The New York Times has published a draft of an “alarming” government report on climate change, reporting that scientists involved are concerned the Trump administration might try to change or suppress it. The Times reports that the draft concludes that human activity is the primary cause of climate change and that Americans are already feeling its effects, as “the number and severity of cool nights have decreased since the 1960s, while the frequency and severity of warm days have increased.”
The draft report by the team of scientists disproves the fact-free statements President Trump has made over a several-year period, denying that climate change exists and asserting that it is a “hoax.”
It is essential for the public to see Trump’s baseless statements contradicted by government scientists. But it is deeply worrying that the scientists feared that leaking the draft was necessary for that to happen.
After all, this particular leak demonstrates just how unnerved scientists are by Trump’s rejection and denial of fact-based evidence — someone felt compelled to get a draft in front of the public before the report could be quashed or altered by his administration. The stakes could not be higher, as the scientists find that it is “very likely that the accelerated rate of Arctic warming will have a significant consequence for the United States due to accelerating land and sea ice melting that is driving changes in the ocean including sea level rise threatening our coastal communities.”
More broadly, this episode is a reminder of the crucial role that public release of information like this will play during an administration as opaque and hostile to science as this one. Trump regularly rails against “leaks,” and in those cases, he seems primarily concerned with the sort of disclosures that shed light on his own conduct, on the ongoing Russia probes or on administration infighting — disclosures that damage him politically.
But the leak of the climate report is a different kind of leak — and will serve a different whistleblowing purpose: getting information out there in defiance of the hostility to science and empirically rooted analysis that Trump — and some of his top officials — have displayed.
This problem appears to be widespread, influencing administration stances not just on climate science but on other issues, such as immigration and health care. On all these fronts, the Trump administration has rejected fact-based analysis and sought to make policy that contradicts it.
For example, on climate, Trump’s highest-profile move — his withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord in June — was made in an evidence-free vacuum. He was reportedly encouraged to take that step by Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who rejects the scientific consensus that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal are the primary cause of climate change.
After Trump withdrew the United States from the climate pact, Pruitt called it “absolutely a decision of courage and fortitude and truly represented an ‘America first’ strategy with respect to how we are leading on this issue.” The statement is an emblem of how team Trump values sloganeering over evidence. For Pruitt, and for Trump, it was more important to wrap themselves in a campaign bumper sticker than to preserve America’s leadership role in a global effort to combat the effects of carbon emissions on the planet, one whose urgency is attested to by the international scientific consensus.
Pruitt, as it happens, has a role to play in the release of this climate report. The EPA is one of 13 federal agencies that must approve it before it is released to the public.
We will see how Pruitt handles this report soon enough. But rejecting facts and evidence has become a central driver of this administration’s policy positions on other fronts — and leaks to the press have shown us how. In February and March, the media obtained two separate internal Department of Homeland Security analyses that cast doubt on the rationale for Trump’s travel ban. One, an intelligence report leaked to the Wall Street Journal, found that “country of citizenship is unlikely to be a reliable indicator of potential terrorist activity.”
The other document, provided to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, stated that “most foreign-born, US-based violent extremists likely radicalized several years after their entry to the United States, limiting the ability of screening and vetting officials to prevent their entry because of national security concerns.”
Both of these directly undercut the administration’s substantive arguments for the ban. But Trump moved full speed ahead with it anyway.
The administration is even willing to reject evidence-based analysis that is made public for all to see, deliberately undermining public trust in apolitical institutions responsible for making empirical assessments in order to deceive the public about what the their policies would actually do. During the health-care debate, the Trump administration repeatedly blasted the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office as it was issuing analyses projecting the effects of the various Republican bills to repeal Obamacare, which Trump embraced. Those analyses found that more than 20 million additional Americans would not have coverage under the GOP bills, which badly undercut the White House/GOP argument that no one would be left worse off under them. The administration didn’t merely dispute those analyses; it sought to undercut the CBO’s credibility in advance
The climate report should be seen in another context as well: On a host of regulatory issues, Trump is making policy at the behest of industry interests — and behind closed doors. As McClatchy reported yesterday, Trump has shifted policymaking away from career government officials and to “a network of advisory groups stacked with business executives that operates outside of public view,” which will be drafting policy “on everything from jobs training to environmental policy.” An ongoing New York Times/ProPublica investigation finds that in various federal agencies, “the Trump administration has stacked the teams with political appointees” from lobbying groups and the private sector, “some of whom may be reviewing rules their former employers sought to weaken or kill.”
And so, as lobbyists and other industry representatives are gaining more influence over policymaking, it appears government scientists and policy professionals who operate in the public interest are being sidelined. Which makes leaks such as this one even more necessary for the public to know, precisely, what evidence is being rejected as policy is being made, in many cases to benefit industry.
Leaks and whistleblowing may be the only way the public can learn the full extent and impact of the Trump administration’s rejection of facts, evidence and science. Hopefully, they will encourage the public, and other branches of government, to maintain pressure on the administration to base policy on reality.
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