WASHINGTON – The White House has removed the scientist responsible for the National Climate Assessment, the federal government‘s primary contribution to climate knowledge and the basis for regulation to fight global warming, in what critics have interpreted as the latest sign that the Trump administration intends to use its remaining months in power to continue hampering climate science and policy.
Michael Kuperberg, executive director of the US Global Change Research Program, which produces the climate assessment, learned on Friday that he would no longer lead the organization, people with knowledge of the situation said.
According to two people close to the administration, he should be replaced by David Legates, deputy assistant secretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who previously worked closely with climate change denial groups.
Dr Kuperberg’s departure comes amid a larger push, following Mr Trump’s defeat last week by President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., to impeach officials who have fallen against him of the White House. Also on Friday, Neil Chatterjee, head of the agency that regulates the country’s utility markets, was demoted by the White House after publicly supporting the use of renewable energy.
In a message to his colleagues, Dr Kuperberg said he was returning to his old post at the Department of Energy. He was removed from the staff list on the Research Program’s website on Monday.
Dr Kuperberg did not respond to requests for comment. The Global Change research program falls under the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. Asked why Dr Kuperberg was dismissed from her post, Kristina Baum, a spokesperson for that office, said Monday that “we do not comment on personnel matters”.
Dr Kuperberg’s dismissal appears to be the Trump administration’s latest setback for the National Climate Assessment, a report by 13 federal agencies and outside scientists that the government is legally required to produce every four years. The most recent report, in 2018, found that climate change poses an imminent and serious threat to the United States and its economy.
A biased or diminished climate assessment would have broad implications.
It could be used in court to strengthen the positions of fossil fuel companies sued for climate damage. This could thwart efforts by Congress to reduce carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming.
And, ultimately, it could weaken what’s known as the “endangerment finding,” a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency scientific finding that carbon dioxide and other gas emissions greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health and are therefore subject to government regulation. Undermining this conclusion could make it harder to tackle climate change under the terms of the Clean Air Act.
The agency most involved in this report is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the country’s leading climate agency. In September, the White House installed new political staff at NOAA who questioned the science of climate change. People familiar with the administration’s strategy said the goal was to use NOAA’s influence to undermine the national climate assessment.
“They’re just trying to take control of it all so that they can control the thinking on the national climate assessment,” Judith Curry, former president of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said in an interview. . Monday.
One of the new political recruits was Dr Legates, a professor in the geography department at the University of Delaware and now an assistant administrator at NOAA who has worked closely for years with climate denial groups and argued that carbon dioxide “is a plant food and not a pollutant. According to two people, including Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a former member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, Dr. Legates is currently being considered for Dr. Kuperberg’s post as head of the research program on global change.
Mr Ebell, whose organization has championed the appointment of Dr Legates and others who challenge the established science of climate change, said the intention was for him to lead the program while continuing in his post to NOAA. “It could be a short-term appointment,” Ebell said, given the election of President-elect Biden, who has said he will engage in aggressive efforts to tackle climate change.
“If he’s only running him for two months and a week, then he might not get very far, but let’s see what can be done in two months. Maybe the next administration will reject all of this, but maybe some changes will be enacted, who knows, ”Mr. Ebell said.
Marc Morano, a prominent denial of the established science of climate change, applauded Mr Kuperberg’s departure and said he expects Mr Legates to be named. “The Trump administration is ‘listening to the science’ by eliminating anti-science proponents of extreme climate scenarios. These measures are long overdue, ”he said.
Dr Legates did not respond to a request for comment.
Federal employees, who asked not to be identified because they feared retaliation from the White House, said they feared the administration’s goal in removing Dr Kuperberg would be to make it easier to choose perpetrators of the report that also question the severity of climate change. . Those who have publicly attacked climate science, like Mr. Ebell and Mr. Morano, have said that was the goal.
While the new Biden administration could overturn those decisions, it would slow down the production of the climate assessment. The next edition, which was due out by 2022, has already been postponed to 2023.
Dr Kuperberg’s impeachment is not the only example of the Trump administration taking action that could hamper climate policy in its final months.
Mr Chatterjee, a Republican demoted Friday as chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, had recently drawn the wrath of the White House. He had backed a series of proposals that would expand the use of large-scale battery storage in the power grid, thereby encouraging the use of wind and solar power, while allowing electric utilities to charge fees. of use for energy produced from coal and natural gas, which would discourage the use of these fossil fuels.
Similar to the findings of the national climate assessment, the actions Mr. Chatterjee took were at odds with Mr. Trump’s policies, which were aimed at aggressively increasing the use of coal and other fossil fuels. , mainly by reducing regulations. The White House replaced Chatterjee as chairman of the panel with another member of the committee, James Danly, who opposed efforts to promote renewable energy.
“It’s 100% retribution,” Chatterjee said in a telephone interview of the White House’s decision to demote him from his presidency. “It validates my independence and my integrity. I’ll keep my head up.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the White House would not comment on personnel matters. Mr Chatterjee will remain a member of the five-member committee and has said he intends to fulfill his current term, which ends in June.
Rachel Licker, climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, criticized the actions of officials in the Trump administration. “Even in their last days, they continue to try to bury the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.”