Trump Administration Delayed a Key Step in Major Climate Report

Published Dec 8, 2020

What happened: A major inter-agency report on climate change, the Fifth National Climate Assessment, had a key step – the solicitation of authors – delayed for several months by the Trump administration.

Why it matters: The National Climate Assessment is one of the government’s most important efforts to provide the latest scientific information to the public about climate change. Delaying an important step in this report’s production process will impede the ability of the report to be released in a timely manner. As a result, our future response to combating the harmful and widespread impacts of climate change will be undermined since decisionmakers will face delays in obtaining the best available climate science.

The Trump administration delayed the solicitation of authors for several months for one of the government’s most important reports on climate change, the Fifth National Climate Assessment. The National Climate Assessment is a report that is mandated by Congress every four years to assess the “state of the Union” about climate change. It is unclear how delays in recruiting climate scientists will affect the lengthy production of the report and previous versions of the report have also faced delays and missed the four-year mark.

According to the timeline on the report’s official website, the call for authors should have been completed in the Spring/Summer of 2020. On October 5, Donald Wuebbles – a climate scientist at the University of Illinois – who was one of the authors of the previous version of the report (the Fourth National Climate Assessment) sounded the alarm to E&E News. The Trump administration still had not issued a call in the Federal Register for researchers to produce the fifth version of the report. According to Wuebbles, “It's not being approved to go out, so therefore they're just sitting on it. And I don't know if it's NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] or the White House, but somebody's sitting on it, so that's just holding up getting up the NCA 5 going.”

This delay led to public outcry for the administration to carry out this important step. For instance, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a Freedom of Information Act request on October 13 to seek records on delays in preparing the Fifth National Climate Assessment. On October 15, NASA published the request for authors in the Federal Register and opened the submission process for 30 days. According to Wuebbles, Kelvin Droegemeier, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), was doing everything he could behind the scenes to ensure that the report proceeded smoothly. However, Wuebbles was still concerned that political interference could affect the process.

There are major reasons to suspect that the Trump administration is trying to politically interfere with the Fifth National Climate Assessment. In late October, the Trump administration removed Craig McLean, NOAA’s chief scientist, from his position and replaced him with Ryan Maue. In the past, Maue has criticized climate scientists for what he called unnecessarily dire predictions. Maue’s hiring in late September coincided with the White House installing David Legates – who has claimed that rising carbon dioxide levels would make the earth more hospitable to humans – to a senior position at NOAA. According to Science magazine, Trump administration officials approached multiple researchers that had a history of questioning or denying aspects of climate change in order to undermine mainstream science at NOAA. According to people with close ties to the Trump administration, the primary goals of these three individuals were to undercut the Fifth National Climate Assessment.

In 2018, the Trump administration tried to undercut the Fourth National Climate Assessment by releasing the report on the day after Thanksgiving. According to one former administration official, William Happer, the release date was purposefully chosen to bury its findings and that President Trump was angered after the report’s release. Trump administration officials then spent months preparing an adversarial review of the report’s findings. President Trump later scuttled the effort but said that he may revive it after the November election.

The National Climate Assessment integrates and synthesizes hundreds of peer reviewed studies related to climate change and is vetted by 13 federal agencies. It is designed to inform the nation about already observed climate changes, the current status of the climate, and anticipated trends for the future. The National Climate Assessment’s importance to decisionmakers, the public, and scientists is hard to overemphasize, as the report often serves as an underlying basis for policymaking at all levels of governments; establishes consistent methods for evaluating climate impacts; and, provides authoritative, vetted, and reliable information for understanding and communicating climate change science and impacts in the US.

The Trump administration’s decision to delay a key step in this important and congressionally-mandated climate report will likely delay the report’s release or otherwise hamper the report’s production process. The impacts of climate change, such as more intense hurricanes and mega wildfires, are already being seen today and therefore a delay in the publication of the Fifth National Climate Assessment is likely to cause a delay in using the best available science to combat this growing threat.