The Trump White House may have met its match attempting to disparage as “fake news” the latest leak: a near-final draft of the National Climate Assessment.
The science agencies of the federal government are obligated by law to produce the National Climate Assessment (NCA) every four years, so—unlike many other less institutionalized efforts—this work on climate change marches on. In a sensationalized story, the fifth draft of the fourth NCA, due for publication in 2018, was reportedly leaked to the New York Times on Monday. (Subsequent coverage suggests the draft report couldn’t have been leaked because versions of it were already publicly available.)
The report, which focuses on climate impacts within the United States, would be shocking if its findings weren’t consistent with the distressing findings the scientific community has been producing for decades—with ever-increasing certainty and specificity—on observed climatic changes and future projections. The report finds that temperatures nationwide have risen 1.2⁰F to 1.8⁰F since early in the twentieth century and that human activity is almost surely responsible for almost all of it. Maximum daily precipitation—the intensity of rainstorms, a contributor to floods and sewage treatment system overloads—has increased on average 10 to 20 percent, including 20 to 29 percent in the Northeast. Since the late 1990s, high temperature (heat) records outnumber low temperature (cold) records by more than 3 to 1. The global average sea level is accelerating and is likely to constitute 1 to 4 feet by the year 2100, which will have devastating impacts on low-lying coastal areas. Coastal inundation is already widely observed throughout the U.S. All of this is asserted with high to very high confidence. Perhaps most alarming, there is a “significant possibility… of critical threshold or tipping point events [of climate impacts]… some of which may be abrupt and/or irreversible.”
The NCA is one of the most rigorously sourced and vetted documents produced by the federal government. For those keeping score at home, it weighs in at 673 pages and its sources include “peer reviewed journal articles, technical reports by Federal agencies, scientific assessments… reports of the National Academy of the Sciences… and various regional climate impact assessments.” Fake news it is not.
And yet, senior Trump officials review and approve the final report. In the atmosphere of science suppression pervading the Trump administration, many fear the worst: political appointees might adulterate the findings, which scientists who worked on the report reasonably fear. Let’s recall who these senior Trump officials are. The president appointed climate deniers and skeptics Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke and Rick Perry to run the Environmental Protection Administration, Department of Interior and Department of Energy, respectively, and their ranks of political appointees have been stuffed with fossil fuel lobbyists and free market ideologues. Trump and his team have rolled back regulations designed to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and have promoted coal mining on federal lands.
Thus far, the results have been ugly. Perhaps most alarming and Orwellian has been an effort to expunge climate science from the federal government. It starts at the top: Trump, bucking tradition, does not have a White House science advisor to translate hard science into layman’s terms and solve policy challenges using science. The EPA has eviscerated its science advisory board, bullied its senior scientists into changing their congressional testimony, and deleted almost all mention of climate change from its website, even scrubbing it from its small in-house museum. Trump’s proposed budget slashes funding for basic science that studies climate change as well as research and development for environmentally friendly technologies. Efforts by the White House transition team to root out information on those working on climate change at the Department of Energy struck one senior official as redolent of McCarthyism. The Interior and Agriculture Departments have censored talk of climate change and canceled meetings in order to muzzle climate experts. And State Department climate diplomats are obligated to declare their support for “clean and efficient fossil fuels.”
So what will Trump do with NCA4?
If the Trump ethos of posturing over substance holds, not much. While the public brouhaha surrounding the (non-)leaked report may have made alteration by Trump loyalists politically inadvisable, the White House will ignore or malign the NCA. After all, if the truth doesn’t conveniently align with political advantage, the Trump administration routinely and reliably resorts to “alternative facts” and discredits the sources of offending information.
Why, if the truth about the climate is so abundantly clear, doesn’t the president simply embrace it? First, climate change does not (at least, according to Trump) make for good reality TV. Al Gore makes movies about it, for goodness’ sake; viewership of season one of the blockbuster series Years of Living Dangerously was miniscule. Second, taking action on climate change is even harder politically than health care: There’s a reason in 2009 President Barack Obama tackled the Affordable Care Act first—which passed—and the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill second in 2010, which died in the Senate without a vote. (Obama hardly made a peep about climate change again until after his reelection in 2012.) Furthermore, climate change is not an easy issue to look tough on, like strutting around with generals and coal miners, or to recruit conservatives to support—thanks to decades of disinformation, brainwashing, and arm-twisting of Republicans by the fossil fuel industry. And lastly, of course, coming up with solutions requires patience and governance, not petulance and tweets; serious policymaking, not blind “repeal and replace”; and listening to the science, not conspiracy theories. Politicians, the saying goes, “campaign in poetry but govern in prose.” Not Trump. In his world, there is no governance; it’s theater, personal interest, and loyalty all the way down.
So it is hardly surprising that Trump cares little about climate change. In fact, it’s hard to imagine culturing in a Petri dish an issue for which Trump might harbor more scorn and disinterest.
The significance of NCA4, in the end, is less about the content of this particular report, but rather in the embrace of ignorance, insouciance, and ill-preparation that the Trump treatment of climate science represents. NCA4 adds to the long history in America of chronically neglecting social, political and environmental problems: from slavery and Jim Crow, to housing bubbles and crumbling infrastructure, to the harms of smoking and industrial pollution. We have learned through avoidable financial panics, unnecessarily devastating hurricanes and anguishing internecine conflicts that such ills can be deferred, but they eventually have to be addressed—often after much hardship and loss—through hard choices, collective sacrifice for the common good, and concerted effort and vigilance of the body politic. These latter virtues are not richly embodied by the Trump administration, a fact that its climate change anti-policy starkly demonstrates. The real questions regarding our governing cabal are thus not so much whether the NCA4 findings are suppressed, but the following: On whose watch will the bill for climate change impacts come due, and how bad will the damage be?
Andrew Eil is an independent consultant with expertise in climate change and clean energy policy, international development and sustainable investing. As former Coordinator of Climate Change Programs at the State Department, he managed a $75 million portfolio of clean energy programs. Prior to the State Department, Andrew worked for the World Bank. Andrew has an MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and a BA in Russian history and literature from Harvard University.