The Trump administration disbanded a federal advisory committee on climate change last year because of concerns that it did not have enough industry representatives, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
An exchange among Commerce Department officials, which was released in response to a lawsuit by the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, sheds light on the demise of a panel aimed at helping policymakers and the private sector incorporate the government’s climate science into long-term planning.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross allowed the 15-person Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment — which included scientists and representatives from companies and local governments — to expire in August. The newly released emails and memos chart an intense debate between career and political officials last summer over whether the group’s two-year charter should be renewed.
George Kelly, then the deputy chief of staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, questioned the panel’s ideological makeup.
“It only has one member from industry, and the process to gain more balance would take a couple of years to accomplish,” Kelly wrote in a June 13 email.
But some of NOAA’s senior career employees, who worked with members of the committee, said it helped inform a sweeping federal assessment of climate science, which is supposed to be issued every four years. The government is finalizing its fourth such assessment; the underlying climate science report for it was issued in November.
In a June 16 email, Craig McLean, NOAA’s assistant administrator for oceanic and atmospheric research, warned Kelly that failing to renew the committee’s charter “would stop their work mid-stream, and likely have backlash.”
McLean suggested that Trump officials would be able to shift the group’s ideological leanings over time.
“The members on the Committee can achieve a greater balance towards the interest you described and we are compiling a list of likely nominees,” McLean wrote in the email, adding that the next group of members would rotate off in April 2018 and “could be replaced by more industry focused members at that time.”
While federal researchers from more than a dozen agencies collaborate on the National Climate Assessment — a massive document that includes scientific findings and captures climate change’s impact across the United States — the outside advisory panel worked to translate those findings so they would useful for everyone from a water manager out West to a business owner on the Atlantic seaboard.
“It’s disturbing that the Trump administration dumped a scientific advisory committee for having too many scientists,” said Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Howard Crystal, who filed the lawsuit to obtain the Commerce records. “These experts provided critical guidance on protecting the American people from monster hurricanes and climate chaos. But if lifesaving expertise is inconvenient for the fossil fuel industry, the Trump administration won’t hesitate to throw it out the window.”
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy endorsed the idea of letting the panel expire, according to the records. In statements Tuesday, both OSTP and the Commerce secretary noted that the federal assessment remains on track for release later this year.
“The Advisory Committee on Sustained National Climate Assessment simply was not necessary for the completion of the report,” Ross said, signaling that the panel also became a target as his department looked “for methods to cut duplicative spending.”
Even so, its former members “are free to comment on the report so their comments can be included in the final,” Ross said.
After the panel was dissolved, officials from New York state, Columbia University and the American Meteorological Society reconstituted the group in January. Members held their first meeting this month in New York City.
“We are fully supporting the advisory committee on its vital work to protect our environment,” said New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in a statement Tuesday. “The task remains as urgent as ever.”
Richard Moss, the panel’s chair and a visiting senior research scientist at Columbia, said in a phone interview that while the group has lost “its close relationship” with federal officials, the administration’s move also served as a galvanizing force.
“What’s gained is a greater sense of purpose and energy on the part of those outside the federal government to apply climate science, share best practices and highlight information gaps for which more research is needed,” Moss said.