Environmental resistance inside the Trump administration hit new heights this week as a group of federal scientists leaked a draft of a sweeping climate change report to the press, pushing the study out into the bloodstream before their superiors had the chance to alter or approve it.
The incident marks the latest in a series of clashes between top administration officials and scientists within the government, some of whom contend that the White House is actively trying to bury science related to global warming. The latest study was written by scientists from 13 federal agencies and has not been made public, though The New York Times obtained a draft on Monday evening.
While most of the study seems to reiterate what a host of other climate change research has said, it makes the case that global warming is getting worse and that significant action must be taken. Several of the authors said anonymously that they believe the report would never have seen the light of day had they waited to go through the proper channels.
“Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” a portion of the study reads. “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change.”
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blasted the release of the draft report.
“It’s very disappointing yet entirely predictable to learn The New York Times would write off a draft report without first verifying its contents with the White House or any of the federal agencies directly involved with climate and environmental policy,” she said. “As others have pointed out — and The New York Times should have noticed — drafts of this report have been published and made widely available online months ago during the public comment period. The White House will withhold comment on any draft report before its scheduled release date.”
The Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies must sign off on the report, which, if released, would be part of the quadrennial National Climate Assessment mandated by Congress.
While there is no hard evidence that the administration planned to change or suppress the report, critics quickly pounced on the incident to make their case that President Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and other officials are dead set on pushing science to the back burner.
“This report should sound the alarm for the Trump administration that climate change is the defining challenge of our time. Instead, Trump is willfully denying and misleading Americans on an urgent threat to our national security, our economy and our well-being,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. “Democrats are fighting for a clean energy economy to help create good-paying jobs and make clean energy accessible to all.”
The report was leaked on the heels of other cases in which administration scientists and other employees went to war with their bosses.
Earlier this month, Elizabeth Southerland, former director of the EPA’s office of science and technology, announced that she would retire and was leaving under protest over proposed EPA budget cuts.
EPA climate change adviser Mike Cox also quit this year and blasted the agency’s efforts to reverse Obama-era regulations aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. Other EPA employees have been quoted, often anonymously, taking shots at the administration.
EPA employees also have launched “alternative” Twitter accounts, using the platforms to promote aggressive climate change policies.
Administration officials, including Mr. Pruitt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and others, routinely have said they believe the climate is changing and that human activity has had an impact, but they have stopped short of saying humans are the primary drivers of global warming. They also have said exactly that what the U.S. should do about climate change and how much economic harm it should be willing to inflict on itself to mitigate the effects should remain open questions.
Mr. Pruitt also has said he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary driver of climate change.
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has repeatedly dodged questions about his personal views on climate change, though in the past he has called it a hoax.
Some analysts say the tension between scientists and top administration officials shouldn’t be surprising given the White House’s push to reverse virtually all Obama-era climate regulations, withdraw from the Paris climate accord and take other steps that environmentalists say will deeply harm the country and the planet.
“Why would Mr. Trump want to issue a National Climate Assessment, which clearly states that America is being harmed badly by human-caused climate change, when he and members of his Cabinet are actively ignoring and/or distorting the truth about climate change?” said Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.
While casting doubt on the impact of carbon emissions and other human activity on the climate, top officials also have stressed that they are not trying to shy away from the conversation. Mr. Perry, for instance, challenged the idea that he and other officials are unwilling to talk about global warming.
“The climate is changing. Man is having an impact on it. I’ve said that time after time — the idea that we can’t have an intellectual conversation about just what are the actual impacts,” he said in remarks at the White House this summer. “Why not have a conversation about that? What is the other side, the people who say the science is settled, it’s done? If you don’t believe that, you’re a skeptic, [and] I don’t buy that. This is America. Have a conversation. Let’s come out of the shadows of hiding behind your political statements, and let’s talk about it.
“What’s wrong with that? I can be convinced, but why not let’s talk about it?”