But if a passage from the 2016 Republican Party platform is to be taken seriously, this could be just the beginning when it comes to challenging federal scientists in particular, and questioning how they do their work. The passage reads:
Information concerning a changing climate, especially projections into the long-range future, must be based on dispassionate analysis of hard data. We will enforce that standard throughout the executive branch, among civil servants and presidential appointees alike.
The text emerged this summer from a platform committee chaired by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who has opposed the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Barrasso’s office referred questions about it to the Republican National Committee, which did not respond to a press query Monday.
It’s the kind of language that tends to worry scientists.
While it isn’t entirely clear what “hard data” means, the language seems to refer to a longstanding climate-skeptic criticism of climate change “models” that project into the future — and often produce dire warming scenarios — and to contrast those models with real-world “data” that, naturally, does not show as much warming (yet).
“First, the definition of ‘hard data’ that various elected officials appear to hold this past year seems to consist of ‘data that supports my pre-existing opinion,’” said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, when asked to comment on the language.
“Second, in a rapidly changing world – where global mean temperature is rising faster than ever recorded in the history of human civilization on this planet – the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. Only by combining past observations and the basic physics that has been well known since the 1800s that forms the foundation of climate models today can we ensure that we safely and successfully negotiate the curve of a changing climate,” she said.
Party platforms are not, to be sure, the same thing as policies. But platforms do underscore a manner of thinking in general, and thus far the Trump transition has been jampacked with climate change doubters who would seem sympathetic to this critique of climate models.
If sentiments like those expressed in the language were to be somehow implemented in federal agencies, that would have implications for a government that employs climate-focused researchers at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies. Many of these scientists make use of state-of-the-art climate change simulations to calculate what could happen under ever-increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.
“The next president shouldn’t compromise the independence of scientists by constraining the methods they use to learn more about our world,” said Michael Halpern, program manager of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Every major field of science uses simulation, modeling, and sophisticated statistical analysis. Scientists need the freedom to use modern scientific techniques to come up with the most accurate results. If scientists can only use data derived through observation, they won’t be able to create a vaccine for the Zika virus or understand our changing climate.”
Halpern underscores that the Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonpartisan organization and doesn’t take sides in endorsing candidates or critiquing parties or their platforms — so these words, he said, are some “general principles” for the administration.
Halpern also noted parallels between the platform language and proposed congressional legislation such as the Sound Science Act, which if passed would have required government agencies to accord “greatest weight to information that is based on experimental, empirical, quantifiable, and reproducible data.”
Halpern and his colleagues critiqued that bill, and related legislation, in an article in Science last year, arguing that, “The decision about how to weigh different types of information should be a scientific decision, not a political mandate.” Now, they believe it (or something like it) will come up again in the next Congress.
The Union of Concerned Scientists also led the way in the 2000s in a sweeping critique of the administration of George W. Bush, the last Republican president, under whose government numerous cases emerged of federal scientist whistleblowers complaining of political interference with their work. A number of these controversies related to climate change, though they also touched on many other issues.
Again, it’s important to underscore that we don’t know what the incoming Trump administration will do. But there are also hints that it is worried about climate change models. In addition to asking who attended meetings relating to climate change in the now disavowed memo, the Energy Department transition team also posed a question about so-called “integrated assessment models” used to study the nation’s energy and climate future. It asked about some of the assumptions programmed into such models, including the agency’s view of the correct “equilibrium climate sensitivity.”
Meanwhile, climate change doubters are already proving influential in the Trump transition, both as the heads of major agencies (EPA, Energy, Interior) and also on transition teams. If political appointees within these agencies are of a similar mindset, that sets up a tension with scientists who work in the government bureaucracy. Already fearing a crackdown, some scientists are now downloading government scientific datasets, out of fear that they may vanish.
The GOP platform and recent actions alike, then, could provide a hint that just as under the administration of George W. Bush, there could be many internal science fights under a Trump government.
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