Weatherhead, who has decades of experience as a climate scientist in the academic and private sectors, accepts human-induced climate change is happening and is a serious physical, ecological and economic threat.
Her appointment stands in sharp contrast to two recent high-level political hires at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), David Legates and Ryan Maue, who are on the record challenging the seriousness of climate change. It also is in contrast to the climate change views of President Trump, who downplays humans’ role in causing global warming, despite the scientific consensus on the topic.
Weatherhead’s appointment was verified by one current and one former senior official at NOAA. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
Unlike several past climate assessment directors, she has not previously held a position in the federal government but has worked extensively with scientists and programs in different agencies.
Picked by Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and a Trump appointee, Weatherhead is to be formally brought into the government as part of the career civil service, based within the U.S. Geological Survey and placed on a detail to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Given the timing, her selection would not be affected by the outcome of the presidential election, since her first day on the job is Monday.
NOAA is the lead agency for the Climate Assessment, but at least 13 federal agencies, from NASA to the Energy Department, as well as dozens of outside scientists contribute to it.
The next assessment, under Weatherhead’s leadership, is due out in 2022 and will mark the fifth iteration. Reports are mandated every four years under the Global Change Research Act of 1990.
In her new role, Weatherhead could have significant influence in guiding the government’s highest-profile climate report. The process of creating the report, including peer review by the National Academy of Sciences and comment periods to allow scientists and members of the public to provide feedback on drafts, are set by law and precedent.
Selection may calm fears of a more politicized fifth assessment
Outside scientists have expressed the fear that climate change contrarians within the Trump administration, like Legates, could be inserted into and interfere with the assessment process and contents. However, the current senior NOAA official said Legates has not been tasked with any climate assessment-related work.
The congressionally mandated report that Weatherhead is charged with overseeing is intended to inform federal climate policy. The report’s primary audiences are Congress, the president, and state and local government leaders. It’s also meant to inform and engage every American affected by climate change.
Its findings have also been cited in climate change litigation, and could shape court cases in the years to come.
Since 2000, the report has been released roughly every four years but has been a political lightning rod in Republican administrations. The George W. Bush administration suppressed release of the inaugural report in 2000 and the second report, due in 2004, was delayed and delivered late. Trump distanced himself from the fourth report, produced largely under the Obama administration and released in November 2018.
The 2018 assessment concluded the climate is “changing is faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization” and that its impacts “are projected to intensify.”
The Trump administration sought to bury that report by releasing it on the day after Thanksgiving, and Trump distanced himself from its findings, stating, “we’re not necessarily such believers.” Federal outreach and communication efforts were scrubbed. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler said in 2018 that the report relied too much on worst case scenarios, though it included a wide range of global warming emissions and warming cases.
Before serving as a senior scientist at Jupiter Intelligence, Weatherhead was a senior scientist at the University of Colorado for nearly 25 years while also contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, among others. She holds expertise in Earth observations, ozone depletion and the intersection of weather and climate, and currently serves on NOAA’s Science Advisory Board.
In a series of position papers obtained by The Washington Post articulating Weatherhead’s vision for the assessment, she placed an emphasis engaging private industry in the process, such as renewable energy companies, which she characterized as a departure from the past. She also recommended the report provide information on the cost of climate change on different economic sectors.
She stressed the importance of incorporating the viewpoints of a diverse set of scientists and reflecting the broad range of perspectives while communicating uncertainties. She contended this approach would make the report’s results more defensible and help highlight what areas require improved understanding.
Rich Sorkin, chief executive at Jupiter Intelligence and Weatherhead’s previous boss, called her “one of the world’s experts on uncertainty,” which he believes resonated with the current administration.
“[I]t’s clear they wanted a climate assessment that focused on impacts, specific time horizons, and a scientifically valid approach to uncertainty,” Sorkin said. “My concern is that other appointments made by this administration indicate that there is another strong constituency that wants to derail high quality evidence-based science generally and in the National Climate Assessment. And that’s something to be very wary of.”
The possibility of a second Trump term hangs over the next assessment
Leading up to the 2022 assessment, concerns have been raised that the Trump administration is intentionally delaying it, but the two directors of the previous assessment say such fears are unfounded.
The assessment “is moving along as expected, anticipated, and desired,” said David Reidmiller, who directed the fourth assessment.
Don Wuebbles, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois who led the development of the Climate Science Special Report for the Fourth National Climate Assessment, credited the White House’s Droegemeier, and Michael Kuperberg, a career official who runs the Global Change Research Program, for keeping the assessment process on track. “They’re honorable people, aiming to do the right thing,” said Wuebbles.
While Wuebbles expressed confidence in Droegemeier’s motivations, he worries that if Trump wins a second term, his administration might aim to remove career officials like Kuperberg or even Weatherhead and derail the process.
“I’m fearful that if President Trump wins, the National Climate Assessment won’t look like it has in the past,” he said.
There’s more confidence that a Biden administration would run a process similar to the fourth assessment, which largely kept politics out of the scientific work.
Wuebbles said he also has concerns about the current leadership of USGS, which is funding Weatherhead’s position.
Current USGS Administrator James Reilly, a former astronaut and petroleum geologist, has interfered with the publication of the agency’s scientific research on climate change. In October, Reilly intervened to delay a new analysis of the population of polar bears living on the coast of the southern Beaufort Sea.
Reilly has sought to limit how far out agency scientists would project future climate conditions to mid-century, according to two Interior Department officials, which would minimize the full impact of planet-warming pollution such as carbon dioxide. These officials, who spoke on the conditions of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Reilly dropped the effort after USGS scientists reviewed the proposal.
The director — a former astronaut and geologist — has repeatedly questioned scientific models that predict dire climate impacts, according to current and former USGS officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. He has excised references to climate change from news releases on multiple occasions, they added.
“I would very concerned about coming in through USGS if I were taking a position,” said Wuebbles.
Scientists, including Wuebbles, as well as climate advocates have raised alarms that the White House may attempt to insert Legates, NOAA’s deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction, into the assessment process.
“First, he is not a quality scientist and secondly we need to have people that will represent the science community, not someone who’s a denier of climate change,” Wuebbles said.
Reidmiller said the climate assessment process was designed to insulate itself from political interference.
“There are a number processes and procedures to ensure the ultimate project does not go off the rails and reflects the best available science,” Reidmiller said.
Wuebbles praised Weatherhead’s qualifications for the role, saying: “She’s bright and accomplished.... she’s certainly a reasonable choice for this. I think what she’s done since retiring from the University of Colorado is probably giving her more insights into climate issues than she’s had previously."
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University who served as a lead author of the fourth assessment, said Reidmiller and Wuebbles approached their jobs as facilitators and delegated considerable authority to chapter authors to determine the findings to be highlighted and covered.
However, she worries that if Trump were to win the election, the next leader of the assessment director would come under pressure from the White House to skew the report’s findings, and be more prescriptive in their approach.
“The key challenge the next director would face in a Trump administration will differ, depending on their goal: if it’s to continue to be, their primary challenge would be the administration’s pushback,” she said in an interview. “If their goal is to be prescriptive of the science and content, then the challenge would be the pushback they’d receive from the authors and scientists.”
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.