Ken Haapala (Heartland Institute)

The protege of Fred Singer, the grandfather of climate change skepticism, was said to have the keys to NOAA’s future. Democratic lawmakers feared he would steer the agency toward outright climate-change denial and appealed to the Trump administration to remove him.

But, according to the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, climate change doubter Ken Haapala never met with NOAA leadership and isn’t shaping its future.

“He has never stepped foot on the premises [as part of a transition team],” a department spokesman said.

But confusion arose as official documents list Haapala as a member of the Commerce Department landing team, which helped agencies plan for new leadership prior to the inauguration.

Haapala’s name appears on the website, as a Department of Commerce landing team member (see screenshot below).

And, a separate document, prepared by NOAA’s internal transition team, includes Haapala and his biography (see screenshot below) among the landing team group.

But an NOAA spokesman said only a few people listed on the document actually had direct interactions with NOAA’s internal transition team. As for Haapala, the spokesman said: “We’ve had no contact with the guy. We’ve never seen the guy.”

Adding to the confusion, Haapala’s own organization, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, stated he joined the team as of Jan. 2: “Ken Haapala was asked to volunteer for a non-paid, temporary position on a Trump transition landing team. He responded as he would have for any major national candidate – Yes.”

But the Commerce Department spokesman insists Haapala never served, either on the landing team or on the beachhead team, which begins the implementation of the new administration’s policy after inauguration. “He never participated in staffing or policy discussions or any programmatic operations,” the spokesman said.

Haapala, reached by phone, would not “confirm or deny” participation on any transition team, and he said he was told to refer press to the Commerce Department.

In recent weeks, media and lawmakers were alarmed by the listing of Haapala on official documents and the fear he would influence NOAA’s climate-change activities.

On Jan. 12, E and E News published the story headlined, “Climate science denier on Commerce landing team.”

Twelve days later, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) wrote a letter to Trump, protesting Haapala’s appointment, calling it “extremely troubling.” The lawmakers said Haapala has no background in physical or natural science and “has made a career denying the science of climate change and advocating against actions necessary to protect Americans from its worst impacts.”

Science and Environmental Policy Project has promoted doubt about the seriousness of climate change since its inception in 1990. It was founded by Singer and the late Frederick Seitz, a renowned physicist. Haapala said Singer, 92, still serves as chairman but is “not as active” as he used to be in the organization.

Both Singer and Haapala have been vocal opponents of actions to curb climate change, arguing the human influence is small and that its effects are likely to be minimal and benign.

“[It’s] past time [to end the scare and] stop the madness of wasting great sums of money on EPA’s imaginary threat,” Haapala said in 2015.

Scientists and NOAA career staff have expressed concerns that the new administration will meddle in its communication of climate-change science. But Trump’s pick for secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, has stressed that he will allow NOAA scientists to freely share their work and that he seeks to provide the public “with as much factual and accurate data as we have available.”

The NOAA spokesman said the transition to the new administration has gone well so far. “We’ve had a very smooth transition,” he said. “We’re pleased with the interactions we’ve had so far.”