President Donald Trump is taking aim at one of the federal government’s main agencies for climate change research – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – and NOAA employees are girding for drastic changes in how they conduct science and report it to the public.
Trump has appointed a leading denier of climate change, Kenneth Haapala of the Heartland Institute, to serve on the administration team handling appointments for the U.S. Department of Commerce, the federal agency that oversees NOAA. Haapala will be in a position to help choose top administrators at NOAA, an agency that conducts atmospheric research and, among other duties, also oversees the National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
One NOAA employee said he and many of his colleagues are alarmed by Haapala’s selection.
“NOAA doesn’t get as much attention as EPA, but it is a pretty big target for people that want to shut down climate change science and findings they find objectionable,” said the employee, who didn’t want his name used for fear of retribution.
Haapala, who has a master of sciences in economics, is a policy expert at Heartland, a Chicago-based group that describes itself as promoting policy “based on individual liberty, limited government, and free markets.” In 2012, the Economist described it as “the world’s most prominent thinktank supporting skepticism about man-made climate change,” a label that Heartland promotes on part of its web site.
That same year, Heartland gained notoriety by buying billboards that showed images of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, along with headlines such as, “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?”
Critics accused the group of equating believers of prevailing climate change science with terrorists. Heartland responded with a press release that stated: “What these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the ‘mainstream’ media, and liberal politicians say about global warming.”
Haapala also heads the Science and Environmental Policy Project, which, among other things, hands out an “April Fool’s Award” to the government official whom it judges had expanded government power through “flimsy”science. The group handed out the first such award in 2012, giving it to Lisa Jackson, who served as EPA administrator during the Obama administration.
An economic modeler, Haapala has little love for federal environmental agencies. In a 2015 videotaped speech, he accused 13 government entities of “selective ignorance” for a report they’d drafted on the potential health impacts of climate change.
Haapala’s transition role in the Commerce Department has caught the attention of some Democrats in Congress. Last week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, wrote a letter to Trump regarding Haapala’s appointment.
“We urge you to remove Mr. Haapala and any others who share his discredited views on climate science from the DOC landing team,” the two congressmen wrote. “He certainly does not understand or appreciate NOAA’s mission and therefore is unfit to serve in any capacity that oversees operations or personnel decisions at the agency.”
Neither the White House nor Haapala could be reached directly for comment Monday. But in a newsletter he continues to write, Haapala on Saturday disputed the assertion by the two congressmen that he “has made a career out of denying the science behind climate change.”
Writing about himself in the third person, Haapala went on to explain how, as a non-scientist, his views on climate change and other issues have evolved.
“A great influence on Haapala’s willingness to question conventional thinking are the writings of Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher and mathematician,” he wrote. “With no advanced degree in natural sciences, Russell wrote very clearly on many scientific issues of the day.”
Calling itself the nation’s “environmental intelligence agency,” NOAA has a $5.8 billion annual budget, with roughly $190 million targeted toward climate change research. It operates several orbiting satellites to collect data on the atmosphere and earth sciences. Before Trump took office, it released a report declaring 2016 to be the warmest year on record globally, following two other record years.
In recent weeks, federal employees at the National Parks Service, EPA and other agencies have claimed they are under “gag orders” – restricted from using social media or taking any action not approved by the new administration. As of Monday evening, the EPA hadn’t tweeted a single item since Jan. 19, the day before Trump was sworn in as president.
At NOAA, however, social media managers continue to post information about climate change. This includes a Jan. 25 tweet directing people to the agency’s fact sheet on climate change, which states that human activities are the major cause of the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere.
“The only new process on Earth that has been identified that can account for the significant tipping of Earth’s carbon balance is humans burning ever increasing amounts of fossil fuels together with other large-scale activities like deforestation, biomass burning, and cement production,” the fact sheet states.
Agency employees, as well as the union that represents the National Weather Service, said they’ve seen no administration directives yet on communications and social media.
NASA, another federal agency that conducts and promotes climate change science, has also continued to use its Twitter accounts as normal. NASA’s “landing team” is headed by Chris Shank, another climate change skeptic who previously worked for House Science Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas. In recent years, Smith has used his committee to go after climate change scientists and state attorneys general investigating whether ExxonMobil broke laws by hiding research findings on global warming.
Decisions about NOAA’s new administrator and other top officials won’t be made until the Senate makes a decision on Trump’s choice for Commerce Secretary. Trump has nominated Wilbur Ross, a billionaire who previously invested in coal companies, for the job. During his confirmation hearing, Ross deflected questions about his views on global warming, saying only that “science is science and scientists should perform science.”
UPDATE: A Trump administration official on Tuesday says Haapala is no longer part of the Commerce transition, but is unable to say when he left.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth