The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

British scientists to Theresa May: Urge Trump to support climate research

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference Jan. 11 at Trump Tower in New York. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

In the final week leading up to the presidential inauguration, British scientists are urging their prime minister to stand up for climate science in the U.S. An open letter signed by 100 leading climate researchers in the United Kingdom warns of the incoming Trump administration’s skeptical stance on climate change and points to “worrying media reports that the incoming administration may severely weaken climate change research and data-gathering undertaken by federal organizations in the United States.”

In light of these concerns, the letter urges Prime Minister Theresa May to “press President-Elect Trump and his administration to acknowledge the scientific evidence about the risks of climate change, to continue to support international action to counter climate change, including the Paris Agreement, and to maintain support for world class research and data-gathering on climate change in the United States.”

Trump’s own doubts about human caused climate change are well-documented — he once famously claimed that climate change is a “hoax invented by the Chinese.” He’s softened his rhetoric a bit in more recent months, suggesting in December that “nobody really knows” whether climate change is real, but it’s clear that his current position on the subject is doubtful at best.

Furthermore, the president-elect has selected multiple noted climate doubters to serve in his cabinet and lead his transition team. And he’s also publicly vowed to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement and roll back multiple Obama-era emissions regulations aimed at helping the nation meet its climate commitments. These choices have raised major concerns among scientists all over the world as to the future of both climate action and climate research in the U.S.

“Basically, I was becoming concerned after the election about some of the stories that were beginning to emerge,” said Bob Ward, a co-organizer of the letter to May and the policy and communications director for the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He pointed to some previous comments by Trump campaign adviser Bob Walker as an example. In November, Walker stunned the climate science community by suggesting that NASA should no longer conduct climate science, citing what he referred to as the “politicizing” of the science.

Ward also pointed to a more recent incident in which the Trump transition team submitted a questionnaire to the Department of Energy requesting the names of employees who’d been involved in issues including international climate talks and the development of the social cost of carbon. The transition team later claimed that the questionnaire was “not part of our standard protocol” and was submitted by an individual who had not been authorized to do so — but the incident sparked doubts among scientists as to the future of climate-related research programs at federal agencies. In fact, these concerns have led some climate scientists to begin copying public government climate data onto independent servers, fearing that it might otherwise be lost under the new administration.

“It was beginning to look like it could be not just a question of policy inaction, but that there might very well be efforts to shut down areas of climate research or at least start to interfere politically,” Ward said. He noted that there’s been precedent for such action under previous administrations. President George W. Bush, for instance, was widely criticized by scientists who accused his administration of trying to suppress or distort the science of anthropogenic climate change.

“I therefore felt that the British climate research community ought to raise this with the prime minister and point out that this is a matter of our national interest as much as anybody else’s,” Ward said.

He pointed out that disruptions to climate science in the U.S. could have serious international implications, given that climate data is shared and utilized by researchers all over the world. Research carried out by NASA satellites, for instance, has maintained some of the longest standing continuous climate records in the world. Should these programs be halted, even if other nations were to take over afterward, these records would be interrupted and the integrity of the data diminished as a result.

“[Government] labs not only do world leading science — the established U.S. policy of making data freely and easily accessible to all benefits researchers the world over,” said Piers Forster, one of the letter’s signatories and director of the University of Leeds’s Priestley International Center for Climate, in an email to The Washington Post. “For example, anyone can easily download U.S. satellite data or climate analyses, data that cost million of dollars to collect. Without the U.S. data we would be flying blind.”

The new letter calls on May to use the U.K.’s “special relationship with the United States,” as well as its standing at international summits, to urge the Trump administration to accept the science of climate change and support continued research efforts in the U.S.

“For many years, climate change researchers in the United States and United Kingdom have worked extensively with each other and with researchers from across the world,” the letter states. “We stand ready to support and assist our counterparts in the United States, as collaborators, co-authors and colleagues, in resisting any political attempts to prevent, hamper or interfere with vital research on climate change.”

Ward said the scientific community’s support of the letter was an encouraging sign.

“I think a lot of researchers here are currently aware of the risks and dangers that they see from the incoming [administration], and I think that the fact that people would sign a letter that they knew was going to be made public is a sign of people’s willingness to stand up and be counted in this issue,” he said. “It’s not going to be a kind of timid silence if they start seeing things going wrong.”