With Climate Change Deniers in Charge, Time for Scientists to Step Up

In a Yale Environment 360 interview, researcher Kevin Trenberth talks about why climate scientists need to speak out in the face of the Trump administration’s denial of the facts about climate change.

In the nearly three months that Donald Trump has been in the White House, his administration has taken steps to scrap Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, make deep cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency, bolster production of fossil fuels, and slash climate and environmental research at federal agencies like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Kevin Trenberth

Kevin Trenberth

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research, discusses the practical implications of what he calls “the disdain for climate change and climate change research” within the Trump administration. He addresses the damage such cuts could inflict on international scientific collaborations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or even on our ability to track events like El Niño and extreme weather. He also talks about the additional burden scientists will bear over the next four years to protect their research from political interference.

If the U.S. dismantles its climate research, says Trenberth, “we start then really flying blind. It begins to ripple across the whole of the information and science that’s available, and it has implications for what we can say about what’s going to happen in the future.”

Yale Environment 360: President Trump has proposed drastic budget cuts to climate and environmental research. What impacts would such cuts have on the U.S. government’s capacity to track climate change?

Kevin Trenberth: There has been pressure on some organizations in climate science for several years, before Trump came in, especially from the House science committee, chaired by Representative Lamar Smith [R-Texas]. For NOAA, it has been quite devastating. I think it was 2012 when [NOAA] proposed a new line of organization called the climate service. They have a National Weather Service, and this would be actually a national climate service to go alongside that. As soon as Lamar Smith saw the word “climate,” the hammer came down and immediately there was a 30 percent cut in the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research arm of NOAA.

One of the consequences was that it hurt ocean observations. In 2014, along came the beginnings of an El Niño, and they found they didn’t have the information they needed to know exactly what was going on.  There was a period of time when NOAA was running a little bit blind, and therefore the information and the forecast were not as good as they otherwise might have been. This is exactly the sort of thing that can happen all over again if you have, as the administration seems to have, this antipathy towards climate change.

There are also things that NOAA and other federal agencies don’t have the capabilities of doing in-house, so they have grants programs, which are apt to be cut. This affects universities profoundly. When that happens, students tend to go into other areas of research. Earlier this year at the American Meteorological Society meeting, there were graduate students and early-career scientists there that were already beginning to think twice about whether they really should go into climate science at all. This creates a drought in the future, so as people like myself and others retire, the good-quality people to replace us will be lost.

e360: What about the impacts on global collaborative research, things like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? How critical are U.S.-based scientists, data, and funding to such programs?

Trenberth: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the agreement that actually requires the U.S. and other countries around the world to gather information and to report their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. If funding for that sort of thing is cut and lost, then the U.S. contribution [to climate change] is not reported, and it encourages other countries to not report, as well. A lot of information then gets lost, and we start really flying blind as to what other countries are doing to the atmosphere. It really begins to ripple across the whole of the information and science that’s available, and it has implications therefore for what we can say about what’s going to happen in the future.

e360: Government reports like the National Climate Assessment have been important in helping the public and local officials learn about and plan for the impacts of global warming. The next installment of the assessment is due in 2018. Is there any concern that the Trump administration could try to manipulate or skew the report? Has that ever happened under previous administrations? 

Trenberth: In the past, under the George W. Bush administration, there was an attempt to alter some of the very high-level documents, the summary aspects, although they didn’t get down to the point of changing the underlying report itself. So, we’re concerned that this kind of thing could easily happen again, especially given some of the rhetoric that’s been going around about the disdain for climate change and climate change research. 

‘Within the federal government, certainly scientists are not speaking out on these kinds of things. They’ve been told not to.’

e360: What protections, if any, exist to safeguard reports like the National Climate Assessment from political interference?

Trenberth: The scientists themselves will not stand for it, but it’s hard to know exactly what may happen. The potential number of layoffs that have been announced for the EPA, for instance, is incredible. Hundreds of EPA employees working on the assessment in some way could lose their jobs. But there are a lot of scientists, like myself, who are not in a federal agency, who can speak up a little more openly. It is why I can actually do this interview with you. There’s also the American Geophysical Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Even the American Meteorological Society, which has normally been quite conservative, has already spoken up and written letters expressing concerns about the disdain for science in the Trump administration. The fact that the administration has not appointed a science advisor or that the Office of Science and Technology Policy isn’t in place — there are considerable concerns. We will be very vocal, I’m sure.

e360: The Trump administration has announced plans to scrap the Clean Power Plan, roll back fuel efficiency standards, bolster production of fossil fuels, and cut energy efficiency programs, like Energy Star. How crippling will these policies be to U.S. greenhouse gas emission reductions and renewable energy development?   

Trenberth: The Obama administration brought forward the Clean Power Plan under the EPA, and this is a regulatory plan, but it’s actually an amazing plan. It’s got tremendous flexibility. It’s implemented by the states – all the states set their own goals, and it’s not as if there’s a federal mandate that is rigid. In fact, it’s a very Republican kind of plan in many respects, it just wasn’t invented by Republicans. Now it’s been undermined by one signature. This affects the ability of the U.S. to step up to the commitments that have been made under the Paris [climate change] agreement.

The good news is there are a lot of other centers of activity. There are a number of cities taking the lead on climate change and reducing emissions. There are a number of states doing the same, led by California.

e360: Last month, the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, said that CO2 wasn’t the primary contributor to global warming. Soon after, Trump’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, said “Climate change research is a waste of your money.” What options do scientists have to resist actions or views like Pruitt’s or Mulvaney’s, especially when they are your boss or your funding source?

Trenberth: Within the federal government, certainly scientists are not speaking out on these kinds of things. They’ve been told not to. When Mulvaney follows through, and he has the purse strings, then I don’t know what can be done about it. It’s very difficult. Certainly people have written letters. Coming up, there are two marches on Washington, D.C.: on April 22nd, Earth Day, there is a march of scientists, and then on April 29th there is a march for climate for the general population. I certainly plan to participate myself. I cannot go to Washington, so I’ll participate in a local march, maybe in Denver. This can raise the visibility of some of these issues with the general public, but it still depends upon how well it gets reported, and whether it reverberates or not.

e360: There’s been some disagreement within the scientific community over whether scientists should participate in the marches you mentioned, or whether the marches politicize science. What are your thoughts?

Trenberth: I don’t shy away from expressing my opinion, but I do try to make it clear when I’m stating my own personal opinions, not my scientific opinions. Various people have drawn the line in different places. There are some scientists, like Jim Hansen, who have clearly crossed over into unabashedly advocating for various kinds of things to happen. It’s a tricky line to walk. It’s one that a lot of scientists wrestle with. 

‘We have an obligation to make [the] information known. That obligation stands above everything else that we do.’

e360: What is morale like among your colleagues, both at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and at other federal labs and agencies?

Trenberth: For the most part, the hammer hasn’t hit yet. There are threats. They’re certainly concerned, but most of the people I know are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Most people expect that Congress will not go along with everything Trump has put into the skinny budget. But, who knows how much Congress will actually step up? When Trump was a candidate for the presidency, there were a number of Republicans who certainly took exception to things he was saying. I’ve been disappointed that more of them in Congress have not stepped up and prevented people like Pruitt from becoming the head of an agency. I expect there will be quite strong pushback in some areas, so it remains to be seen exactly what’s going to happen.

e360: You work for a research lab that gets a lot of federal funding. Do you worry at all about your job security when you speak out against the policies of the current administration?

Trenberth: We’re base-funded by the National Science Foundation, but while we have the “national” in our name, we’re run by UCAR — the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. There are over 100 member universities around North America, and some of them are from outside of the U.S. We’re really operating on behalf of all the universities. That does give us more freedom to be able to speak freely, at least, but indeed there is concern that if we speak out too much, then some of our funding may be cut from the National Science Foundation, or from other sources.

e360: If there’s that worry at all, why speak out now?

Trenberth: Because it’s right to do so. We’re dealing with science; science is evidence and observations, and physical principles, and putting all of that together often in the form of a model to understand what is going on and why, and what it implies for the future. The important thing in climate science is that it has relevance for people, for our society, for the environment, and for human activities. We have an obligation to make that information known. That obligation, personally, stands above everything else that we do.