Trump team seeks nominees for huge climate report

Source: Zack Colman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Trump administration plans to send participants to the panel considered the vanguard of climate science.

The State Department announced yesterday that it’s seeking nominees to take part in the sixth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the latest comprehensive report from a U.N.-led group whose work shapes the world’s understanding of how humans are warming the planet and how the planet responds to that warming. The next IPCC analysis is due to be completed in 2022.

In its call for nominations, the State Department said it wants to “ensure that high-caliber U.S. scientists have the opportunity to participate.”

A looming question for some: Which scientists will Trump send?

Given administration officials’ efforts to cast doubt on mainstream climate change research, might President Trump send a Trojan horse filled with skeptics of that consensus to the most well-regarded body of scientists working on the issue?

“I pray not,” Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and lead author of a chapter of the IPCC’s fifth assessment, said in an email.

Many of the administration’s allies in the climate space revile the IPCC and have sought to restrict participation of U.S. scientists. Those allies, along with some Republicans, have criticized the panel for being closed off to skeptical interpretations of mainstream climate science.

If the administration were to send a list of climate skeptics to the IPCC — which chooses lead authors for its chapters from the rosters that countries submit but also has discretion to pool from outside those lists — it would follow a trend of considering outlier voices for science positions. U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, for example, is weighing several people to join a climate science advisory panel who question the links between human activity, emissions and warming (Climatewire, Sept. 17).

“We have seen other countries send lists including pure political appointments,” Charles Kolstad, an environmental economist at Stanford University and a lead author of a chapter of the IPCC’s fifth assessment, said in an email. “The only way to guard against this is for the IPCC to take a close look at who is being nominated by the US and others. But the IPCC is also subject to political pressure.”

It’s possible the Trump administration has little interest waging a climate battle in a high-profile, international forum like the IPCC.

Some climate scientists are happy to see the administration soliciting participants.

“It is good to see that the State Department is requesting nominations,” said Dennis Hartmann, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington and a lead author of a chapter in the IPCC’s fifth assessment.

“The participation of U.S. scientists in IPCC is funded by U.S. government agencies,” Hartmann said. “If the U.S. sat out one IPCC cycle, an assessment report could be produced without us, to the detriment of our power and influence in the world, in my opinion.”

‘Black box’ for picking names

The State Department published a Sept. 13 notice in the Federal Register looking for nominations, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program asked for recommendations in an email yesterday.

“As we have in the past, the State Department will be collecting author nominations for the next IPCC reports through an open call,” a State spokesperson said via email.

Whether the appointments are based on ideology or expertise remains in question, noted Dan Walker. He was chief of staff to Sharon Hayes, who refereed the selection process at former President George W. Bush’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Walker said scientists were chosen based on expertise.

“Calling for nominations is not unusual, but there is certainly room for concern,” said Walker. He is now associate director of multidisciplinary studies at the Center for Technology and Systems Management in the University of Maryland’s civil and environmental engineering department.

“What qualification State Department will look for is an open question,” he added.

Kolstad, who worked on the IPCC’s last assessment, said, “There is a black box of how the State Department filters the names submitted to pass on to the IPCC.”

And IPCC veteran Hartmann said there’s value in having more skeptical viewpoints on the panel if the scientists have requisite expertise on a given question. Maintaining openness, transparency and comprehensiveness is a hallmark of the IPCC process, and insofar as the science can be backed up, such input is welcomed, he said.

Ultimately, though, the body of scientific evidence has confirmed humans are responsible for rising temperatures, Hartmann said. Scientists who deny or reject that finding are unlikely to win a spot on the IPCC, given the need for such tortured science to arrive at a different conclusion.

David Victor, who also worked on the IPCC’s fifth assessment, said the selection process allows member governments “a lot of discretion over the list of scientists involved, but it doesn’t give anybody outright appointment rights.”

He added, “I doubt there will be extreme lightning-rod skeptics ultimately named to the panel. But they might get nominated, and it certainly will generate several news cycles. Probably will have almost no impact on the final reports, but it will generate a lot of nasty attention and dramas.”