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In Parting Blow to Climate Science, Trump Admin Removes Expert in Charge of National Climate Assessment

In Parting Blow to Climate Science, Trump Admin Removes Expert in Charge of National Climate Assessment
A girl places an American flag on the rubble of her grandparents' home after it was destroyed by a tornado on April 30, 2014 in Louisville, Mississippi. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The Trump administration has reassigned the scientist in charge of the National Climate Assessment, the most important federal report on the climate crisis.

The National Climate Assessment, which is released every four years, combines the expertise of 13 federal agencies along with independent scientists, The New York Times explained. The last assessment, released in 2018, said unequivocally that the impacts of climate change were already being felt in the U.S. and would get worse if nothing was done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Trump administration tried to bury the report by releasing it Thanksgiving weekend, and President Donald Trump claimed that he did not believe it. Now, there is concern the administration is trying to influence the findings of the next assessment.

"Even in their final days, they are continuing to attempt to bury the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change," Union of Concerned Scientists senior climate scientist Rachel Licker told The New York Times.

The administration on Friday reassigned Michael Kuperberg, a climate scientist who runs the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which produces the report. The move was confirmed to The Washington Post by one current federal official and one former White House official, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. Don Wuebbles, a University of Illinois climate scientist and friend of Kuperberg's, who directed the Fourth National Climate Assessment, also confirmed the news.

"Mike called me on Saturday and said he was just notified that he was let go, that his detail was over and that he should go back to the Department of Energy," Wuebbles told The Washington Post.

Kuperberg had led USGCRP since 2015 and had expected to continue to oversee the completion of the Fifth National Climate Assessment. Two people close to the administration told The New York Times he would likely be replaced by David Legates, a new appointment to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who has worked with climate denying groups and argued that carbon dioxide is "plant food and not a pollutant."

It is unclear what influence the change in leadership will have given that former Vice President Joe Biden has won the presidential election and will take office Jan. 20.

"It might be a short-term appointment," Competitive Enterprise Institute Director and former member of Trump's transition team Myron Ebell, who approves of Legates' appointment, told The New York Times. "If he only directs it for two months and a week, then he may not get very far, but let's see what can get done in two months. Maybe the next administration will throw it all away, but maybe some changes will be adopted, who knows."

One concern is that, if Biden replaces Trump's new appointment, it could further delay the next climate assessment, which was due in 2022 but has been pushed back to 2023. The new appointee could also influence the writers of the report, POLITICO pointed out. Nominations for report authors are due Nov. 14, and the new USGCRP head could select people who deny mainstream climate science. However, a mainstream U.S. Geological Survey climate scientist named Betsy Weatherhead has been put in charge of coordinating the assessment itself, according to The Washington Post.

"I would be more concerned if Trump had won the election," Kathy Jacobs, who ran the Third National Climate Assessment and now directs the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona, told The Washington Post. "If USGCRP is rudderless for a few months, I don't consider that a devastating situation. The question is: What are they going to do in the interim?"

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