Why climate critics were sidelined in Trump’s final days

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A last-ditch effort by climate critics to cement their views in the public record fell apart yesterday after two of their own were summarily dismissed by White House officials.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) removed climate denialist David Legates yesterday after it was revealed that he attempted to publish cherry-picked and incomplete claims about global warming.

Legates, along with NOAA chief scientist Ryan Maue, were “relieved of duties” at the White House after it was revealed they were part of an effort to publish a series of flyers that blamed climate change on solar energy and natural variability, among other misleading assertions.

The papers, dubbed the “Climate Change Flyers,” used the White House executive seal as well as the seal from OSTP — even though neither was approved. They were an attempt to establish a government record of denialist claims that could be used in both the National Climate Assessment as well as in court cases against regulations, according to those involved.

The effort surprised OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier and was not authorized.

“Dr. Droegemeier was outraged to learn of the materials that were not shared with or approved by OSTP leadership. He first became aware of the documents when contacted by the press,” spokeswoman Kristina Baum said in a statement. “As a result, Dr. Droegemeier took swift action and the individuals responsible have been relieved of their duties at OSTP.”

Even as the Trump administration has rolled back dozens of climate regulations, deleted climate information from government websites and penalized federal climate scientists, it was never able to successfully roll out its own distorted version of climate science.

The effort to publish research that could persuade people to believe that climate change is driven by natural variability instead of humanity’s consumption of fossil fuels never got off the ground in Trump’s first term.

That it persisted until Trump’s final days in office, however, shows that a second Trump term likely would have featured more attempts to empower climate denialism, critics said.

“I am appalled at the publication of the so-called ‘Climate Change Flyers’ which are a clear last ditch effort by climate deniers in the Trump Administration to sow seeds of doubt about the reality of climate change,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat and chairwoman of the House Science Committee, in a statement.

“I am glad to learn that Director Kelvin Droegemeier has taken swift action and removed the individuals from service at OSTP,” she added.

Legates serves in a senior role at NOAA, and Maue is a meteorologist and longtime climate science critic formerly employed by the conservative Cato Institute. A NOAA spokesman declined to discuss specifics, but said the “actions will be reviewed under the NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy, but we don’t discuss personnel matters.”

Both will leave NOAA by the end of this week.

The papers were published on climate denialist blogs as well as the website of the Center for Environmental Research and Earth Sciences, which is affiliated with Willie Soon, a researcher who received more than $1 million in funding from the fossil fuel industry and who blames climate change on solar energy variability. Soon, who has co-authored numerous studies with Legates, also wrote one of the climate flyers.

Legates was specifically recruited into the administration by the White House personnel office in September to interfere with the fifth version of the National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report that is scheduled to be drafted every four years and is a compendium of the latest climate science.

By November, Legates had been appointed to run the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates American climate research, and was detailed to the White House. He also recruited a number of his longtime affiliates, many of them associated with the conservative Heartland Institute, which seeks to confuse the public on climate change. Their goal was to create a narrative that humanity’s role in climate change is questionable and could be blamed on natural causes, according to those involved.

Legates’ abrupt removal, coupled with Trump’s electoral loss, also means his initial goal, of transforming the National Climate Assessment into a showcase of disputed climate research, has now ended. Some of the authors Legates wanted to work on the next iteration — including longtime climate scientist John Christy, Alabama’s state climatologist — said they had not yet been approved to work on the next volume even though they had applied through official channels.

Will Happer, a Princeton University professor emeritus of physics who used his tenure on the National Security Council in a failed attempt to create a hostile review of climate science, was recruited to write one of the essays for Legates.

Happer’s adversarial review of the National Climate Assessment was shut down by Trump White House and campaign officials, including Droegemeier. Happer said yesterday that he figured the effort would not go anywhere after Trump lost reelection.

In a phone interview, Happer also criticized former Secretary of State John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, and said the attempt to bring his brand of climate science into the government had failed.

“As far as the climate assessment, presumably it’s going to be run by climate geniuses, Mr. Kerry and his crew, so there is no room for real science there,” Happer said. “I’ve got better things to do with my time then this Sisyphean task of trying to deal with a religious cult.”