It’s no secret that President Trump came into office rejecting the conclusions of the majority of scientists around the world when it comes to our changing climate. But it’s not clear how that will translate into policy. At least some of his advisors, and his daughter, accepted the conclusions of the scientific community. And it’s likely that policy decisions will be constrained by reality, as Trump vowed as the most recent global temperature records were set.
In the past few weeks, however, it has become clear that a big push has returned to climate change across the government, with several pushbacks taking place in the past week alone. We will examine them briefly below.
Grids and grants
This week saw the long-delayed release of the Department of Energy’s assessment of grid stability. The report was commissioned by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who suggested that the expansion of renewable energy is undermining the reliability of electricity delivery. Back in June, however, the choice of expert assessment was leaked, and it said that the US grid is more reliable than it has been in recent decades. Those conclusions, however, were watered down in the final report.
But the report is also notable for avoiding using the word “climate change” anywhere in its 125 pages. This is despite the fact that increased heat will increase demand and stress grid equipment and that climate change is driving current-level energy patterns. In fact, the report recommends the anti-solution of increasing the use of electric power plants.
Surprisingly, however, that report is not what prompted the DOE to deny that it has banned the use of the term “climate change”. Instead, that was triggered by Jennifer Bowen, a biologist at Northeastern University whose research is funded in part by the DOE. On Thursday, Bowen showed a screenshot of a text message he received from the office at DOE responsible for his award. The email read in part:
I have been asked to contact you to update the wording in your proposal to remove words such as “global warming” or “climate change.” This was requested as we had to meet the budget language restrictions of the President and did not want to make any changes without his knowledge or consent.
We reached out to Bowen to ask for more details but received a response from a Northeastern University spokesperson instead. He quoted the university’s statement on the matter: “A long-standing pillar of the US research model is the belief that science should not be restricted or influenced by partisan politics. As a university, we will continue our steadfast commitment to intellectual inquiry and will follow the facts, wherever they may lead.
E&E news contact the DOE, who denied it that it has a blanket ban on the term “climate change.” But Nature News identified a second researcher who had received funding from the same DOE program and had also been asked to remove references to climate change from his grant certificate.
NIH, EPA, and NOAA
It’s not just the DOE that seems to have an issue with this scientific community. Perhaps the most important move occurred at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA is one of the organizers of the congressionally mandated national climate assessment, and maintains a 15-person advisory committee designed to help the business community and state and local governments use the assessment for planning In other words, the committee is intended to help the country decide how best to act on the information contained in the scientific report.
The committee was established in 2016 in anticipation of the conclusion of the next climate assessment, due this year. Last week, however, his license expired and the Trump administration decided not to renew it.
Meanwhile, the assessment itself has become a battleground. Manuscripts of the evaluation have been through scientific peer review and have been widely distributed. They are also important in the conclusion of other scientific assessments of the climate, such as the IPCC’s.
But Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA (one of the agencies tasked with writing the assessment), is now threatening to derail its release. Apparently unaware that the award had already been reviewed, Pruitt told a radio host that “In fact, this report should be subject to peer review, peer-review and evaluation.” While he talks about evaluation, he also warns against “politicizing” science, although he doesn’t appear to identify what threatens to do so.
His call for a climate review could give Pruitt a chance to try one of his ideas: a “red team” assessment that he hopes will poke holes in mainstream science.
In this environment, even small actions arouse suspicion. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (part of the National Institutes of Health) conducted a reorganization this week in which a single word was targeted: “change.” Headline-level references to climate change were changed to simply say “wind,” although the information they were linked to remained and continued to refer to climate change. The company’s communications director explained the importance of the change.
It is difficult to say what the importance of some of these actions is. It is clear that Perry and Pruitt, who head the DOE and EPA, are perfectly willing to override expert decisions and scientific findings when it suits them. (Although Pruitt has also not tried to throw out the EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions, so there are limits.) But below them and in other agencies, decisions can be made in a dire way by either small political appointees or work supervisor. And individuals may be motivated by anything from personal beliefs to a desire to please their superiors to the hope of avoiding negative attention from their superiors.