By Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin
White House officials last year weighedÂ whether to simply â€œignoreâ€ climateÂ studies producedÂ by government scientists or to instead develop â€œa coherent, fact-based message about climate science,â€ according toÂ a memo obtained by The Washington Post.
The document, drafted Sept. 18Â byÂ Michael Catanzaro, PresidentÂ Trumpâ€™s special assistant for domestic energy and environmental policy at the time, highlights the dilemma the administration has faced over climate change since Trump took office.Â Even as Trumpâ€™s deputies have worked methodically to uproot policies aimed at curbing the nationâ€™s carbon output, the administrationâ€™s agencies continue to produce reports showing that climate change is happening, is human-driven and is a threat to the United States.
Catanzaro, who prepared the memo for a meeting of senior White House and agency officials that took place a couple of days later, asked whether the Trump administration should â€œconsider having a firm position on and a coherent, fact-based message about climate science â€” specifically, whether, and to what extent, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are affecting the climate system, and what level of concern that warrants.â€
The memo presented three options without endorsing any of them: conducting a â€œred team/blue teamâ€ exercise to â€œhighlight uncertainties in climate scienceâ€; more formally reviewing the science under the Administrative Procedure Act; orÂ deciding to just â€œignore, and not seek to characterize or question, the science being conducted by Federal agencies and outside entities.â€
It did not consider touting federal scientistsâ€™ findings.
Although administrationÂ officials did not adopt a formal policy in the wake of these deliberations,Â in practice they have largely ignored the findings of U.S. government researchers.Â As a result, theseÂ scientistsÂ have continued to sound the alarm on climate effects such as sea-level rise and wildfires â€” even as top Trump officials emphasize that they can neither endorse nor repudiate these findings.
Last month, U.S. Geological Survey scientists released a Pentagon-funded study that found that low-lying coral atoll islands around the world â€” a number of which host military bases â€” could become â€œuninhabitableâ€ within decades because rising seas will spoil their drinking water supplies well before entirely swallowing the islands themselves.
On Friday, the National Park Service issued a reportÂ â€” without a news release or official announcement â€” projecting that sea-level rise linked to human activity could damage park sites including Virginiaâ€™s Jamestown and Assateague Island as well as Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas and New Orleansâ€™ Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.
â€œThe scientific evidence about accelerating effects of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is so strong, and so prevalent, that it would be impossible to hush it up even if you wanted to,â€ Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a phone interview. â€œCoral deaths and glacier melting and sea-level rise, and all of these things are just so well documented and thereâ€™s just new evidence every day, whether itâ€™s from USGS, or [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], or NASA, or Department of Energy, or various academic institutions. It just canâ€™t be swept under the rug.â€
At the time the memo was drafted, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was pressing Trump to authorize a government-wide â€œred team/blue teamâ€ debate about whether there was a sufficient scientific basis to conclude that human-generated greenhouse gas emissionsÂ are fuelingÂ recent climate change. This came just a few months after the president had pulled out of the 2015 global climate agreement reached in Paris, which committed the United States to cutting its overall carbon output by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
â€œThe idea was to have a basic approach, or agree to some principles, when it comes to climate policy,â€ said George David Banks, who served on the National Economic Council as a special assistant to the presidentÂ on international energy and environment before leaving in February.
The overwhelming majority of scientists, along with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have concluded that human activity has driven warming over the past half a century or more. But Trump has repeatedly questioned this scientific consensus, both as a presidential candidate and since taking office.
Catanzaro, who left his job last month to return to the consulting and lobbying firm CGCN, declined to comment on the memo.
A separate raft of documents, released this month through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, shows that the White House blockedÂ PruittÂ in November from starting the red team/blue team exercise.
Those emails include a draft news release that Pruitt edited, which described him as â€œleading the effortâ€ to assemble a team of experts that could â€œwrite a detailed criticismâ€ of aÂ massive climate science reportÂ the federal government released on Nov. 2. That report,Â largely drafted byÂ the Obama administration, affirmedÂ that climate change is caused by humans and that there is â€œno convincing alternative explanation.â€
The climate science report Pruitt was hoping to reevaluate was released without political editing, said several scientists who worked on it.
â€œThat made it through unscathed,â€ Phil Duffy, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, said of the document, for which he served as a National Academy of Sciences reviewer. â€œI havenâ€™t seen any evidence of any rewrite or any censorship or anything in there.â€
Meanwhile, when reporters asked deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah about the reportâ€™s findings, he replied, â€œThe climate has changed and is always changing,â€ adding that the administrationÂ â€œsupports rigorous scientific analysis and debate.â€
Other top Trump officials have taken a similar approach. Last week,Â when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was asked whether he endorsesÂ NOAAâ€™s conclusion that human activity is driving climate change, he demurred.Â â€œCommerce Departmentâ€™s NOAA has issued various reports that reflect the thinking of their scientists, and those reports in general have been reviewed, sometimes favorably, sometimes less so by other people in that field,â€ he said.
TheÂ administration has scaled back some federal climate programsÂ over the past 1Â½ years, and sought to curtail grants to outside researchers focused on climate change.
NASAâ€™s Carbon Monitoring System program was canceled because of a lack of funding (although Congress is trying to restore it), andÂ NOAAÂ cut back on its climate and global change postdoctoral fellowship offers this year, also citing funding concerns. Officials at EPA and the Interior Department have specifically singled out â€œclimate changeâ€ as a phrase that should not be used in applications for agency funding.
â€œWe hear from federal scientists that theyâ€™re getting the hint that they shouldnâ€™t talk about climate, shouldnâ€™t work on climate, they should downplay it in what theyâ€™re doing,â€ said Gretchen Goldman, research director atÂ the Union of Concerned Scientistsâ€™ Center for Science and Democracy.
But the federal climate science establishment will nonetheless continue to generate findings that could clash with Trumpâ€™s push to expand fossil fuel production in the United States. Although many of these studies do not advocate specific policy approaches, they often outline negative outcomes from CO2 emissions that stem from burning fossil fuels.
The government is on track this year to release the fourthÂ National Climate Assessment, another vast document compiling specific climate-related damages across the United States. That document, along with lastâ€™s yearâ€™s climate science special report, areÂ produced by a program that pulls together the work of 13 federal agencies invested in climate science.
Those agencies, which rangeÂ from the National Science Foundation to NASA, have continuedÂ much of their scientific work.
NASA will put up two new satellite systems this year to study melting ice in the Earthâ€™s polar regions, and will continue airborne missions that study ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica.
NOAA continues to release monthly updates showing how much the Earthâ€™s temperature is deviating from what has been seen in the past. Itâ€™s also steadily tracking ever-rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere â€” which recently lingered above 410 parts per million, averaged over a month, for the first time.
The National Science Foundation continues to run massive Antarctic research operations and fund a wide variety of climate-related research in the field of geosciences. These includes a multimillion-dollar investment to send scientists to study Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica â€” the single greatest threat for fast-rising seas in our lifetimes, several scientific experts said.
Still, even without the â€œred team/blue teamâ€ exercise going forward for now, Pruittâ€™s allies sayÂ thatÂ heÂ may have succeeded in giving themÂ more opportunities to interrogate the findings of federal climate research.Â Tim Huelskamp, a Republican former congressman who serves as president of the Heartland Institute, cited the rule Pruitt proposed last month that wouldÂ require the public release of all data underlying studies used inÂ EPA rulemaking.
â€œWeâ€™ll see where the data goes. Thatâ€™s why the â€˜red team/blue teamâ€™ debate; thatâ€™s on our field,â€ said Huelskamp, whose group has long questioned scientific studies showing a strong human role in driving climate change. â€œWeâ€™re happy to take on those who have been wrong in their modeling of climate studies for years.â€Î¦
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