From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”
Today, from the start, the Trump administration has tried to dismantle regulations aimed at curbing climate change. Now, in its latest attack, the administration is trying to dismantle climate science.
It’s Wednesday, May 29.
Coral, tell me about what happened in November of last year.
In November of 2018, the federal government put out what’s known as the National Climate Assessment. This is a huge, sweeping comprehensive assessment of the impact of climate change on the U.S. It’s over 1,000 pages long. It’s prepared by 13 federal agencies. It takes about four years to prepare. It’s a huge deal every time one of these comes out, because it is absolutely considered the most up to date, comprehensive, authoritative understanding of the impact of climate change on the U.S. And it’s a big deal when it comes out in the U.S. It’s a big deal around the world, because it’s also considered one of the most authoritative climate science documents in the world.
So this is kind of like the Bible of U.S. climate science?
Coral Davenport covers environmental policy for The Times.
And so what the Trump administration decided to do with this is essentially to bury it. They are mandated by law to put it out. There’s a law that says the agencies have to put it out every four years. But they decided to put it online at about 2:00 or 3:00 PM on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
So at a moment when just about everybody is either literally on vacation or on some vacation of the mind?
Yes. The people who were not on vacation were climate journalists.
- archived recording 1
When most Americans are tucking into turkey leftovers and waiting in line for Black Friday sales, the government has released a huge report on the impact of climate change.
The strategy of trying to bury it didn’t work at all.
- archived recording 2
The report wasn’t expected to be made public until next month, leading some to wonder if Friday’s release was an attempt to bury the story.
Mainly because it had such kind of stunning and deeply researched conclusions.
- archived recording 3
A dire new forecast, more frequent and more devastating weather crises on the horizon.
- archived recording 4
For the southeast, stronger hurricanes and more frequent flooding. The Midwest, agricultural catastrophe, extreme heat destroying crops. And in the west, increased fire danger.
- archived recording 5
That predicts hotter temperatures will kill more people. Crop yields will decline dramatically. And ocean acidification will cause millions of dollars in losses to the seafood industry. According to those findings, rising sea levels will threaten public infrastructure and real estate along U.S. coasts.
And the impacts of that could be devastating specifically to the United States economy.
- archived recording 6
The report states if greenhouse gases continue to rise, the country will see labor-related losses of $150 billion a year by 2090. Damage to coastal property due to the rise in sea levels and storm surges could reach nearly $120 billion a year.
And the report actually found that these impacts could knock as much as 10 percent off the U.S. G.D.P. by the end of the century, which is a huge economic hit. And I think that was the kind of thing that really sort of stunned the administration. Essentially, the conclusions of this report totally undermine the policy agenda, the regulatory agenda of this administration. This administration’s policy agenda, very specifically, is about, literally, emitting more greenhouse gas emissions.
- archived recording (donald trump)
We’re eliminating unnecessary regulations so we can create more jobs and wealth right here in America. I’ve ended the Obama administration’s war on coal. And we’re putting our wonderful coal miners back to work, producing beautiful clean coal.
Under President Trump, we have seen the rollback of a couple of key greenhouse gas emissions regulations that were put in place in the Obama administration. One is a major E.P.A. regulation on greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles.
- archived recording 1
Regulations put in place by the Obama administration call for new vehicles to get 36 miles per gallon by 2025. The Trump administration says that’s too high.
There’s another major E.P.A. regulation from the Obama administration that would have drastically reduced greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, leading to shutdown of power plants, freezing construction of future power plants. The Trump administration is rolling that back.
- archived recording 2
President’s move ends a moratorium on coal mining on federal land and eases restrictions on coal-fired power plants.
And the interior department is rolling back protections on public lands and federal waters in order to not just allow but aggressively promote the exploration and extraction of more fossil fuels, more oil, more gas, more coal, with the specific intent of driving the consumption and the burning of more fossil fuels, producing more greenhouse gases. I mean, this is a very explicit policy agenda. And this report says the results of this policy agenda are going to devastate the U.S. economy. I mean, these two sets of facts are in total conflict.
So not only does this report make the case that these policies will worsen carbon emissions and therefore be bad for the environment, but this report is sugge
sting that these policies that are meant to strengthen the U.S. economy will, because of the environmental damage that they will inflict, actually hurt it.
So what happens after this, for the Trump administration, pretty embarrassing report comes out?
Well, at first, the White House and the president slammed it.
- archived recording (donald trump)
I don’t believe it.
- archived recording 1
You don’t believe it?
- archived recording (donald trump)
No, no. I don’t believe it.
And then kind of tried to move on from it. And that was kind of what happened with the public face at the White House. In the background, it’s important to remember that this is kind of a moment where there was a transition happening among top Trump environmental officials. Previously, we had seen top officials like Scott Pruitt, who was the first head of the E.P.A. under Trump who had spent his tenure pretty much constantly fighting off accusations of scandal and corruption. Or Ryan Zinke, the former Secretary of the Interior, same thing, was forced to resign after multiple allegations of scandal as well. These guys had been these big, high-profile, very politically flashy officials. They had left. And their replacements were these two senior officials who were much less flashy, much less scandal-plagued, much less in the headlines, not public figures, but really, really smart at the inside Washington game. The new head of the E.P.A. is Andrew Wheeler, who is a former coal lobbyist who has also worked as a senior official on the Hill, also worked in the E.P.A. in the George W. Bush administration. David Bernhardt is the new Secretary of the Interior. He used to be an oil lobbyist. Used to work at the Interior Department under the George W. Bush administration. These are guys who aren’t trying to pursue political careers in a big way. They do know how to pull the levers and get policy done. These guys and some of the other top officials look at this report and say, there’s a bigger problem here. This is not just embarrassing. This is not just a couple of bad headlines for us. And this is why. Lawyers looking to fight these Trump regulatory rollbacks can use this document in court, in the Supreme Court, essentially saying, look, if your own administration says adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere hurts the U.S. economy, how can you make the legal justification to put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The law says you can’t do these regulatory changes if they’re going to substantially hurt the economy. There’s a very clear legal argument to be made. And so these guys are kind of realizing this is a big problem for us, the fact that this thing is out there and exists, and we’re trying to do this policy agenda. This is more than just embarrassing.
So in other words, they’re seeing this report as a potential legal blueprint for their opponents to challenge their policies in court.
Opponents of these policies have already said explicitly that once these regulatory rollbacks are done and they go to court, they absolutely intend to use this report to challenge them all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Hmm. So they will take this giant climate report, the one that the Trump administration doesn’t like but know by law it has to put out. And they will introduce this as evidence that these regulatory rollbacks should be invalidated?
So what do these officials in the Trump administration do once they realize that this legal exposure exists?
Well, they can’t do anything about the current report. That’s out there. That’s done.
But they start thinking, all right, well, work on the next report, which is coming out in four years, has just started. And they can change the outcome, they think, of the next scientific report.
Well, how exactly does that work? Because you can’t exactly change climate science.
Right. And they’re not saying we’re going to fundamentally change the methods by which we do climate science, because, keep in mind, it’s not just the National Climate Assessment. That’s the major report that’s put out by the federal government. But the federal government does climate science reports across the agencies. So they are having a discussion that asks the question, how much information can we leave out. How much does the public really need to know?
We’ll be right back.
So Coral, what does the Trump administration decide to do to limit what makes it into these official government reports on climate science?
There’s a couple of different ways that this is happening. In one agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, all they do is scientific reports. They’re inside the Interior Department. There is a new policy in place already happening that all of that climate science and all their reports have to include some element of how climate change impacts public lands and waters and the different things that they do. There’s a new policy that climate projections can’t go past the year 2040.
What’s significant about that?
If you look at a climate science model, a projection, what’s going to be the impact of the warming planet. If you look at those, the worst impacts, the biggest difference all happen past 2050. After 2050, that’s when you start to see the really dramatic bad impacts of a lot more greenhouse gases. So this policy of saying, our climate science is not going to include any projections after 2040 creates, essentially, scientists say, a falsely optimistic, falsely positive idea. It doesn’t show you the bad stuff that happens if we keep polluting.
So the worst this, the worst impacts of the emissions policies that are currently being pursued by the Trump administration would make themselves apparent in projections after 2040. And what this proposal would do is just keep those projections before 2040 and therefore keep the worst, most dire predictions out of these reports?
Precisely. And this isn’t a proposal. This is already hap
pening at the U.S. Geological Survey, which is a scientific agency inside the Interior Department.
O.K., so what else is the administration doing to limit the public’s exposure to this information in these reports?
So there’s another major proposal, and this is more of a proposal. This hasn’t happened yet. Specifically focused on the National Climate Assessment. In these big climate science reports, there’s usually a range of options based on how much greenhouse pollution goes into the atmosphere. There’s a worst case scenario, things get really hot, things get really bad. And then there’s a best case scenario, we keep the worst of it under control, we just warm up a little bit, things aren’t so bad. And then there’s usually a couple of middle scenarios. So the proposal is essentially: don’t include the worst case scenario.
Just lop it off?
Lop it off.
With the goal, once again, of shielding people from the worst case scenarios of what these policies might do?
Precisely. And what’s really remarkable about this proposal is that the scenario that they’re proposing to lop off is the most likely scenario, given that this administration is putting in place policies that will specifically lead to the business as usual, higher greenhouse gas emissions outcome.
So the administration is figuring out a way to make the science obscure the long-term realities of climate change?
Yes. I’ve been reporting on climate policy for over 10 years. And a story that we’ve written a lot is, despite the fact that President Trump has mocked climate science, withdrew from the Paris Accord, wants to roll back these regulations, we’ve actually written a lot of stories that say, you know what, they haven’t messed with the science. And we wrote that story when they put out the National Climate Assessment last fall. They tried to bury it. They made fun of it. But they didn’t mess with the science. And so this is something really new. And I talked with a scientist who had worked on the National Climate Assessment who said, what is really concerning here is that the numbers put out by the U.S. government should be absolutely reliable, whether they’re about the economy, whether they’re scientific reports. They should be so reliable as to almost be boring. And what this scientists said to me is, in totalitarian regimes, in the Soviet Union, when governments put out reports and numbers, people kind of laugh at them, because they know they’re just sort of cooked up to support a political agenda. And he said, I see the very, very beginnings of that here in a way that we have not seen before.
So Coral, how openly is the Trump administration pursuing this strategy? Because trying to hide science doesn’t seem like something that any government agency would do very publicly.
And yet, Michael, surprisingly, they’re pretty open about it. Trump administration officials have publicly criticized these climate models. They’ve called the worst case scenarios highly unreliable and inaccurate. So they are sort of standing up for what they’re doing and saying, no, this will lead to more accurate, more careful, more thoughtful climate science reports, even though these are statements highly at odds with a vast consensus by the actual climate science community. But interestingly, they’re pretty open about it. They don’t seem to be running away from it.
Coral, what are the implications of the changes that you’ve just laid out, to shift the way we present science and, I suppose, even collect it?
So the first is that, if these reports start to come out this way, with big blocks of information that have been cut out, the reports will present a falsely optimistic picture of what the future will look like, despite the increase of planet warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s the first step. The second step though, is that they will be so at odds with the rest of climate science being produced in academia and around the world that we will start to see U.S. science discredited.
But what about the whole reason this strategy exists, which is an attempt by the Trump administration to limit the legal exposure that you describe, to make it harder for people to challenge their policies by putting out less climate science data?
Michael, that absolutely is the strategy. I’m not sure how well it will work. And the reason is if they put out reports that present a picture that is misleading, that is falsely optimistic, and it is totally at odds with the vast majority of other climate science being produced around the country and the world and that is not considered valid, I’m not sure how good of a legal weapon these new reports will be. It is very much the thinking that this will be their defense. But I don’t know how far you get when you’re messing with science.
I feel like beyond the legal implications, this presents a number of interesting questions. For example, if the U.S. government stops reporting certain pieces of climate science, does that mean that it stops collecting it? Does that mean that it gets harder and harder to create objective comparisons over time, because what was in the report four years ago isn’t in the next one? And does it just create greater skepticism of climate science if the government is no longer considered the great authority on this?
I think, yes, it will create greater skepticism of climate science. The U.S. government is one of the greatest research bodies in the world. And so if the U.S. government is not doing this research, it’s not that it won’t get done. It will continue to be done by universities. It will be continued to be done by other governments around the world. But this is some of the best and most authoritative research. Reports like the National Climate Assessment are used and evaluated by scientific agencies and governments all around the world. If the U.S. government is not creating these scenarios, is not collecting climate data, then, yes, there will start to be much bigger holes in our understanding. It will just mean we won’t have this data.
I wonder then, is it possible, Coral, that the point of this is just kind of dead simple, that the Trump administration is trying to make this problem of climate change seem not so bad so that it can push its policy agenda through without much opposition from the public.
I think that’s right, Michael. I mean, yes, the
idea is these are big reports that get a lot of attention and heighten this intense sense of urgency. And when the last Climate Assessment report came out last fall, it absolutely fueled climate activism. And I think the thinking is, well, when we put out the next one, let’s have it not do that.
I mean, in some ways, it is very simple. If there’s not as much of a problem, then what we’re doing is fine.
Even if it fundamentally changes our ability to understand the actual science of climate change?
I think that this is not an issue that senior officials in the Trump administration are losing any sleep over. And in fact, that’s exactly what the Secretary of the Interior department David Bernhardt said when he was recently asked in congressional testimony about his agency’s role in dealing with climate change. He told members of Congress, I’m not really losing any sleep over it.
- archived recording 1
I was reading the newspaper this week. And it hit the headlines two days ago that carbon dioxide levels hit 415 parts per million, which is the highest in human history, the highest in 800,000 years. And that was, of course, when there were no humans, the last time it hit that kind of level. And so my question for you is, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most concerned, what’s your number for how concerned you are about us hitting 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide?
- archived recording (david bernhardt)
I haven’t lost any sleep over it.
Coral, thank you very much.
Michael, thank you so much.
Here’s what else you need to know today. On Tuesday, in a closely watched case, the Supreme Court chose not to rule on the constitutionality of an Indiana law that restricts abortion. The law, which prohibited abortions based on sex, race and disabilities like Down syndrome, was passed when Vice President Mike Pence was Indiana’s governor and was later struck down by lower courts. The case would have given the Supreme Court its first chance since the confirmation of justice Brett Kavanaugh to determine the legality of state laws limiting abortion.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.