FYI: Science Policy News

Trump Transition Raising Anxieties About Future of Climate Research

DEC 21, 2016
As Donald Trump’s presidential transition continues, both supporters and opponents of the scientific consensus on climate change have begun to ponder the implications for climate research. A flurry of activity in the past two weeks has stirred anxieties in the climate science community and could presage other battles to come.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

Note: Article updated 12/23/16 to mention the Office of Special Counsel’s response to the request of nine Senate Democrats for an investigation of the controversial questionnaire submitted by Donald Trump’s landing team at the Department of Energy.

President-elect Trump’s characterization of the scientific consensus on climate change as a “hoax” is well known, and he has long promised to roll back President Obama’s climate policies. However, in the past two weeks, a series of rapidly unfolding events has put the climate science community on alert that climate research could soon face a deeply hostile political environment.

DOE questionnaire ignites controversy

On Dec. 9, news reports began to circulate that members of Trump’s transition team for the Department of Energy had submitted a 74-item questionnaire to department officials. Several of the queries asked DOE to identify specific individuals. Two questions asked for names of employees and contractors who had attended government working group meetings on the social cost of carbon and Conferences of the Parties of the U.N. International Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The news sparked widespread anger and suspicion that Trump’s administration might target specific federal scientists for retribution or marginalization. On Dec. 13, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz calling the questions “troubling” and “disconcerting,” and requested copies of all information that DOE provides to Trump’s transition team. The same day, the Washington Post reported that, while DOE would cooperate with Trump’s transition team, it would not provide individual names. Then, on Dec. 14, the Post reported that the Trump team had said that the questionnaire “was not authorized or part of our standard protocol,” and that the person responsible for it had been “properly counseled.”

On Dec. 15, Cantwell sent a letter to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who is leading the Trump transition, stating she would remain vigilant on the matter, arguing that, even if retracted, the questions “plainly reflect the thinking of a Transition Team that appears hostile, in part, to the Department’s missions and programs.” The same day, nine other Senate Democrats wrote to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency, requesting an investigation of whether the questionnaire, “or any similar questionnaire being circulated by transition officials, violates federal law,” and asking that the office “hold accountable those responsible.”

[Update: The Washington Post reported on Dec. 23 that the special counsel replied that she will not open an investigation because the questionnaire was retracted and because landing team members are not federal employees, but she also indicated that whistleblower laws will apply to “any effort to chill scientific discourse or research.”]

Targeting individual researchers a well-established tactic

Politicians and activists opposed to the climate change consensus have for years sought to use congressional authority, open-records laws, and lawsuits to obtain scientists’ correspondence and working papers. Selections from these documents are then used to question the integrity of scientists’ research practices and to catch government-employed scientists committing improprieties. Such cases are in turn used to portray climate science as riven by methodological error stemming from political bias and professional self-interest.

Critics of this campaign observe that its characterizations of scientists’ work have been false or misleading and fail to acknowledge the robustness of climate science’s theoretical and evidentiary underpinnings. The critics also claim that the tactics employed are intended to harass scientists by forcing them to comply with unreasonably broad and invasive requests, by undermining good-faith discourse about their work, and by exposing scientists to abusive critics.

As reported in FYIs 2005 #112 and 2006 #15 , over ten years ago, rebukes from commentators and lawmakers in both parties followed then-unprecedented congressional inquiries about the working documents of three university-based scientists as well as NASA’s attempts to restrain agency scientist James Hansen from publicly voicing his scientific views.

Since then, several private organizations have taken the lead in seeking documentation from scientists and government agencies. In fact, on Dec. 12, a federal judge ordered White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren to preserve on a thumb drive all emails from the account he keeps with the Woods Hole Research Center. The ruling is to ensure that, even after Holdren steps down, OSTP can comply with a records request that the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) made in 2013 for government-related emails from that account (see FYI 2016 #98 ). Meanwhile, this month Trump named two key architects of the private legal campaigns—CEI’s Christopher Horner and David Schnare , general counsel at the Energy and Environment Legal Institute—to his landing team at the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a Dec. 16 article in the Washington Post, Michael Mann, one of the scientists targeted in 2005 by two congressmen, and later by others, described his experiences, saying that those events had led to “demands for me to be fired from my job, threats against my life and even threats against my family.” While these threats have since diminished, he wrote, “with the coming Trump administration, my colleagues and I are steeling ourselves for a renewed onslaught of intimidation, from inside and outside government.”

Covers of Christopher Horner's Liberal War on Democracy and Michael Mann's The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

Lawyer Christopher Horner and climate scientist Michael Mann both published books in 2012 recounting their experiences on opposing sides of pitched legal battles for access to climate scientists’ correspondence and working documentation.

(Image credit - Simon & Schuster and Columbia University Press)

Recent congressional scrutiny to continue

Over the last two years, under the chairmanship of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the House Science Committee has begun to use congressional subpoena power to probe regulatory decisions at EPA, as well as climate research conducted at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (see 2015 #141 ).

Connecting its investigations to what it alleges is systematic politicized bias throughout the executive branch, the committee majority claims there is a strong need to exert stricter oversight. Yesterday, notably, it released a report on an investigation it was conducting into the firing of a program manager in radiation research at DOE, alleging department officials sidelined her work to divert funds to climate research (see FYI 2016 #118 ). The report reaffirms this allegation:

The Committee concluded that the DOE placed its own priorities to further the President’s Climate Action Plan before its Constitutional obligations to be candid with Congress. The DOE’s actions constitute a reckless and calculated attack on the legislative process itself, which undermines the power of Congress to legislate. The Committee further concludes that DOE’s disregard for separation of powers is not limited to a small group of employees, but rather is an institutional problem that must be corrected by overhauling its management practices with respect to its relationship with Congress.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and Trump transition staff appear to be assembling information on certain programs of interest to them. On Dec. 9, nine Republican congressmen asked the White House Office of Management and Budget to submit a report mandated by last year’s omnibus appropriations act on all “climate change programs, projects, and activities” receiving funding from federal agencies in fiscal years 2015 and 2016. The controversial DOE questionnaire similarly requested lists of DOE programs “essential to meeting the goals of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.”

Where these developments will lead under Trump is undetermined, but opponents of mainstream climate science and President Obama’s climate policies have begun to envision possibilities. On Dec. 8, the Texas Public Policy Foundation sponsored a summit at the Heritage Foundation on the future of energy and climate policy, gathering together many prominent figures from that community, including Smith, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK), House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Peter Olson (R-TX), Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).

At the summit, Smith remarked, “Even with a united government in 2017, it will be an uphill climb to roll back the damage done by [the Obama] administration.” He said that he would use his jurisdiction over federal agencies, singling out EPA and DOE’s research and technology activities, “to take every action possible to reverse this administration’s attacks on American energy.” He anticipated there would not be “near as many subpoenas in the coming Congress.” He also identified the “Secret Science Reform Act,” targeting EPA rulemaking procedures, as a legislative priority.

Climate research supporters ponder options

Members and supporters of the climate research community have begun considering their options if federally funded or government-conducted climate science is targeted for cuts or suppression. On Dec. 13, the Washington Post reported that some scientists have started making copies of the climate data found on government agencies’ websites for fear it could be withdrawn.

California Gov. Jerry Brown at AGU Fall Meeting

California Gov. Jerry Brown addresses the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

(Image credit - Joe McHugh, California Highway Patrol)

On Dec. 14 and 15, keynote speakers at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco outlined possible options if the government backs away from climate research. California Governor Jerry Brown suggested in a fiery speech that the University of California would resist attempts to impose deleterious changes on the national laboratories that it manages , and that the state could even launch its own climate research satellite.

At a press conference at the AGU meeting, Marcia McNutt, a geophysicist and president of the National Academy of Sciences, was more guarded in her remarks. She observed that the geosciences have been “under siege” for some time and suggested that they could enhance their appeal to lawmakers by promoting solution-oriented “convergent” science. She also suggested that non-scientists, notably in business, could play an important role in conveying the importance of climate change to Trump.

Pressed on what scientists can do if the new administration proves as hostile as feared, McNutt said, “If there are violations of the in-place scientific integrity policies [at federal agencies], that would be actionable. If there are cuts to the science budget in climate change at the federal level, we can work to get private funding to step in.” But, she warned, “Freaking out is not going to get us anywhere.”

Related Topics
More from FYI
The ADVANCE Act reinforces the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to use more-relaxed licensing requirements for near-term fusion systems compared to fission systems.
The White House reiterates that data limitations present challenges to estimating costs of its impending requirement for free public access to the results of federally funded research.
Among the 12 awardees are a Colorado-based quantum hub and a Montana-based photonic sensor hub.
The action is the latest in the administration’s push to improve the accuracy of data on methane emissions.

Related Organizations