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White House removes scientist picked by Trump official to lead key climate report

Betsy Weatherhead, chosen to steer government’s National Climate Assessment, has been reassigned to U.S. Geological Survey

Temperature difference from 1971-2000 average Sunday. (University of Maine Climate-Reanalyzer)
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White House officials have removed Betsy Weatherhead, an experienced atmospheric scientist tapped by a Trump appointee to oversee the U.S. government’s definitive report on the effects of climate change, from her position. According to two officials, she has been reassigned to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Interior Department’s scientific arm.

The officials, a senior scientist at USGS and another with ties to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates the report, both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss personnel issues.

Officials at the White House Office of Science Technology Policy, which oversees the research program, made the decision to reassign Weatherhead, these people said. Jane Lubchenco, who headed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during President Barack Obama’s first term, leads climate matters at the OSTP.

The OSTP confirmed Weatherhead’s reassignment in an email. Weatherhead declined to comment.

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According to people with knowledge of the situation, there was friction between Weatherhead and some of the officials among the 13 agencies participating in the research program on the direction of the report.

It came as a surprise when Weatherhead was selected to lead the assessment in November because she is considered a mainstream climate scientist and does not question the seriousness of climate change like other scientists who were installed by the Trump administration to work on the issue. She accepts that human-induced climate change is happening and that it is a substantial physical, ecological and economic threat. She was picked by Kelvin Droegemeier, the director of the OSTP. Although a Trump appointee, Droegemeier was on the record as accepting climate change as real.

Weatherhead’s stance on climate change sharply contrasts with David Legates and Ryan Maue, also assigned roles within the research program under the Trump administration, but through NOAA rather than the OSTP. The duo publicly questioned the severity of climate change and the human role.

Just a week before President Donald Trump left office, Legates and Maue were involved in the production of unapproved papers that cast doubt on mainstream climate science findings. Outraged, according to an OSTP representative at the time, Droegemeier relieved the scientists of their duties and reassigned them to NOAA. They resigned from the government days later, just before President Biden’s inauguration.

Weatherhead, unlike Legates and Maue, was not politically appointed but was brought into the government through the USGS as part of the career civil service and was detailed to the research program to run the assessment. This allowed her to keep her job after Biden took office.

But her connection to Droegemeier, despite his efforts to support climate science by choosing her and subsequently dismissing Maue and Legates, may have made her a target of the Biden White House.

The assessment, which Weatherhead was tasked to lead, is a congressionally mandated report intended to support federal climate policy. Its 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.

Weatherhead was removed despite decades of experience as a climate scientist in the academic and private sectors. Before joining the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Weatherhead had served as a senior scientist at Jupiter Intelligence, a company that helps businesses and governments prepare for climate change. Before that, she worked at the University of Colorado for nearly 25 years, contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, among others. She has expertise in Earth observations, ozone depletion and the intersection of weather and climate, and served on NOAA’s Science Advisory Board.

When she was named director of the assessment, several scientists, including those who have worked for Democrats, praised the decision. “She’s bright and accomplished … she’s certainly a reasonable choice for this,” said Don Wuebbles, who led the development of the Climate Science Special Report for the Fourth National Climate Assessment in the Obama administration.

Gavin Schmidt, selected by the Biden administration to be senior climate adviser at NASA, tweeted “She’s great” after she was selected for the role.

While broadly respected and considered mainstream, Weatherhead has historically placed great emphasis on communicating scientific uncertainty, which may have made her unpopular with Biden administration officials who wish to present an unnuanced portrayal of the threat of climate change.

In position papers obtained by The Washington Post articulating Weatherhead’s vision for the assessment, she emphasized the importance of incorporating the viewpoints of a diverse set of scientists and reflecting a broad range of perspectives. She contended that 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 previously Weatherhead’s boss, called her “one of the world’s experts on uncertainty,” which he said he thought resonated with the Trump administration.

People with knowledge of the situation said some of Weatherhead’s ideas for the direction of the report clashed with federal officials involved in the research program. Weatherhead sought to change the structure of the report, bringing in more authors from the private sector while increasing the number of chapters on climate change mitigation and adaptation options. Some of the agency participants were uncomfortable with these changes.

Others remarked that navigating the federal bureaucracy and meeting the demands of so many agencies is incredibly challenging, which made it difficult for someone outside the civil service like Weatherhead to find success.

A replacement for Weatherhead has yet to be named, and the overarching research program is still awaiting a new director.

The previous director of the research program, Michael Kuperberg, a career appointee, was removed by the Trump administration in November and Legates took his place before resigning in January.

The next leaders of the research program and the assessment itself face an enormous challenge in synthesizing the latest research on climate change and doing so quickly. The assessment is supposed to be published no less than every four years and the last one came in 2018.

“There is a need to make this next assessment exceed the expectations of prior assessments, but they are out of time,” Kathy Jacobs, who directed the report under Obama, said in an email. “My recommendation (if they were to ask) would be to simultaneously plan a modest update that meets the legal standard, while working on the longer-term sustained process that will ensure that this on-again, off-again approach to meeting the legal requirements is replaced by something that is more separated from politics and serves the American people and the world more appropriately over time.”

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