The National Climate Assessment, America’s premier contribution to climate knowledge, is distinguished for many reasons: Hundreds of federal and academic scientists work together to gather the best knowledge available on climate change. The results, which were published roughly twice a decade, shape government decisions that have lasted for years.
Now that President Trump’s term is up, the climate rating has received a new award: it is one of the few major US climate initiatives that his administration tried to undermine but largely failed.
How Trump’s White House tried to shape the report, and why those efforts stalled, shows the resilience of federal climate science despite the government’s arbitrary efforts to hamper it. This article is based on interviews with nearly a dozen current and former government officials and others familiar with the process.
In November, the administration removed the person responsible for the next edition of the report and replaced him with someone who downplayed climate science, even though it seems too little and too late at this point. However, the effort began as early as 2018 when officials ousted a top official and relied on scientists to temper their conclusions – the scientists refused – and later tried to bury the report, which also failed.
“Thank goodness they didn’t know how to run a government,” said Thomas Armstrong, who during the Obama administration led the US Global Change Research Program that produced the assessment. “It could have been a lot worse.”
What makes the failure to stifle climate assessment remarkable is that Mr Trump has made it a top priority to undercut efforts to combat climate change. And on most fronts, he succeeded in reversing numerous environmental regulations, easing air pollution restrictions, and opening up new land for oil and gas drilling.
The national assessment has a unique significance and brings together the work of scientists across the federal government. The law prescribes a new one every four years.
For Mr Trump, who called climate change a joke, the assessment was a particular challenge. Trying to politicize or disapprove of climate science is one thing when the warnings come from Democrats or scientists. However, this report comes from his own administration.
The first evidence of this tension came in the summer of 2018, when federal scientists completed the fourth national climate assessment. The report warned that climate change would threaten public safety and economic growth. And it is said that reducing emissions “can significantly reduce climate-related risks,” which goes against the efforts of the Trump administration to reverse such cuts.
Stuart Levenbach, a political officer who was then chief of staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration overseeing the assessment, urged the scientists to prepare the document in order to tone down the results in their report summary, according to people involved in the discussions.
Dr. Levenbach, who is now senior advisor to the White House National Economic Council, said in a statement that he just wanted the summary to be clearer about the assumptions it was making about future emissions.
The career staff refused to make these changes. That rejection came at a cost: Virginia Burkett, a US Geological Survey climate researcher who chaired the Global Change Research Program, was pushed out of her role. Nevertheless, the language in the report remained unchanged.
The White House referred questions about Dr. Burkett to the Geological Survey. A spokeswoman there did not respond to a request for comment.
The administration then released the document the day after Thanksgiving to minimize attention. (A White House spokeswoman who refused to be identified by name said via email, “The day after Thanksgiving is a federal business day, and it is not uncommon for federal business to be conducted on days surrounding federal holidays.”)
That approach failed: many news organizations interpreted the timing as evidence of the importance of the report and gave it outstanding coverage.
After Mr Trump and his senior officials neither modified nor buried the report, they attempted to reject it.
President Trump, when asked about the results of his assessment that global warming could destroy the economy, replied, “I don’t think so.” His then spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the assessment was “not based on facts”. Ryan Zinke, who was home secretary at the time, said his findings highlighted “the worst scenarios”.
After the climate assessment was released, the White House Science and Technology Policy Bureau, which oversees the Global Change Research Program, decided, according to stakeholders, that it was best not to talk about it at all.
The office stopped all activities that might draw attention to the evaluation. Additional reports intended as regular updates were no longer published. Plans for the authors to meet with local officials in locations threatened by climate change and talk about their findings have been postponed.
The White House spokeswoman called the descriptions of the White House’s actions “incorrect”. She declined a request to make senior officials involved in the assessment available for an interview.
Urging staff not to talk about their work managed to keep them off the radar of Mr. Trump and his senior officials, at least temporarily. It helped energy lobbyists focus on the actions of other parts of the government whose regulations directly affected their businesses.
However, the decision to avoid paying attention came at a cost, officials said, reducing public awareness of the report’s findings and slowing work on the next one.
Another White House decision would also help keep the climate rating out of the news: Science Bureau chief Kelvin Droegemeier delayed the publication of the next installment from 2022 to 2023, according to people familiar with his decision.
The Global Change Research Program website now states that “Estimated Delivery” for the next report is 2023. The White House spokeswoman said the final schedule has not yet been set.
But that delay had a silver lining, said Jesse Keenan, a professor at Tulane University who edited two chapters for the previous assessment. Each report draws on the scientific research it draws on – and under the Trump administration, new climate research has slowed, said Dr. Keenan.
Delaying the release of the next review “will give us a chance to catch our breath and do some performance” by federal scientists, he said.
That year the White House turned back to climate assessment.
An important step in creating any new version is calling the authors who set the tone of the report. This announcement, which usually also gives an overview of what issues are being dealt with, has been delayed for months by the Trump administration, according to several people familiar with the decision. And by the time it was finally released in October, the language had been changed: the policy officers had removed information on the specific issues to be addressed.
Federal scholars feared the change signaled a plan to cut the scope of the assessment – allowing the administration to comply with the law while avoiding issues that might run counter to what the White House wanted to hear.
The White House spokeswoman said: “The organization of information in certain chapters is still in progress.”
Those worries heightened in November when the White House removed the head of the global change research program, Michael Kuperberg, a climate researcher from the Department of Energy. Dr. Kuperberg has been replaced by David Legates, a Trump official for NOAA who previously worked closely with groups opposed to climate change.
The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
A second NOAA political official, Ryan Maue, who has criticized climate researchers for making unnecessarily dire predictions, has been transferred to a role in the White House that gave him authority over the climate program.
The appointments caused concern among scholars, who feared the administration was struggling to learn from the failure to change the previous assessment by placing loyalists to help shape the next edition.
The White House refused to accept Dr. Legates or Dr. To make Maue available for an interview.
However, some people familiar with the process say it may not be too late to get some sort of Hail Mary pass from the Trump administration – to select writers, for example, who might downplay or attempt to downplay the science of climate change To portray science as unsafe. That would force the Biden government to bypass or remove these writers, which could potentially spark a political battle.
However, the more likely outcome, current and former officials say, is that the recent attitudes are yet another example of how the Trump administration’s agenda has been hampered by its own shortcomings – a lack of understanding of how the programs they were trying to undercut. actually work or even move late to make a difference.
The government should have acted sooner to put its stamp on the climate assessment, said Judith Curry, a former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who said she was in contact with Dr. Maue and other officials included.
“It just wasn’t on the priority list,” said Dr. Curry. “To be honest, I don’t know why you started that in the 11th hour.”
John Holdren, who served as President Obama’s scientific advisor overseeing the climate assessment process, believed the Biden administration would be able to get it going again, brushing aside anyone who tried to undermine it.
“Holdover Climate Wafflers from the Trump era in one of the relevant agencies will be removed,” said Dr. Holdren. “Or if that is not possible, he should go out.”