Scientists inside the 13 agencies that prepared the major report on climate change released quietly on Friday are said to be relieved that the Trump administration did not alter their work, but puzzled by the timing of publication.
That’s according to soundings taken by colleagues outside government who spoke on Monday to Government Executive.
As required under a 1990 statute, the multi-agency U.S. Global Change Research Program released its quadrennial 1,656-page report “The Fourth National Climate Assessment” with expected but dramatic conclusions. They run counter to the deregulatory policies pursed under President Trump at agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
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“Climate change threatens the health and well-being of the American people by causing increasing extreme weather, changes to air quality, the spread of new diseases by insects and pests, and changes to the availability of food and water,” said the fourth edition. “Human health and safety, our quality of life, and the rate of economic growth in communities across the U.S. are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.”
The report released on the day after Thanksgiving was announced in a press release on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, though not on the website of its parent agency, the Commerce Department.
No mention was made on the website of the EPA, perhaps the agency whose policies are most affected by the controversies over climate change. This contrasts with the active commentary the EPA published on the issue under the Obama administration.
The Trump White House played down the new report’s conclusions. A statement on Monday from White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said, “To address future risks, the administration supports a strong economy and access to affordable, reliable energy, which are integral to advancing technology and innovation and the development of resilient, modern infrastructure.”
The new report, which began under Obama, Walters continued, “assesses potential future effects associated with multiple modeling scenarios. The report is largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends by assuming that, despite strong economic growth that would increase greenhouse gas emissions, there would be limited technology and innovation, and a rapidly expanding population.”
To better assess the potential future effects of climate change, the statement continued, “we need to focus on improving the transparency and accuracy of our modeling and projections. The Fifth National Climate Assessment gives us the opportunity to provide for a more transparent and data-driven process that includes fuller information on the range of potential scenarios and outcomes.”
Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a statement that the latest report shows that “policymakers can no longer afford to dismiss or ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change. The science on climate is clear, and we must face the facts in order to address the risks.” He also praised the work of scientists at federal agencies, national labs and academic institutions “who provide significant research findings.”
John Holdren, White House science adviser under Obama, told Government Executive, “It’s clear that, in the end, the White House decided they’d get more grief from trying to alter or delay the report (which had been reviewed by all 13 agencies in the USGCRP as well as by the National Academy of Sciences) than by letting it out unaltered, more or less when ready. Their choice of the afternoon of Black Friday as the time least likely to get attention was clearly not successful, as the study made the front pages of both the [New York Times] and the Washington Post and was headlined on CNN and the major television news networks.”
Some in the science advocacy community said the release of the report on the Friday of a holiday weekend was puzzling. Many were expecting it later, perhaps Dec. 7, preceding the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, according to Rachel Licker, the senior climate scientist at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. The agency scientists she spoke to “were unclear on how and why the decision was made to shift the release date,” she told Government Executive.
Throughout the research process, “there was concern within the community that there could be political interference with the report, but we are not aware of any that actually took place,” she added. “Releasing something this all-important on a holiday,” she said, “suggests they are so concerned about its content, they’re trying to bury it.”
Observers also thought the Trump team would have waited for the probable Senate confirmation of Oklahoma meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to be White House science adviser. The earlier release also allowed the White House to express its skepticism before the Dec. 2-14 meeting of the United Nation’s climate change panel, the Conference of the Parties, in Katowice, Poland.
The Trump administration was equally hands-off during the November 2017 release of the related “Climate Science Special Report,” a pure science document, noted Tamara Dickinson, who led the energy and environment division at the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “We released a draft for public comment and National Academies of Science review before the end of the Obama administration so everyone knew what the latest science was,” she said on Monday from her current post directing climate change issues for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The Trump administration didn’t make any changes to the science.”
Her soundings from inside the government show that “this administration has decided not to mess with the science,” she told Government Executive. “Instead they appear to be ignoring the science. Although this is not optimal, it is better than shutting down the science,” Dickinson said. “Things will change at some point and we will have the great science to rebuild policy on. “
The federal employees who led the fourth assessment were:
- David Reidmiller, chair, U.S. Global Change Research Program
- Michael Kuperberg, U.S. Global Change Research Program
- Chloe Kontos, executive director, National Science and Technology Council
- Kimberly Miller, Office of Management and Budget
- Benjamin DeAngelo, vice chair, Commerce Department
- Farhan Akhtar, State Department
- Daniel Barrie, Commerce Department
- Virginia Burkett, Interior Department (through December 2017)
- Lia Cattaneo, Transportation Department
- Pierre Comizzoli, Smithsonian Institution
- Daniel Dodgen, Health and Human Services Department
- Noel Gurwick, U.S. Agency for International Development
- Pat Jacobberger-Jellison, NASA
- Rawlings Miller, Transportation Department (May–August 2018)
- Kurt Preston, Defense Department
- Margaret Walsh, Agriculture Department
- Tristram West, Energy Department
- Darrell Winner, Environmental Protection Agency