State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Undermining of Climate Science


The election of Donald Trump has climate scientists concerned about its implications for U.S. environmental policies and the worldwide effort to curb the worst effects of climate change. Though Trump recently said he would remain open-minded about climate change, he has surrounded himself with appointees who are fossil fuel advocates and climate change deniers, including an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency who has long been its adversary. Many climate scientists fear that climate science under Trump could be strategically undermined in a variety of ways.

One of the most distressing aspects of Trump’s ascendancy is that it has been accompanied by a surge of intolerant and hateful language, particularly online. Climate scientists have been subjected to this kind of harassment for years but are now concerned that it could get worse.

“I have received some nasty emails, blog comments, and tweets, usually after I write an op-ed,” said Adam Sobel, director and chief scientist for Columbia University’s Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate. “And occasionally a hostile comment or two in person when I am giving a public talk somewhere.”

“I have received vengeful emails from both sides of the political spectrum in response to my research and my comments on it in the media,” said Richard Seager, the Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Research Professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “I have been accused in these of both being a radical anti-business nutcase and of being a climate denier! I am concerned that the Trump campaign has so lowered the tone of public debate that attacks on climate science and scientists will intensify.”

Mann's hockey stick graph.
Mann’s hockey stick graph.

Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and renowned for his “hockey stick” graph showing the rise of global temperatures over centuries, is arguably one of the most harassed climate scientists. Mann has been called a liar, a charlatan and a scumbag, and he and his family have received death threats.

In 2005, Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas who was then chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, commissioned a report on the 1999 hockey stick study disputing the evidence. The report was later found to involve misconduct and falsification of data. Barton contends that the evidence for climate change is “absolute nonsense.”

In 2009, Mann’s email correspondence with scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the U.K. was hacked and taken out of context to make it appear that the scientists had falsified data. Critics said this proved climate change was a hoax. Scientists in the U.S. and the U.K. were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing, but in 2010, Mann received a letter laced with white powder and an email that said, “You and your colleagues who have promoted this scandal ought to be shot, quartered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families.” The white powder turned out to be cornmeal.

Katherine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian and atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, who does outreach with other evangelical Christians, receives up to 200 emails or letters a day calling her a liar or fraud or threatening her after she appears in the media.

“There are people who become dedicated to following you, who have Google alerts set up on your name, who stalk your Twitter and Facebook accounts, who essentially make a career out of ridiculing and vilifying you,” she told insideclimatenews.

One of the main tools used to harass climate scientists who work for the government, or who receive public money through universities or other sources, is the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was established to ensure transparency in government. It gives the public the right to request access to information and documents from the U.S. government. Communication among scientists used to be mainly conducted by telephone or in person; today email correspondence leaves a trail. When the emails are accessed through open records requests, it can hinder the exchange of ideas and constructive criticism between scientists. Moreover, complying with the order can take many days or weeks to gather the emails, or mount a legal argument against complying. FOIA requests are ostensibly used to verify the science, but sometimes their real agenda appears to be to slow research or intimidate scientists into downplaying risks or not appearing publicly.

Trump has pledged to revive the coal industry. Photo: macwagen
Trump has pledged to revive the coal industry. Photo: macwagen

The Energy & Environment Legal Institute, a group that doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change and is funded by coal companies, sued Mann in 2011 for six years of emails (over 10,000 emails) from the University of Virginia, where he had been a professor. The Virginia Supreme Court later rejected the claim to protect academic research.

In 2013, the Energy & Environment Legal Institute sued for 13 years of emails and documents from University of Arizona climate scientists Malcolm Hughes, Mann’s colleague, and Jonathan Overpeck, a lead author of a 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Hughes lost a whole summer of research and a grant searching through emails; Overpeck spent six weeks gathering all his emails and could not go on sabbatical. In 2015, the court ruled in favor of the university, saying that the emails did not need to be released; but after the Energy & Environment Legal Institute appealed, the court reversed itself. The University of Arizona may still appeal.

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, based at Columbia University Law School, was founded in 2011 to help fund Michael Mann’s legal defense. Today, it helps defend any “climate scientists who are dragged into litigation or otherwise threatened with legal attacks and harassment by politically and ideologically motivated groups.” It raises money for their legal defense, offers legal support and is a resource for pro bono representation. It also educates scientists about their rights and responsibilities, and helps the public understand the legal issues scientists face.

Funding for climate research is at risk under the Trump administration. During the campaign, Trump stated that he would cancel all domestic and international climate change spending. He claimed this would save $100 billion over eight years, which could be shifted toward infrastructure, including clean air and water and safety. In the past, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee led by Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, also a Republican from Texas, has tried to cut back on funding for climate and energy research; with Republicans now controlling Congress, scientists are concerned that this will come to pass.

Most of Seager’s funding for his research on climate variability comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “We are very concerned about cuts in funding because of a general cut in government discretionary spending and targeted cuts for climate and environmental research,” he said.

Sobel’s research is funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the NSF and NOAA. “Agencies may come under attack to the extent that they fund climate research,” said Sobel. “I am a tenured professor and won’t lose my job. But many Columbia climate scientists—including virtually all our graduate students and postdocs—are supported primarily by grant funds, and their jobs could be at risk. This concerns me greatly.”

Here is some climate-related research funding that could be at risk.

Wind energy was responsible for 88,000 U.S. jobs in 2015. Photo: Chuck Coker
Wind energy was responsible for 88,000 U.S. jobs in 2015. Photo: Chuck Coker

$8.5 billion of the Energy Department’s 2017 budget was to be spent on energy efficiency, renewable and nuclear energy research and development. The Department of Energy funds 80 percent of the budget for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that researches renewable energy and energy efficiency technology. Trump has said he will promote fossil fuel development and nuclear power, but it’s unclear how renewable energy will be affected.

The Interior Department’s 2017 budget includes $1.1 billion for sustainable land management and conveying climate information to the public. Through the U.S. Geological Survey, the department funds climate science centers and carbon sequestration research. Some of its programs help communities build more resiliency against extreme weather events and sea level rise.

The State Department’s 2017 climate-related budget of $984 million was to go toward the nation’s international climate change efforts, including U.N. climate negotiation and research, and the Green Climate Fund that helps developing countries deal with climate change impacts. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department also funds projects that help poorer countries adapt to climate change.

$1.1 billion of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2017 budget was to be spent on climate and air quality research, and enforcing climate regulations like the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon pollution from power plants and which Trump has vowed to rescind. The EPA is expecting deep funding cuts. Trump could cut the budget by simply asking Congress for less money for EPA, and also weaken the agency by asking Congress to limit its authority.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) 2017 budget includes $190 million for climate research at NOAA and at universities. NOAA monitors greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, Arctic sea ice, El Nino, global temperatures and weather forecasting.

Some of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) budget of $7.46 billion funds environmental research and education, research in the Arctic and Antarctic, earth and ocean science research, environmental engineering and sustainability.

NASA satellites monitor Superstorm Sandy as it intensifies. Photo: NASA
NASA satellites monitor Superstorm Sandy as it intensifies. Photo: NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) 2017 budget includes $1.9 billion for climate research on Earth and in space, including satellite monitoring of carbon dioxide, precipitation, sea levels, storms, land cover changes and the polar ice sheets. NASA also manages the most reliable global temperature records. Trump’s space policy advisor, Robert Walker, has called NASA’s climate change monitoring “politically correct” and advocated moving its earth science programs to NOAA or the NSF, focusing NASA instead on deep space. Walker said budgets would be realigned to reflect the changeover, but in fact, Republicans have been trying to cut the budgets of climate-related programs at all three agencies in recent years. Moreover, the other agencies are not equipped to do what NASA does.

“This would be a disaster for U.S. climate research and for Columbia in particular, since we have NASA-GISS [the Goddard Institute for Space Studies] as our close partner, with many Columbia scientists employed there,” said Sobel.

Scientists around the country and the world have reacted to this proposal with alarm, because NASA’s satellite data and analysis is the most robust in the world and is accessible to everyone for free on the Internet. Scientists in Nepal use NASA satellite data to monitor lakes forming on melting glaciers in the Himalayas to make sure they don’t overflow. South African scientists use the data to monitor drought conditions and wildfires, which enables the government to know where to direct resources.

NASA monitors fires in the southeast. Photo: NASA
NASA monitors fires in the southeast. Photo: NASA

NASA satellites monitor global rainfall, which helps farmers plan their crops, and microscopic plants in the ocean upon which healthy fisheries depend. If satellites were to stop monitoring and were not replaced right away, critical information would be lost; an unbroken record of data is key to understanding Earth’s past, present and future.

“We can survive a downturn in social climate and even bad appointees, since these will come to an end,” said Seager, “But we are facing an ongoing climate crisis, and we cannot afford to lose time in understanding how the Earth system is changing and how to adapt to the inevitable and prevent the even worse.”

“Without the support of NASA, not only the U.S., but the entire world would be taking a hard hit when it comes to understanding the behavior of our climate and the threats posed by human-caused climate change,” Mann told the Guardian.

If NASA’s earth science programs are cut, many scientists believe that the United States’ scientific leadership would falter and decline.

Trump may also have at his disposal a number of new bills and an office in the executive branch that could enable him to hobble science policy.

The Congressional Review Act of 1996 allows Congress to repeal rules made by agencies such as the EPA that were passed within the last 60 days of the Senate session. The resolution to repeal must be approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. Trump and the Republican Congress could thus repeal any regulation that Obama has passed since mid-May—for example, EPA’s rules to cut methane and ozone emissions and fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks. After the repeal, the Congressional Review Act also prevents an agency from issuing another rule that’s “substantially the same” unless Congress authorizes it.

The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act would mandate that any regulation costing more than $100 million be approved by both the House and Senate within a 70-day period. This act, which has passed the House and awaits Senate approval, would enable Congress simply to sit on its hands and stall environmental regulation.

In the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the executive branch, lawyers meticulously comb over federal regulations before they are enacted. They could effectively stymie Obama’s newest regulations by continually sending them back for revision.

The Secret Science Reform Act, sponsored by Lamar Smith and his committee, and which has passed the House, could prevent the EPA from rule making unless all the information used to create the rule was “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.” But it could be difficult to reproduce a study that involves data accumulated over decades, or a study done in response to a single event like an oil spill. Moreover, some data, like medical records used for public health regulations, are confidential. In an article in The Atlantic, Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy, said of these bills, “They’re not going after the laws directly but going after how the government can use science to fulfill those laws.”

On Dec. 6, over 800 earth scientists and energy experts sent President-elect Trump an open letter exhorting him to address climate change through six steps:

  1. Make America a clean energy leader
  2. Reduce carbon pollution and America’s dependence on fossil fuels
  3. Enhance America’s climate preparedness and resilience
  4. Publicly acknowledge that climate change is a real, human-caused and urgent threat
  5. Protect scientific integrity in policy making
  6. Uphold America’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement.

What else can citizens and scientists do to support climate science?

“We need, as individuals and groups, to speak out for the need of continued research funding, a clear assessment of how we are changing the climate and environment, and for the development of evidence-based policies for climate adaptation and mitigation,” said Seager.

Robin Bell, a Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Doherty Research Professor, and an expert in polar science, has recently been named president-elect of the American Geophysical Union. She believes the goal for scientists is to “…continue to articulate how science is key to what the new administration cares about—intelligent investment in infrastructure, national security, public health. … And it’s really important that scientists figure out how to connect with their communities and connect with government at local, state and federal levels to communicate the importance of science.”

“Science is really non-partisan. It is data and evidence—it is not a political issue. This is how we understand how the planet works and why it matters to our society.”






Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments