
The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
A second NOAA politician Ryan Maue, who criticized climate scientists for what he called unnecessarily dire predictions, has been transferred to a role in the White House that gave him authority over the climate agenda.
The nominations sparked anxiety among scientists, who feared it represented an effort by the administration to learn from its failure to change the previous assessment, by installing loyalists who could shape the next edition.
The White House refused to make Dr. Legates or Dr. Maue available for an interview.
But several people familiar with the process say it may not be too late for some sort of Hail Mary to pass through the Trump administration – for example, rushing to select authors who might downplay science of climate change or trying to present this science as uncertain. This would force the Biden administration to bypass or suppress those perpetrators, which could spark a political struggle.
But the most likely outcome, current and former officials say, is that recent hires are another example of how the Trump administration’s agenda has been hampered by its own shortcomings – the failure to understand how the programs that she wanted to reduce actually work, or also evolve. late to make a difference.
The administration should have acted sooner to put its footprint on climate assessment, said Judith Curry, former president of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, who said she been in contact with Dr Maue and other officials. .
“It just didn’t surface on the priority list,” Dr Curry said. “Why they started doing this at the 11th hour, honestly, I don’t know.”
John Holdren, who as President Obama’s science adviser helped oversee the climate assessment process, said he believed the Biden administration would be able to get it back on track and rule out anyone who tried. to undermine it.
“The lingering climate waffles of the Trump era, in all relevant agencies, will be removed,” Dr. Holdren said. “Or if that’s not possible, we tell them to fight.