The Trump administration has tapped David Legates, an academic who has long questioned the scientific consensus that human activity is causing global warming, to help run the agency that produces much of the climate research funded by the U.S. government.
The agency, which oversees weather forecasting, climate research and fisheries, has until now continued its climate research and communications activities unfettered by political influence. For that, NOAA stands in stark contrast to the Environmental Protection Agency and science agencies at the Interior Department, where the Trump administration has dismissed and sidelined climate scientists or altered their work before publication.
The move to install Legates as the new deputy assistant secretary of Commerce for environmental observation and prediction, a position that would report directly to acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs, is raising concerns in the science community that this could be a White House-orchestrated move to influence the agency’s scientific reports.
The appointment, first reported by NPR, was confirmed in an email obtained by The Washington Post from his academic department at the University of Delaware, where he teaches in the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences. An email from the director of the department was sent to the department Friday, letting students know he won’t be teaching for the rest of the fall semester.
“Congratulat[e] him on this appt if you talk with him,” wrote associate professor and interim department chair Tracy DeLiberty. “David hopes to be back at UD in the spring.”
Neither NOAA nor the Commerce Department, which oversees the agency, would confirm Legates’s appointment to a position that does not require Senate confirmation.
However, Legates now has a NOAA email address and appears in the agency’s personnel directory.
The new hire came as a surprise to a NOAA official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the appointment.
“I knew nothing about this and here it comes as a midnight hire over the weekend,” the official said. “NOAA was being run reasonably well and the need for any new talent coming into this organization at this point is really not needed.”
Legates has long criticized mainstream climate scientists
Legates was formerly Delaware’s state climatologist, a position from which he he stepped down in 2011. He had come under pressure from then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D), because of his fossil fuel industry-funded research casting doubt on the science showing that burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels is the main factor behind heating the planet and would lead to dangerous effects such as sea level rise and extreme weather events.
Legates is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank funded in part by the fossil fuel industry that supports research arguing that human-caused climate change is not a serious threat.
At the organization’s 10th International Conference on Climate Change in 2015, he was presented with the Courage in Defense of Science Award. In his acceptance speech, he said he saw it as recognizing him for surviving having been “beaten over the head by a bunch of thugs,” referring to mainstream climate scientists and politicians who have criticized his work.
Legates’s views on climate change line up squarely with those of President Trump, who has denied the existence of human-caused global warming, and blamed the ongoing climate change-fueled wildfire disaster in the West on forest mismanagement.
Legates also has questioned scientists’ approach to the coronavirus pandemic, having co-written a commentary published on Heartland’s website on April 13 that compared the modeling of the virus’s spread to climate modeling, blasting both as inaccurate because of the assumptions the modelers made.
“We can’t afford a cure that’s worse than the disease — or a prolonged and deadly national economic shutdown that could have been shortened by updated and corrected models,” Legates wrote, along with Paul Driessen, another Heartland-affiliated scholar.
“Now just imagine: What if we could have that same honest, science-based approach to climate models?” they wrote.
“Shouldn’t we demand that these models be verified against real-world evidence? Natural forces have caused climate changes and extreme weather events throughout history. What proof is there that what we see today is due to fossil fuel emissions, and not to those same natural forces? We certainly don’t want energy ‘solutions’ that don’t work and are far worse than the supposed manmade climate and weather ‘virus.’ ”
“And we have the climate data. We’ve got years of data,” they wrote. “The data show the models don’t match reality,” they wrote, despite numerous peer-reviewed studies showing otherwise.
“They know disaster scenarios sell,” Legates and Driessen wrote of climate scientists, many of whom are funded by NOAA grants. “Disaster forecasts keep them employed, swimming in research money — and empowered to tell legislators and regulators that humanity must take immediate, draconian action to eliminate all fossil fuel use — the economic, human and environmental consequences be damned."
NOAA is a major hub for federal climate research, along with NASA, the Energy Department and the National Science Foundation, among others. Its scientists contribute to reports by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ( IPCC). The IPCC has warned of severe consequences for humanity if greenhouse gases are not reduced significantly in the next one to two decades.
Legates, however, was a lead author of a Heartland-funded, non-peer-reviewed rebuttal to the IPCC, called, “Climate Change Reconsidered" which Heartland published most recently in 2018. That report extolled the virtues of fossil fuels, stating: “The analysis conducted here for the first time finds nearly all the impacts of fossil fuel use on human well-being are net positive (benefits minus costs), near zero (no net benefit or cost), or are simply unknown.”
Legates’s arrival at NOAA comes a year after the agency’s scientific independence took a hit when the agency criticized its own forecasters’ accurate forecast for Hurricane Dorian to satisfy White House concerns that its communications were making the president look bad for having claimed, erroneously, that the storm would threaten Alabama.
A recent Commerce Department Inspector General report faulted Commerce Department and NOAA leadership for their roles in that matter.
Watchdogs such as Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group, said they fear that Legates’s appointment signals a new level of interference in the agency’s scientific work.
“This is a disappointing move. It is a slap in the face to NOAA scientists who work daily to conduct and communicate climate science to the public and decision makers,” Goldman said in an email. “Until now, NOAA has largely evaded the kind of anti-science political appointees that have devastated the EPA and Interior. With Dr. Legates we risk seeing the same kind of politicization of science and corruption of ethics. At the same time, NOAA has a strong culture of scientific integrity; Dr Legates must be ready to uphold it.”
The NOAA official said the agency has a tradition of scientific independence. They said the career science staff at NOAA is culturally and procedurally resistant to politically-based directives. “Our practice has been to rebut or resist any policy-based intrusions into our scientific work,” the official said.
NOAA has a scientific integrity policy that is meant to prevent politically-based interests from altering agency research conclusions and communications in press releases and other materials.
Jane Lubchenco, a marine scientist at Oregon State University who served as President Barack Obama’s NOAA administrator during his first term, said Legates is far outside the scientific mainstream and could harm the agency’s work.
“The juxtaposition of the apocalyptic wildfires and the announcement of David Legates’ appointment is mind-boggling,” she said in an email.
"Just at the time when we need continued truth from the nation’s lead climate agency, a climate denier is hired. This is a travesty. Even during this administration, NOAA has continued to provide accurate climate information, data, and products to help citizens, decision and policy makers know what is happening and evaluate options for action,” Lubchenco said.
“Legates would be in a position to squelch the free flow of accurate scientific information to the public, to distort or manipulate scientific findings, curtail monitoring and research, and create an overall chilling atmosphere for the high-quality science and scientists that the nation needs. It seems clear that NOAA’s truth and information were a threat to this administration. If this appointment goes ahead, the nation and the world will lose.”
On Monday, the American Geophysical Union, which is the world’s largest scientific society representing Earth and space sciences, publicly urged that Legates’ appointment be rescinded. “With climate change producing raging wildfires in the western United States and devastating hurricanes in the Atlantic, our nation – and the world – cannot afford to have our federal government undermining the important work of climate scientists,” wrote Randy Fiser, the group’s executive director and CEO.