David Legates, a meteorologist who claims that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is good for plants and that global warming is harmless, has been tapped to run the federal agency that oversees a major scientific report on how climate change is affecting the United States.
Legates could not be reached for comment.
His views on climate run counter to the scientific consensus that human activities — primarily the burning of fossil fuels — have generated greenhouse gases that are causing global temperatures to rise, ice sheets to melt, sea levels to rise and triggering other irreversible damage to the planet.
A NOAA spokesman declined to confirm Legates’s move.
The shift would put Legates in position at least to influence the authors chosen to craft the National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report that periodically examines climate change damage and includes projections for the United States, down to regional and local levels.
The assessment is used by federal and state governments and industry to make decisions about infrastructure projects, to allocate resources and to plan for disasters.
The version released in 2018 has been cited in court cases in which cities, states and individuals sued fossil fuel companies and the U.S. government, arguing that they have failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions despite knowing about the severity of the problem.
That assessment was released under the Trump administration but had been largely completed by federal agencies and outside scientists under President Barack Obama. It angered the White House by warning that human-caused climate change already was fueling deadlier wildfires, increasingly intense hurricanes and brutal heat waves.
The report’s authors warned that climate change poses a severe threat to Americans’ health and pocketbooks, as well as to the country’s infrastructure and natural resources.
“I don’t believe it,” President Trump later said of those findings.
A former NOAA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Legates’s appointment made little sense.
“Sometimes these moves are made at the end of an administration. It’s like tilting at a windmill: It’s a nice move to your base, but there’s no substance to it,” the former agency official said.
As a political appointee, Legates would serve until the end of Trump’s term. The position of executive director of the research program is typically filled by someone on loan from another agency, and in this case Legates would be coming from NOAA.
A new administration would be able to remove him from the research program, which is under the purview of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
While President-elect Joe Biden (D) is preparing to take control of the federal government in January, Trump and his Republican allies are disputing the election results, without any evidence of widespread voter fraud or large-scale inaccuracies.
Climate scientists and environmental groups see Legates’s ascension as a way to skew the next assessment from the start. They expect him to recruit authors who share his views and those of Trump, who has a history of downplaying and denying the government’s own findings on climate change.
The move has rattled rank-and-file scientists at NOAA, the lead agency working on the climate assessment, according to people inside and outside the organization. For much of Trump’s tenure, there has been little political interference at NOAA, the notable exception being Trump’s hand-drawn alteration of an official hurricane forecast, an incident known as “Sharpiegate.”
“I think [Legates] can make messes that the Biden people are going to have to clean up, especially with respect to personnel appointments and author nominations and assignments,” said a former scientist with the research program, who stressed that new leadership could reverse any changes implemented by Legates.
The research program brings together 13 federal agencies that work on climate change. They include the Smithsonian Institution, NOAA and NASA. In addition to crafting the National Climate Assessment and other reports, the program works to “advance understanding of the changing Earth system.”
A career scientist, Michael Kuperberg, led the program for more than five years, but the White House abruptly removed him from that role late Friday and sent him back to his former position in the Office of Science at the Energy Department.
Kuperberg’s dismissal and Legates’s appointment come just as Betsy Weatherhead, a mainstream climate scientist, takes over as the federal coordinator of the next assessment, which is just getting underway. Weatherhead will work with the research program but be formally located within the U.S. Geological Survey, and, unlike Legates, she is not expected to leave Jan. 20 when Biden takes office.
While the bulk of the work on the report will take place under Biden’s administration, government officials are starting to select participating scientists now, with the first deadline for author nominations this Saturday. Once authors are selected, it can be difficult to remove them. If the roster includes climate change contrarians who, like Legates, have argued that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant and promoted the benefits of burning fossil fuels for energy, mainstream climate scientists may steer clear of the endeavor.
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University who was a lead author of the 2018 assessment, said it might be difficult to change authors after selection but that the structure of the report could be changed under the next administration. She said she is more worried about the staff at the research program office.
“They are dedicated, hard-working and committed people who have done their very best with a very difficult mandate the last four years, and I am concerned that Legates might be, or might administer, the coup de grace for many of them,” she said.
The next report is not scheduled to be released until 2023, and any significant delays could push it beyond Biden’s first term.
“The report is supposed to be nonpartisan and nonpolitical from top to bottom,” said Shaye Wolf, the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a research and advocacy organization. She said the appointment of Legates is a “troubling attempt to sabotage our nation’s premier scientific assessment of climate change.”
“The National Climate Assessment is our climate health report card. The Trump administration didn’t like its grade, so the teacher got fired,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), said in a statement. “Putting a Big Oil loyalist in charge of this critical document and the Global Change Research Program is like putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department. The science behind the worsening climate crisis is undeniable, its deadly impacts are irrefutable, and it’s time we banish climate denial from every place in the federal government.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees NOAA and the climate research program, said in a statement that Legates’s appointment is intended to "sabotage the federal government’s essential climate change research and planning efforts.”
“This essential report, a collaboration of 13 different agencies, is used to determine regional impacts and how best to tackle solutions. The last thing our farmers, foresters and fishermen need is a report that denies economic impacts and fails to provide solutions,” she said.
Others said they doubted that Legates would have a lasting impact, given the short window before January.
“I don’t see him being able to pull this off,” said Eileen Shea, a climate science and policy consultant who previously led NOAA’s climate services division.
Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who is close to the administration, called Legates “an excellent scientist” and said he’d make a successful executive director of the office that produces the assessment.
Legates has a long record of criticizing fundamental findings of climate science studies. He has been affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank that hosts an annual conference bringing together climate change doubters. More recently, he has also questioned the accuracy of models projecting the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, arguing in an April essay that models of potential covid-19 deaths could lead to unsound government policies and economic shutdowns.
The same piece then cast similar doubt on existing climate change models, despite studies showing model projections have largely matched temperature changes to date.
In 2017, Legates co-wrote a separate essay praising Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords — a decision that made the United States the only nation to leave the international compact formed to combat global warming. President-elect Biden has said he will reenter the pact on taking office.
The piece criticized states and local officials who had vowed to forge ahead and try to reach the emissions-reduction targets of the Paris agreement, saying such decisions would impose unnecessary and burdensome costs on society. It also questioned the broad scientific consensus that the world is warming at an alarming rate. “Climate has always changed and weather is always variable, due to complex, powerful natural forces,” Legates and his co-author wrote.
Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado who has studied the research program, said the White House’s ability to remove and appoint whomever it likes to lead the program is a design flaw. “It’s a problem regardless of who is in the White House,” Pielke wrote in a Twitter message. He said an independent advisory committee should choose the program’s leader.