President Donald Trump has removed the scientist responsible for overseeing the Fifth National Climate Assessment, and rumors are circulating that his replacement could be a climatologist with a history of denying climate change.
The National Climate Assessment is the country’s most important compilation of climate change data and forecasts. The mandatory report provides a scientific basis for federal actions to slow global warming, and courts regularly cite it when determining whether government regulations are consistent with the best available data.
As a careful work of scientific research, the National Climate Assessment has long been a thorn in President Trump’s side. The last assessment came out in 2018, and it warned that climate change would stress deteriorating infrastructure, disrupt ecosystems, dampen prosperity, and increase economic inequality.
Trump wasn’t pleased. In an attempt to bury the news, his administration released it on Black Friday, and Trump disowned the report the following Monday. “I don’t believe it,” he said, citing absolutely no evidence to support his view and giving the impression of a child sticking his fingers into his ears and shouting, Lalalalala, I can’t hear you.
By order of Congress, the National Climate Assessment must be published every four years, with the next edition due in 2022. If Trump were a clever climate change denier, he would have moved to put his imprint on the process immediately after completing the 2018 edition. Fortunately for the future of humanity, he is not a clever tactician, so he did nothing for a very long time. As recently as October of this year, Trump had failed to even begin the recruitment process for the dozens of scientists required to compile the report. (It’s almost as if Trump assumed he would be in office for four more years and didn’t bother to prepare for any contingency.)
Trump is now scrambling to undermine the next National Climate Assessment. The firing of Michael Kuperberg, an expert in how environmental changes triggered by human activity affect ecosystems, is one of his first moves.
The leading candidate to replace Kuperberg appears to be David Legates, who Trump recently appointed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Legates denies that carbon dioxide is an atmospheric pollutant, and he has strong ties to the Heartland Foundation, a leading climate change denial group linked to the Koch brothers. He was also coauthor on several papers that received oil industry funding, which was not properly disclosed. If Legates is renowned for anything in the scientific world, it’s for being far outside the scientific consensus on climate change.
Legates will do his best to pack the scientific roster for the Fifth National Climate Assessment with climate change deniers. But the wheels of government turn slowly, and the Biden administration will be riding into town in two months to do the overwhelming majority of the work on the report.