Week 29: Can Trump Resist the Temptation to Censor the National Climate Assessment?

Week 29: Can Trump Resist the Temptation to Censor the National Climate Assessment?

EPA’s Pruitt does denial all wrong, and U.S. diplomats are told to peddle coal to countries outraged over Trump’s Paris withdrawal.


In addition to news this week that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is telling its staff to avoid the term climate change, censorship worries are rising over a recently released draft of the National Climate Assessment. The report says that global warming is already in progress and affecting the United States, and scientists are openly fretting over whether the Trump administration will censor, edit, suppress, or bury its findings. A lot can happen between first draft and final publication.

Since 1990, the National Global Change Research Act has required a team of government scientists to update the president and Congress on the state of the climate every four years. At the time of the law’s enactment, climate change was considered (by most) a nonpartisan scientific issue of major concern, like cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. The bill passed the Senate on a unanimous voice vote, and President George H.W. Bush signed it with very little controversy.

But it wasn’t long before some in the Republican political elite decided to reject climate change science, and a good chunk of the right-leaning public followed. (A 2014 study showed that political polarization around climate change surged in 1992.) Soon the NCA was transformed from a scientific exercise into a political hot potato.

The Clinton administration released the first NCA in 2000, in the heat of one of the tightest presidential races in history. Candidate and sitting Vice President Al Gore was strong on climate action, but the public was not—less than 30 percent of Americans believed that global warming would pose a serious threat to their way of life. Gore’s opponent, Texas Governor George W. Bush, said of climate change, “I don’t think we’ve got all the facts before we make decisions . . . I’m not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world’s air.” Fearing that climate change was a losing issue for Gore, the Clinton administration released the NCA as quietly as possible.

The next NCA was due in 2004, but the Bush administration dallied. Former oil lobbyists working in the White House deleted entire sections of the draft and attempted to introduce scientific doubt where there was none. A legal battle ensued, and the NCA was held hostage. The report finally came out four years late, in 2008, as President Bush was leaving office.

The NCA finally got its first full and honest public airing in 2014, 24 years after Congress demanded a quadrennial climate assessment. The Obama administration rolled out the scientific conclusions with a significant public relations campaign, and it seemed like the NCA had finally come into its own. Then Donald Trump became president.

Trump has given scientists good reason to worry about what the latest NCA will look like when it comes out next year. The draft NCA provides some of the starkest conclusions yet about the present effects and future dangers of climate change. Government scientists have documented dramatic temperature increases since 1980, a large portion of which cannot be attributed to natural variation, and they note that the last couple of decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years.

The National Academy of Sciences has already signed off on the draft, which means the only major review remaining belongs to political appointees like Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator who questions how much humans are driving climate change, despite overwhelming evidence that it is.

But there is still hope for an honest NCA. Several factors would make it difficult for the administration to substantially alter the report. The draft is public, and President Trump still lacks a scientific adviser, which means his attempts to edit a scientific report would be both obvious and ham-handed. In addition, government scientists have already expressed concerns to news outlets about the potential for political interference. In a normal world, that would act as a deterrent to Trump-Pruitt monkey business. Then again, this is not a normal world.

Is Trouble Brewing in Deniers’ Paradise?

Climate change denial, like syphilis, can manifest in many different ways. There are science deniers, who imagine that the entire field of climatology is a conspiracy. There are ideological deniers, who warn that climate change is a Trojan horse for governmental control of the economy. There are fiscal climate change deniers, who think only of the cost of mitigation. And there are social media deniers, who are just in it for the likes.

During the Obama years, the interests of these oil executives, politicians, confabulators, and conspiracy theorists were perfectly aligned, and together they formed a unified front. But cracks are starting to show. According to a report in Politico, representatives of the fossil fuel industry and their allies in conservative think tanks are starting to worry that EPA chief Pruitt isn’t really their kind of climate change denier.

You see, the fossil fuel industry doesn’t actually care if climate change is real. (In fact, most executives know it’s real—they’ve done the research.) All they care about are the policies and the economics that will affect their industry. They want to keep the “doubt” going while they continue to reap profits.

Contrast that approach with Pruitt’s all-out crusade to destroy the very idea of climate change, root and branch. He pushed for withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement over the objection of many industry officials, and he’s even assembling a team of climate change deniers to argue his case. In interviews, Pruitt rejects the basics of climate change science rather than doing the subtle “we need more data” dance of a sophisticated modern denier.

Why has Pruitt strayed off-message? His backers worry that he’s become more concerned about his future political prospects than about achieving their policy objectives. A spokeswoman for a Koch-backed think tank told Politico that if done incorrectly, Pruitt’s more politically motivated efforts could unintentionally undermine the right’s ability to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations. That’d be a real shame.

Relax, Here’s Some Oil . . .

The world is pretty upset with the Trump administration’s June announcement that it will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, and U.S. diplomats who spend their days talking with representatives from outraged countries find themselves in a difficult position. It’s like being married to a trophy hunter while working at the Humane Society. Lots of uncomfortable questions.

Oil pumps in Texas (iStock)

Recognizing this challenge, the State Department has provided guidance to its field staff on how to handle irate foreign officials. For example, if asked about the U.S. reentering the Paris agreement—a possibility that Trump dangles from time to time—our diplomats are supposed to say something vague, like “We are considering a number of factors.” (One of those factors is presumably whether pigs have yet flown.)

Here’s the strangest part of the State Department’s cable: When foreign officials complain about the United States abandoning its climate change responsibilities, our diplomats are supposed to try to sell them oil! The department wants its representatives to offer help in “access[ing] and us[ing] fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.” You have to hand it to ex-Exxon CEO and current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—he may be officially out of the oil business, but he’s still selling.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.