A Late Burst of Climate Denial Extends the Era of Trump Disinformation
WASHINGTON — The White House science office on Tuesday reassigned two administration officials who posted a series of debunked scientific reports denying the existence and significance of man-made climate change, purportedly on behalf of the United States government.
The officials, David Legates, who served as the head of the United States Global Change Research Program, and Ryan Maue, a senior official at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, still remain employed, administration officials confirmed. Both had been assigned to the White House from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and have returned to that agency.
“The actions will be reviewed under the NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy, but we don’t discuss personnel matters,” Scott Smullen, an agency spokesman, said on Tuesday.
The two worked together to post the reports on a climate denial website without the knowledge of the director of the White House science office, Kelvin Droegemeier, two administration officials confirmed.
In a statement, the science office said Dr. Droegemeier had learned about the documents after being contacted by the media. NOAA leadership also said it had not been involved.
Dr. Legates did not respond to a request for comment. Dr. Maue could not be reached for comment.
Dr. Legates, a climate denialist installed last year by the Trump administration to oversee scientific work on climate change, posted the series of largely discredited scientific reports on a site associated with Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, an astrophysicist whose work downplaying the risks of greenhouse gas emissions was funded by the fossil fuel industry.
They bear the logo of the executive office of the president and purport to be the copyrighted work of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, representing “the current state-of-the-science” on climate change.
The papers include claims that climate change is occurring naturally, that the sun, not human-caused pollution, is responsible for recent warming; and that the effects of climate change will be minimal, if any. William Happer, a physicist who has likened the focus on carbon dioxide to the “demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler” is one of the featured authors. Dr. Soon is another.
The gambit appeared to be a rogue effort to put the imprimatur of the federal government on research that aims to undermine the established science of climate change. Doing so, many denialists have openly acknowledged, could give greater weight to such studies when they are submitted in lawsuits, congressional testimony or even the next National Climate Assessment, the government’s premier contribution to climate knowledge.
Dr. Droegemeier, though a Trump appointee in a White House that disparages and disputes the established science of climate change, has been widely regarded as a respected scientist who acknowledges that warming is occurring and is caused by human activity. According to several sources, he played a significant role in arguing against the creation of a White House panel in 2019 that would have served as a major platform for climate denial.
According to a Trump administration official and an outside adviser, both with knowledge of the effort, officials at the White House Personnel Office asked Dr. Legates last year to compile a set of research for Mr. Trump in what was supposed to be an internal project.
Roy Spencer, a climate denialist who wrote an article for the package entitled, “The Faith-Based Nature of Human-Caused Global Warming,” said in a blog post late Monday that Dr. Legates “hopes to be able to get these posted on the White House website by January 20,” presumably to make them part of the outgoing administration’s official record. But, he added, “there is no guarantee given recent events.”
The legal implications of putting the studies on a private site while using the White House logo and copyright in an apparently unauthorized manner were unclear late Monday. Federal law states that anyone who “fraudulently or wrongfully” affixes the seal of any department or agency of the United States could face fines or jail time of up to five years.
White House officials did not answer whether the two could face charges. Their dismissals from O.S.T.P. also may not even carry much weight; according to one administration official, Dr. Legates’ last day at the science office was supposed to be Wednesday anyway.
Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and member of the National Academy of Sciences who noticed the posts and drew attention to them on Twitter, called them “ridiculous” and a ham-handed effort to grant a veneer of government respectability to junk science before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. assumes office Jan. 20. He said he expected the studies to have no lasting policy implications.
“Possibly as part of the next National Climate Assessment someone will try to reference them as having some merit,” Dr. Gleick said. But, he added, “To climate science itself these pose very little danger because they are pseudoscience, because they are ridiculous, and because nobody serious in the scientific community will pay any attention to them.”
The papers appeared late last week on the site of the Center for Environmental Research and Earth Sciences, an organization associated with Dr. Soon.
In an introduction, Dr. Legates described the papers as the “current state-of-the-science on various topics of climate change.” He called the papers fliers written by “top scientists from leading institutions” across the nation.
“The Office of Science and Technology Policy is pleased to bring you these briefs to further your understanding of climate change by learning from these learned scholars,” he wrote. The introduction identifies Dr. Legates as a professor of climatology at the University of Delaware rather than by his government title.
Many of the reports, scientists noted, are repackaged summaries of previously published papers. One of the papers is presented as being written by Dr. Maue, who has downplayed the effects of climate change and the links between global warming and extreme weather events. On the site, Dr. Maue’s paper does not list his government affiliation but rather describes him as a “private sector meteorologist.”
Current and former federal officials involved with the National Climate Assessment expressed dismay that the papers would be presented as representing the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The documents, they said, marked the latest low point in the Trump administration’s approach to climate science.