The document, drafted Sept. 18 by Michael Catanzaro, President Trump’s special assistant for domestic energy and environmental policy at the time, highlights the dilemma the administration has faced over climate change since Trump took office. Even as Trump’s deputies have worked methodically to uproot policies aimed at curbing the nation’s carbon output, the administration’s agencies continue to produce reports showing that climate change is happening, is human-driven and is a threat to the United States.
Catanzaro, who prepared the memo for a meeting of senior White House and agency officials that took place a couple of days later, asked whether the Trump administration should “consider having a firm position on and a coherent, fact-based message about climate science — specifically, whether, and to what extent, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are affecting the climate system, and what level of concern that warrants.”
The memo presented three options without endorsing any of them: conducting a “red team/blue team” exercise to “highlight uncertainties in climate science”; more formally reviewing the science under the Administrative Procedure Act; or deciding to just “ignore, and not seek to characterize or question, the science being conducted by Federal agencies and outside entities.”
It did not consider touting federal scientists’ findings.
Although administration officials did not adopt a formal policy in the wake of these deliberations, in practice they have largely ignored the findings of U.S. government researchers. As a result, these scientists have continued to sound the alarm on climate effects such as sea-level rise and wildfires — even as top Trump officials emphasize that they can neither endorse nor repudiate these findings.
Last month, U.S. Geological Survey scientists released a Pentagon-funded study that found that low-lying coral atoll islands around the world — a number of which host military bases — could become “uninhabitable” within decades because rising seas will spoil their drinking water supplies well before entirely swallowing the islands themselves.
On Friday, the National Park Service issued a report — without a news release or official announcement — projecting that sea-level rise linked to human activity could damage park sites including Virginia’s Jamestown and Assateague Island as well as Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas and New Orleans’ Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.
“The scientific evidence about accelerating effects of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is so strong, and so prevalent, that it would be impossible to hush it up even if you wanted to,” Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a phone interview. “Coral deaths and glacier melting and sea-level rise, and all of these things are just so well documented and there’s just new evidence every day, whether it’s from USGS, or [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], or NASA, or Department of Energy, or various academic institutions. It just can’t be swept under the rug.”
At the time the memo was drafted, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was pressing Trump to authorize a government-wide “red team/blue team” debate about whether there was a sufficient scientific basis to conclude that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are fueling recent climate change. This came just a few months after the president had pulled out of the 2015 global climate agreement reached in Paris, which committed the United States to cutting its overall carbon output by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
“The idea was to have a basic approach, or agree to some principles, when it comes to climate policy,” said George David Banks, who served on the National Economic Council as a special assistant to the president on international energy and environment before leaving in February.
The overwhelming majority of scientists, along with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have concluded that human activity has driven warming over the past half a century or more. But Trump has repeatedly questioned this scientific consensus, both as a presidential candidate and since taking office.
Catanzaro, who left his job last month to return to the consulting and lobbying firm CGCN, declined to comment on the memo.
A separate raft of documents, released this month through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, shows that the White House blocked Pruitt in November from starting the red team/blue team exercise.
Those emails include a draft news release that Pruitt edited, which described him as “leading the effort” to assemble a team of experts that could “write a detailed criticism” of a massive climate science report the federal government released on Nov. 2. That report, largely drafted by the Obama administration, affirmed that climate change is caused by humans and that there is “no convincing alternative explanation.”
The climate science report Pruitt was hoping to reevaluate was released without political editing, said several scientists who worked on it.
“That made it through unscathed,” Phil Duffy, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, said of the document, for which he served as a National Academy of Sciences reviewer. “I haven’t seen any evidence of any rewrite or any censorship or anything in there.”
Meanwhile, when reporters asked deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah about the report’s findings, he replied, “The climate has changed and is always changing,” adding that the administration “supports rigorous scientific analysis and debate.”
Other top Trump officials have taken a similar approach. Last week, when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was asked whether he endorses NOAA’s conclusion that human activity is driving climate change, he demurred. “Commerce Department’s NOAA has issued various reports that reflect the thinking of their scientists, and those reports in general have been reviewed, sometimes favorably, sometimes less so by other people in that field,” he said.
The administration has scaled back some federal climate programs over the past 1½ years, and sought to curtail grants to outside researchers focused on climate change.
NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System program was canceled because of a lack of funding (although Congress is trying to restore it), and NOAA cut back on its climate and global change postdoctoral fellowship offers this year, also citing funding concerns. Officials at EPA and the Interior Department have specifically singled out “climate change” as a phrase that should not be used in applications for agency funding.
“We hear from federal scientists that they’re getting the hint that they shouldn’t talk about climate, shouldn’t work on climate, they should downplay it in what they’re doing,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.
But the federal climate science establishment will nonetheless continue to generate findings that could clash with Trump’s push to expand fossil fuel production in the United States. Although many of these studies do not advocate specific policy approaches, they often outline negative outcomes from CO2 emissions that stem from burning fossil fuels.
The government is on track this year to release the fourth National Climate Assessment, another vast document compiling specific climate-related damages across the United States. That document, along with last’s year’s climate science special report, are produced by a program that pulls together the work of 13 federal agencies invested in climate science.
Those agencies, which range from the National Science Foundation to NASA, have continued much of their scientific work.
NASA will put up two new satellite systems this year to study melting ice in the Earth’s polar regions, and will continue airborne missions that study ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica.
NOAA continues to release monthly updates showing how much the Earth’s temperature is deviating from what has been seen in the past. It’s also steadily tracking ever-rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — which recently lingered above 410 parts per million, averaged over a month, for the first time.
The National Science Foundation continues to run massive Antarctic research operations and fund a wide variety of climate-related research in the field of geosciences. These includes a multimillion-dollar investment to send scientists to study Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica — the single greatest threat for fast-rising seas in our lifetimes, several scientific experts said.
Still, even without the “red team/blue team” exercise going forward for now, Pruitt’s allies say that he may have succeeded in giving them more opportunities to interrogate the findings of federal climate research. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican former congressman who serves as president of the Heartland Institute, cited the rule Pruitt proposed last month that would require the public release of all data underlying studies used in EPA rulemaking.
“We’ll see where the data goes. That’s why the ‘red team/blue team’ debate; that’s on our field,” said Huelskamp, whose group has long questioned scientific studies showing a strong human role in driving climate change. “We’re happy to take on those who have been wrong in their modeling of climate studies for years.”
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