Trump didn’t mess with climate study. But he might ignore it

Source: Zack Colman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 7, 2017

President Trump might not like the findings of a major federal climate science report released last week, but he would have had trouble suppressing it these days — even if he wanted to.

Some scientists inside the federal government fear speaking out about their work under the Trump administration. Some experts have been blocked from speaking about climate change at public events. The president and many of his Cabinet members have been publicly skeptical about mainstream climate science and the role humans are playing, taking policy positions that contradict the findings of the government’s own science.

So some were wary that the administration would try to edit or stifle the quadrennial National Climate Assessment, part of which was released Friday. Trump’s critics said they watched such interference occur under the George W. Bush administration and they were worried it would happen again.

“There was a lot of monkey-wrenching with science in the Bush administration,” said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He said the situation is more dire today given the increased certainty of the science and rise in emissions since the Bush years.

But academic scientists working on the reports who spoke to E&E News said the Trump team didn’t try to interfere with the process.

It may be in part due to changes in the scientific community’s messaging, improved public understanding of climate change or scientific integrity protocols installed at agencies after accusations of interference by the Bush administration. The modes for disseminating information through social media and the internet also have also made government interference more traceable in recent years.

“It is important that this report has come out, and it’s impressive, actually, that the administration has agreed to release it. So we’re very hopeful that this means that this is a [conversation] people are allowed to have now,” said Kathy Jacobs, a former White House Office of Science and Technology Policy official who worked on the three previous National Climate Assessments.

“My guess is they do not want to have that debate. [The administration] actually would like this report to come out and have there not be many ripples, and I think that’s probably why there haven’t been many changes to it.”

Scientists getting out of ‘comfort zones’

Frumhoff said the administration’s actions on climate have spurred a more vocal science community.

“For this administration, in this moment, with that window [to avert climate change] closing — withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, saying it’s going to the climate conference to talk about coal, to muzzle scientists — I think people are now willing to step out of their comfort zones and speak out,” he said.

Scientists, historically content to let their work and the facts do the talking, are speaking up more now that Trump and his team are questioning their work. And longer-term trends such as flatlining federal research spending — or cutting it, as the Trump administration wishes to do — have also fueled a stronger response.

Political action groups like 314 Action are encouraging scientists to run for political office. Organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists said scientists from red-leaning parts of the country who want to be more active in their communities are reaching out about how to best talk about their work. Professional science organizations have noticed the urgency from their members.

It’s not easy to communicate that message.

Social media and the fractured news media environment have deepened polarization about climate science, in part sparking scientists’ drive to engage with the public. That dynamic is reflected in public opinion as well: While half of Americans in nearly every congressional district say global warming is happening, just 53 percent of Americans say it’s due mostly to human activities, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

“In the seven years I’ve been here, we’ve seen increasing requests about further education about how to communicate science,” said Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union. “Certainly when there’s a feeling where there could be an increase in pressure on future funding, they feel they need to be more active. But that’s not a new thing, that’s just accelerating.”

White House: Climate ‘always changing’

Some of the findings released Friday underscore the sophistication of attribution science, which seeks to ascribe human fingerprints to events related to climate change. The final draft of the Climate Science Special Report, for example, said human activity is responsible for 80 percent of sea-level rise since the 1970s (E&E News PM, Nov. 3).

Attribution science is somewhat controversial, but it also tracks with people’s perception of climate change and how it affects them. Increasingly frequent and severe wildfires, persistent flooding, and stronger storms that scientists say climate change makes more likely have elevated climate change in the public consciousness, said Jacobs, who is now director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona. All that has reinforced the demand for the publication of climate science studies as people seek to understand the changing planet.

“The solidification of the evidence but also the pace of change has been increasing, and there is documentation now in every region and every sector,” Jacobs said. “The evidence on the ground is much more visible.”

Still, even with scientists being more vocal and public awareness on climate change deepening, the Trump White House will likely continue to pursue policies that run counter to the findings of the final draft of the Climate Science Special Report, two volumes of the National Climate Assessment and a draft of the State of the Carbon Cycle Report.

The White House did not respond to questions from E&E News about whether it would speak publicly about the report, which directly contradicts many of the administration’s comments and policy preferences. After all, it was NOAA and not the White House that released and held a press call announcing the report.

“The climate has changed and is always changing,” White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said in a statement, later adding, “The Administration supports rigorous scientific analysis and debate and encourages public comment on the draft documents being released today.”

That doesn’t mean the reports are devoid of real-world implications, even if the Trump administration doesn’t agree with their findings.

The studies, conducted by federal scientists across 13 agencies and some scientists in academia, now add to the body of evidence that could be used to push back against Trump climate policies. They also bolster the Obama administration’s endangerment finding — a determination that humans are primary drivers of greenhouse gases that warm the planet and endanger human health. That finding underpins U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations.