Climate report creates dilemma for Trump administration

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

A draft of a U.S. government climate science report drew wide attention recently, partly because of its contents, but mainly because it creates a political problem for the Trump administration. This may have surprised the wider world, but those of us involved in the preparation of the report anticipated and pointed out this impending dilemma even before the inauguration.

The “Climate Science Special Report” (CSSR) summarizes the latest understanding of climate change with a particular focus on the United States. As a scientific report, it does not make policy recommendations, but its findings are irreconcilable with the policies of the Trump administration. The report’s unequivocal attribution of climate change to human greenhouse gas emissions and dire assessment of ongoing and future impacts are at odds with statements by Trump and his cabinet and with their policy of promoting fossil fuel extraction and use. Hence the dilemma for Trump & Company: if they release the report, they’ll have to explain why they are ignoring the findings of their own scientists. If they delay or cancel the report, they’ll be accused of suppressing science; and if they rewrite it, that fact will be widely known because of the now-famous draft.

The CSSR is a part of the basis of the 4th National Climate Assessment (NCA4), a Congressionally-mandated quadrennial appraisal of how climate change is affecting and will affect the United States, including important human systems (agriculture, human health, water supplies, etc.). The preparation of NCA4 was set in motion by WHRC’s John Holdren in his recent White House roles as head of the Office of Science and Technology and chair of the National Science and Technology Council. The CSSR was drafted in 2016, and I had the privilege of spending the Christmas holiday reviewing it as part of a National Academy of Sciences panel. That panel strongly endorsed the main findings of the report, while suggesting relatively minor changes. It was obvious then that the report would create a problem for the incoming administration, and that day is here, as the report is now undergoing final review by the federal agencies that sponsored it.

There is no legal requirement to release the CSSR. The quadrennial National Climate Assessments are mandated by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (signed by George H.W. Bush). When George W. Bush failed to produce one, his administration was successfully sued. Multiple groups are preparing to sue the Trump administration if they do not release the 4th National Climate Assessment on schedule next year. But the CSSR is not strictly speaking part of the Assessment—rather, it is a “foundational” document that the authors of the Assessment are supposed to use (and already are using) as they write the Assessment. The lack of a legal mandate to release the report would seem to limit options if Trump et al. choose to suppress it.

So what’s in the report? There are important new developments since the previous major summary (the IPCC 5th Assessment Report) was issued in late 2013. These include:

  • Three consecutive warmest years on record
  • Confirmation that the decay of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is accelerating
  • Higher projections of sea level rise (largely as a result of the above)
  • Improved understanding of the relationship between climate change and extreme weather
  • New interest in a stricter limit on warming (1.5ºC instead of 2ºC) as a result of the Paris climate agreement

Oh, and the report does reaffirm the dominant human role in causing climate change (sorry, Scott Pruitt). It goes on to add that “There are no alternative explanations, and no natural cycles are found in the observational record that can explain the observed changes in climate.” It’s difficult to reconcile that with the Trump administration’s promotion of coal and other fossil fuels.

This reminds us that as we are consumed by these tangential battles, climate change continues more or less unabated. It is more important than ever for all of us to do what we can to address this challenge. Urge your elected representatives at all levels to support strong policy actions; demonstrate that you care and that you can contribute by reducing your own carbon footprint; and get involved with organizations that are working to make a difference.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.