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As election nears, Trump makes a final push against climate science

The headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in SIlver Spring, Md.
The headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in SIlver Spring, Md.Stefani Reynolds/New York Times/File 2020

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has recently removed the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s premier scientific agency, installed new political staff who have questioned accepted facts about climate change, and imposed stricter controls on communications at the agency.

The moves threaten to stifle a major source of objective US government information about climate change that underpins federal rules on greenhouse gas emissions and offer an indication of the direction the agency will take if President Trump wins reelection.

An early sign of the shift came last month, when Erik Noble, a former White House policy adviser who had just been appointed NOAA’s chief of staff, removed Craig McLean, the agency’s acting chief scientist.

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McLean had sent some of the new political appointees a message that asked them to acknowledge the agency’s scientific integrity policy, which prohibits manipulating research or presenting ideologically driven findings.

The request prompted a sharp response from Noble. “Respectfully, by what authority are you sending this to me?” he wrote, according to a person who received a copy of the exchange after it was circulated within NOAA.

McLean answered that his role as acting chief scientist made him responsible for ensuring that the agency’s rules on scientific integrity were followed.

The following morning, Noble responded. “You no longer serve as the acting chief scientist for NOAA,” he informed McLean, adding that a new chief scientist had already been appointed. “Thank you for your service.”

It was not the first time NOAA had drawn the administration’s attention. Last year, the agency’s weather forecasters came under pressure for contradicting Trump’s false statements about the path of Hurricane Dorian.

But in an administration where even uttering the words “climate change” is dangerous, NOAA has, so far, remained remarkably independent in its ability to conduct research about and publicly discuss changes to Earth’s climate. It also still maintains numerous public websites that declare, in direct opposition to Trump, that climate change is occurring, is overwhelmingly caused by humans, and presents a serious threat to the United States.

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Replacing McLean, who remains at the agency, was Ryan Maue, a former researcher for the libertarian Cato Institute who has criticized climate scientists for what he has called unnecessarily dire predictions.

Maue, a research meteorologist, and Noble were joined at NOAA by David Legates, a professor at the University of Delaware’s geography department who has questioned human-caused global warming. Legates was appointed to the position of deputy assistant secretary, a role that did not previously exist.

Neil Jacobs, the NOAA administrator, was not involved in the hirings, according to two people familiar with the selection process.

The agency did not respond to requests for comment and a request to make the new officials available for an interview.

NOAA officials have tried to get information about what role the new political staff members would play and what their objectives might be, with little success. According to people close to the administration who have questioned climate science, though, their primary goal is to undercut the National Climate Assessment.

The assessment, a report from 13 federal agencies and outside scientists led by NOAA, which the government is required by law to produce every four years, is the premier American contribution to knowledge about climate risks and serves as the foundation for federal regulations to combat global warming. The latest report, in 2018, found that climate change poses an imminent and dire threat to the United States and its economy.

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“The real issue at play is the National Climate Assessment,” said Judith Curry, a former chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology who said she has been in contact with Maue, the new chief scientist. “That’s what the powers that be are trying to influence.”

In addition to Curry, the strategy was described by Myron Ebell, a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a former member of Trump’s transition team, and John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama Huntsville.

A biased or diminished climate assessment would have wide-ranging implications.

It could be used in court to bolster the positions of fossil fuel companies being sued for climate damages. It could counter congressional efforts to reduce carbon emissions. And, it ultimately could weaken what is known as the “endangerment finding,” a 2009 scientific finding by the Environmental Protection Agency that said greenhouse gases endanger public health and thus obliged the federal government to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Other changes in the works could include shifting NOAA funding to researchers who reject the established scientific consensus on climate change and eliminating the use of certain scientific models that project dire consequences for the planet if countries do little to reduce carbon dioxide pollution.

Noble, the new chief of staff, has already pushed to install a new layer of scrutiny on grants that NOAA awards for climate research, according to people familiar with those discussions.

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Meaningfully changing the National Climate Assessment’s findings would be hard to accomplish, according to Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists and coauthor of a chapter in the latest edition of the report.

Still, Ekwurzel said NOAA’s role leading the report is vital and added that any attempt to undermine climate research for political purposes would threaten public safety and economic growth. “You need to have a well-functioning scientific enterprise,” she said. “The more we back away from that, the more we erode our democracy.”

Most of the changes at NOAA could be reversed by the next president, officials say, making next week’s election a referendum on the future of the agency.