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Federal Climate Science Special Report Leaked: Clearance Process Raises Concerns Over Upcoming Climate Assessment Report

Nicky Sundt, August 15, 2017

A final draft of a key federal report on the science behind climate change has been leaked to the New York Times and made public. The “Climate Science Special Report” (CSSR), produced by the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), is a cornerstone of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), a periodic study of climate change impacts across US regions. Many wonder how the Trump-Pence White House will deal with this first major US government report on climate change to come across its desk; a report warning that Americans are feeling the harmful impacts of climate change in real time, and therefore “directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet” as noted by the Times. Initially released for public review and comment during the last days of the Obama Administration, the final draft was submitted to the White House for final approval on June 28.

The same Times piece reports that “[s]cientists say they fear that the Trump administration could change or suppress the report.” Those fears are well founded. As a candidate and as President, Donald Trump has rejected clear scientific evidence that climate change poses a serious global threat, and has populated his cabinet with those who deny that fossil fuel emissions currently are the primary driver of climate change, and reject imperatives to cut carbon emissions and prepare for dangerous climate change impacts happening now. Instead, the Trump White House is actively dismantling the government’s capacity to address climate change, and thus to deal meaningfully with a problem the nation’s defense apparatus has labeled a major threat to national security.

However, now that the report has been made public, there is little this White House can do to fully suppress it, similar to how another fossil-friendly administration – the George W. Bush Administration – actively and partially suppressed the very first National Climate Assessment produced under the Clinton Administration. (Our examination of this suppression — what CSPW Founder Rick Piltz called the “central climate scandal” of the G.W. Bush Administration — was examined in depth in our most recent white paper released in the Washington Post.  Assuming the document will eventually be cleared and published as an official government report, any heavy-handed, politically-motivated edits will be easily discernible. The expected mishandling of this key study does not bode well for the upcoming publication of the Fourth National Climate Assessment.

CREDIT: Tom Toles, Washington Post, 8-10-17; SOURCE:

The USGCRP is legally required (under the Global Change Research Act of 1990) to produce this climate change impacts assessment by May 2018, or no later than four years following the previous assessment. The current plan is to release a public review draft in late 2017 following multiple rounds of review and revision by officials in the Executive Office of the President and in programs in 13 federal agencies that comprise the USGCRP. If our experience so far with the CCSR is indicative of what will likely occur with the full climate change impacts assessment report, neither the process nor the individuals involved will be publicly disclosed. With the curtains drawn as they are now, the Fourth National Climate Assessment will be vulnerable: its integrity is much too likely to be undermined.

The Climate Science Special Report
The latest draft CSSR, the first major component of the NCA4, states clearly its importance to the overall assessment of climate change impacts:

“The Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) serves several purposes for NCA4, including providing 1) an updated detailed analysis of the findings of how climate change is affecting weather and climate across the United States; 2) an executive summary that will be used as the basis for the science summary of NCA4; and 3) foundational information and projections for climate change, including extremes, to improve “end-to-end” consistency in sectoral, regional, and resilience analyses for NCA4. As an assessment and analysis of the science, this report provides important input to the development of NCA4 and its primary focus on the human welfare, societal, economic and environmental elements of climate change.”

A public review draft of the CCSR (.pdf) was released at the very end of the Obama Administration. The review period was December 15, 2016 – February 3, 2017. The timing was important. By pushing the draft out before President Trump was sworn in, the authors knew it would be more difficult for the new administration to make politically motivated edits without detection. After all, a major impetus for codifying the USGCRP into law was to protect federal climate science and scientists from any political winds that may blow, from administration to administration. Adding further layers of protection, the authors submitted the completed draft to the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) before the change in administration. The NAS review committee first met in December 2016 and published its Review of the draft Climate Science Special Report earlier this year. The Academy reviewers praised it as “an impressive, timely, and generally well-written draft report;” and reported they were “impressed with the breadth, accuracy, and rigor of the draft CSSR.”

The USGCRP subsequently produced a final clearance draft that was submitted to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on June 28, 2017. Past convention dictates that the OSTP would refer the draft to the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Sustainability (CENRS) of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The OSTP oversees the NSTC and its committees and subcommittees. Under the Global Change Research Act, the CENRS is “responsible for planning and coordinating” the USGCRP.

CSPW’s investigation of the review process in place has revealed that the current charter and membership of the CENRS is not publicly available, though our sources have revealed that there is a charter for the CENRS that will remain valid until sometime in 2018. Before and after the CSSR was submitted to OSTP, CSPW requested the current charter and membership roster from OSTP without success, and soon after filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. So far, the White House has not submitted the information requested.

The complete review process was expected to take about three weeks, but the report languished at OSTP for over three weeks. Only on July 21 did OSTP finally send it out for review, with a cover letter asking that the clearance process be completed by August 18, 2017. Instead of sending it through normal channels, i.e., to the CENRS for review and approval, OSTP submitted the draft to a subcommittee of the CENRS, the Subcommittee on Global Change Research (SGCR), a lower level group that directly and actively oversees the USGCRP.

As with its parent committee, the current charter and membership rosters of the SGCR are not available from OSTP. CSPW has requested that information through a FOIA request to OSTP, but thus far OSTP has not met the request. A list of SGCR members is available on the USGCRP web site, but the list is outdated. It is not clear to us why it took so long for OSTP to send the draft out for review; and why it was sent to the SGCR instead of the CENRS. We suspect there is not a functional CENRS ready to review and approve the report.

What happens next with the CSSR is anyone’s guess. Certainly, the release to the public of the clearance draft and the media coverage has drawn attention to the review, and reduces the likelihood that the report will quietly slip through the clearance process without being noticed by potential detractors. It also appears that the clearance process is not well organized, raising doubts about its being completed by August 18. Lastly, because the clearance process and the people engaged in that process have not been publicly identified, questions about the legitimacy of the process may arise, potentially undermining the integrity of the report itself.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment
The experience thus far with the CSSR clearance review does not bode well for the upcoming Fourth National Climate Assessment. Under Section 106 of the Global Change Research Act of 1990, the USGCRP “not less frequently than every 4 years” is required to prepare and submit to the President and the Congress an assessment that:

  1. “Integrates, evaluates, and interprets the findings of the Program and discusses the scientific uncertainties associated with such findings
  2. Analyzes the effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity
  3. Analyzes current trends in global change, both human- induced and natural, and projects major trends for the subsequent 25 to 100 years.”

The Third National Climate Assessment was published in May 2014 and NCA4 therefore is due in May 2018. The USGCRP plans to release a public review draft in the fall of 2017.

In its report, Analysis of Global Change Assessments: Lessons Learned (2007), the National Research Council noted that in conducting assessments, a “deliberate and transparent boundary is necessary to avoid the perception of interference in scientific conclusions.” This is particularly important in the case of NCA4, where the clearance process will include individuals who do not accept that climate change poses a serious threat that requires sharp emission reductions and large-scale national preparedness measures. Instead, the circumstances around the CSSR suggest the NCA4 will be subject to White House and interagency reviews that are ill-defined and invite mischief.

Further concerns are raised by evidence that individuals and organizations outside of government who share the President’s views on climate change intend to intervene in the National Assessment process. CSPW’s investigation has revealed that on April 12, 2017 climate change denier David Wojick sent an email out to a group of over 70 people he considers allies in his attacks on climate science and policy. Among the recipients were individuals with close links to President Trump, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Chris Horner who served on Trump’s transition team for the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The 4th National Assessment is well underway, with tons of scary stuff scheduled for delivery as soon as this fall,” wrote Wojick. “This nonsense needs to be redirected or stopped, but it will not be easy…We need to meet this alarmist juggernaut head on. Prepare.”

In another message the next day, Wojick adds:

We need an honest National Assessment, which concludes that there is not a serious problem. The Assessment is funded by the 13 USGCRP agencies, including EPA, Energy, Interior, DOD, etc. They need to put some skeptics into key positions on the Assessment teams.”

Such talk has not been confined to private emails. Climate change contrarian Pat Michaels wrote in National Climate Assessment and the Trump Administration (Climate Etc., June 21, 2017):

“The latest Assessment — NCA4 — is in full swing. NCA4 promises to be as bad or worse than its predecessors unless the Trump Administration intervenes… Now is the time for the Trump Administration to act. …The Draft NCA4 chapters are about to go out to agencies for review. Here the Trump people are in charge and they need make the National Assessment realistic and in line with the best and newest data. EPA in particular should take a hard look at these draft chapters.”

Judith Curry, who hosts Climate Etc adds:

My suspicion is that the Trump administration will find that it needs to push the ‘reset’ button on National Climate Assessment process. Or, this could be the perfect opportunity to implement the red team/blue team approach that has been advocated by Steve Koonin, John Christy and myself.”

Michaels is a well-known climate denier; Curry and her views on climate science have been aptly discredited by Joe Romm at ThinkProgress and others.

CSPW’s mission is to promote integrity in the use of climate science. Stay tuned: we are keeping a watchful eye on this White House, and will be reporting every instance of the mishandling of federal climate change reports. These are our taxpayer dollars at work: the USGCRP is a 13-agency, $2 billion a year, interdisciplinary climate science program that is the envy of nations across the world. The American people have a right to know what federal scientists are concluding regarding this existential threat.

Nicky Sundt is CSPW’s Senior Fellow. She is an expert on energy and climate change with over 35 years of experience and accomplishment in government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. During the four-month fellowship, Nicky will watch over and report on key US federal climate science obligations under law – especially those relating to communications to the President, Congress, and the public.