By all accounts, the Trump administration took a hands-off approach in crafting a recent major climate report that outlined the dire economic effects to come from climate change in the United States.
Next time around, that may not be the case.
In an interview at an Energy 202 event at The Washington Post on Wednesday, Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, suggested that Trump administration officials should be more involved in preparing the next version of the congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment.
At the same time, he acknowledged the potential political perils of doing so.
"If we had intervened and made changes to the report, we'd have been accused of manipulating the scientific recommendations of the career staff," Wheeler told The Post's Juliet Eilperin.
Wheeler admitted he didn't read the report before it was published by his agency and 12 others in the federal government. The acting head explained he was still reviewing its contents, which included warnings of climate change posing "a severe threat to Americans' health and pocketbooks," according to my colleagues Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney.
Wheeler confirmed there was "no political review by this administration" of the report, but said the Trump administration will have more discretion over the direction of the next one.
"Going forward, I think we need to take a look at the modeling that's used for the next assessment," Wheeler said.
Wheeler's comments were the latest in a series from Trump administration officials calling into question the methodology of the report, which expressed with more certainty than ever the threat climate change poses to lives and livelihoods in the United States. The document described how climate-fueled disasters, like the burning of forests in western states and the bleaching of coral reefs from Hawaii to Florida, are already becoming more commonplace.
The commentary from Trump officials is also a recognition of the political potency of the climate report, which administration officials originally published on the Black Friday following Thanksgiving when many Americans were shopping and not paying attention to the news.
Already, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) suggested he would use the report in his office's numerous lawsuits against the administration's rollback of environmental regulations.
"I think I’ve read more of it than they have and I haven't read very much," Becerra said in a separate interview at the Energy 202 event. "It’s kind of disturbing."
Wheeler and other Trump officials have critiqued the report for what they see as an undue emphasis on the worst-case scenarios for temperature increases, by both the scientists behind the report and the news organizations covering it. The report in fact looked at a wide range of warming scenarios.
The acting EPA chief suggested that focusing on extreme scenarios may have been called for by the previous administration.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama administration told the report’s authors: Take a look at the worst case scenario for this report,” he said, adding that "this report was drafted at the direction of the Obama administration," even though the assessments are mandated by a 1990 law that calls for a new report every four years.
Work began on the report at the beginning of 2016, though most of the drafting was done after Trump was in office. A former chief science adviser to President Obama, John Holdren, vigorously contested Wheeler's characterization about the Obama administration's influence on the report.
"Mr. Wheeler’s insinuation is absolutely false," he said in a statement. Holdren explained his "only instruction" to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which oversaw the report, was that it "should continue the distinguished tradition of the first three by drawing on the most current peer-reviewed science to illuminate what climate change is doing and is projected to do across the geographic regions and economic and ecological underpinnings of well-being in the United States."
When reached for comment, Michael Kuperberg, executive director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, pointed to a section of the report itself, which reads: "Where supported by the underlying literature, authors were encouraged to describe the full scope of potential climate change impacts, both negative and positive, including more extreme impacts that are less likely but would have severe consequences."
Political spats over the work of the U.S. Global Change Research Program predate Trump. For example, a White House aide during the George W. Bush presidency, Philip Cooney, asked others to emphasize the uncertainties of climate science in another publication by the group.
James Connaughton, former chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality for Bush, said that Wheeler should stay within the process set up by the program for previous assessments, which were designed to "ensure it is reflecting the most up-to-date science."
"The key is working within the process. It is a good one. It is a deliberate one," Connaughton said.
He added that Wheeler, who began a career working in the federal government in the early 1990s, "has long Washington experience to work within that process."
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