Feb 24, 2019

Scientists slam report of White House climate change review panel

US President Donald Trump speaks during a rallyin Charleston, West Virginia on August 21, 2018. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The White House is moving forward with a plan to create a National Security Council committee to question the findings of recent federal climate science reports, according a Washington Post report.

Why it matters: The panel idea, first reported last week, represents a frontal assault on climate science reports at a time when public opinion is moving to support cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In this case, per the Post, the report the panel is most likely to investigate is the National Climate Assessment.

Details: The panel would be the reincarnation of an idea put forward by former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who pushed for a "red team-blue team" debate on the science modeled after military studies. That proposal was squashed by then-White House chief of staff John Kelly. However, in the new version, there is no other team representing mainstream climate science — other than climate reports themselves.

  • The new panel will likely include William Happer, a physicist who sits on the National Security Council and has long argued that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will benefit humanity — a view contradicted by thousands of studies.

Between the lines: The Trump administration appears to have the National Climate Assessment in its crosshairs. The administration released the assessment on Black Friday last year in an attempt to bury its findings.

  • The report detailed the ways that climate change is already harming Americans nationwide, and emphasized that there will be more severe impacts to come if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced.
  • President Trump distanced himself from the NCA, telling Axios on HBO that the climate goes through natural cycles, "Is there climate change? Yeah. Will it go back like this, I mean will it change back? Probably."
  • He also portrayed it as a report primarily prepared by federal agency scientists working under the Obama administration.

The state of play: Trump has presented the NCA as an Obama-era project, but most of the report was written and reviewed during Trump's time in office, says Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and lead author of the NCA.

  • It underwent an exhaustive peer review process that consisted of 2 rounds of review by the numerous federal agencies responsible for climate science activities, multiple public review periods, and 2 rounds of scrutiny from a panel of independent experts put together by the National Academy of Sciences.
  • The report garnered 3,416 comments, which are available online along with the responses.
  • "This is the most exhaustively reviewed report on climate change in the U.S.," Hayhoe said, noting she responded to hundreds of public comments individually. "At this point the question is who is going to review this who has not already had the chance? The answer is no one. Everyone had a chance to review this."
  • Unlike the NCA, the new White House panel may be structured to be exempt from disclosure requirements, meaning that it would not have to submit its work for peer review, the Post reports.

What they're saying: Mainstream climate scientists and other experts were withering in their criticism about the proposal.

  • "This is like assembling a panel of 'gravity skeptics' who insist it’s safe to jump off tall buildings, except in this case they want to take us all with them," NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel tells Axios.
  • "Really what we're seeing is what I call a 'zombie-idea'.  This is a truly bad idea that just refuses to die. All bureaucracies have them — they are just more dangerous when they originate and live in the White House," retired Rear Admiral David Titley, who served as oceanographer of the Navy, tells Axios.
  • Chris Field, director of Stanford's Woods Insitute for the Environment, notes that a new panel within the White House would also depart from past practice. He tells Axios that the George W. Bush administration turned to the National Academies for such insight on climate science in 2001, leading to the publication of a report that went on to guide policy.

Go deeper: Trump's pipeline of bad climate information

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