BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. On Black Friday last year the federal government released its National Climate Assessment–a document that spelled out, in black and white, that climate change is a far, far more catastrophic problem than had previously been reported.
MALE CORRESPONDENT The report says extreme weather and climate related events could worsen in the future and significantly impact our economy. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The report was hidden, intentionally, behind the inevitable chaos of the holiday weekend. Less than a month ago, the intergovernmental science policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services released its shocking finding that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction. That report was obscured amidst a whirlwind of Mueller media hand-wringing. And over the weekend, the public was made aware of yet another instance of political malfeasance vis-a-vis climate catastrophe.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT The administration is also targeting the National Climate Assessment which is produced every four years. Scientists are already working to put out the next report and they've reportedly been ordered to not automatically include worst case scenario projections.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT The EPA said this about the change quote, 'the previous use of inaccurate modeling that focuses on worst case emissions scenarios, that does not reflect real world conditions, needs to be thoroughly re-examined and tested.'
MALE CORRESPONDENT Now Trump is reportedly considering that guy to run his own climate change review panel, designed specifically to undermine actual assertion of actual climate change scientists in the government. What could possibly go wrong? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Meanwhile, the most important story in human history struggles to penetrate the daily cacophony of scandal, gossip, political conflict and presidential perfidy. Kate Aronoff is a fellow at the Type Media Center. She wrote recently in The Guardian about the Trump administration's suppression of climate warnings. Kate, welcome back to OTM.
KATE ARONOFF Good to be back.
BOB GARFIELD Let's start with three changes to government climate reporting. The first rollback limits that time line certain federal agencies are able to use to make scientific predictions about climate change. The second change, at least according to a story in The New York Times this week, would primarily target the National Climate Assessment, which is a collection of reports released every few years by a variety of government agencies. But the administration apparently thinks the result is too alarmist. So, what should we expect the NCA to look like now?
KATE ARONOFF So it's a little hard to tell in part because, you know, The New York Times released this report earlier this week saying that this policy change was coming– that they were going to look to limit the worst case scenarios. And then in the days afterwards, heads of various federal agencies were interviewed and were a little bit confused as to what was coming out. I think a representative from the Department of Interior said the report was wrong, which may or may not be true. NOAA, the National Oceanic Assessment Agency, said that, you know, they had no plans to change their compliance with the National Climate Assessment. And so, it's, I think, unclear at this point exactly what will be laid out in the future. What is clear is that the Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates that the federal government needs to do exactly the type of forecasting that the National Climate Assessment has done. They need to do this every four years. As many people who have been interviewed about this change have said, it would be illegal in a sense to actually move forward with this.
BOB GARFIELD The third thing is a sort of content moderation infrastructure. There will be a panel of reviewers responsible for evaluating whatever federal agencies wish to publish on climate matters. This sounds to me like appointing regulators to regulate regulators.
KATE ARONOFF I mean I think calling it a regulation is very generous. So the climate review panel, as it's been floated, will be headed up by a guy named William Happer who was tapped by Mike Pompeo and has sort of this long, long history of circulating through these various sort of climate denial think tanks and networks and received a lot of support from the Mercer family which has funded a lot of climate denial over the years. When this news was announced this week, a clip from 2014 of him popped up.
WILLIAM HAPPER And the comment I made was that the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD He is paid to go around trying to undermine actual climate science.
KATE ARONOFF Exactly. He would head up this climate review panel, which would essentially evaluate the findings of federal climate scientist. William Happer does have a science background. He was a professor at Princeton for many years.
BOB GARFIELD A professor of physics. It should be observed, not of climatology.
KATE ARONOFF And that's sort of the case of a lot of the climate denier networks is that somebody will have some sort of nominal scientific credential whether or not it actually has to do with climate forecasting, climate modeling, anything, anything remotely related to it. But they have a PhD after their name and so they can be sort of trotted out by the Heritage Foundation or the Heartland Institute or whoever wants to use them to cast doubt on well regarded peer reviewed science.
BOB GARFIELD That aforementioned Times story suggested that all of this began after the release of the last National Climate Assessment in November. And I guess no wonder. If you're a climate denier like the president, the assessment was a repudiation. Trump dwells in a world of unreality, but I guess it sort of stings when your own executive branch makes a liar of you.
KATE ARONOFF Yeah. And there's a couple things happening here. One probably Trump was, himself surprised that this sort of thing existed. I don't know if anyone had briefed him on the existence of the National Climate Assessment. But there's a more kind of specific logic to why the administration might be going after it now, which is that the National Climate Assessment can be used as ammo for lawyers who are interested in challenging some of the administration's other policies to do things like expand oil and gas drilling, to ramp up fossil fuel production and exports. They can point in the National Climate Assessment and say, 'look you're on own government scientists have said that if you keep doing this, if you keep pouring carbon in the atmosphere in the way that you are, the results will be devastating.'
BOB GARFIELD Three or four years ago Governor Rick Scott of Florida, now Senator Rick Scott, prevented his state agencies from talking about sea level rises. This seems like the federalization of that political strategy.
KATE ARONOFF Republicans in some sense have a very firm grasp of just how catastrophic the impacts are and sort of what the implications for federal policy are. If they do this. I mean it's not a secret at this point though there are plenty of sort of climate scientists in the international community who are just looking sort of at the facts on the ground and reaching dramatic conclusions about what needs to happen to the global economy in order to ward off this crisis. And it doesn't take much to reach some conclusions that I think are out of sync with what the Trump administration would hope to do.
BOB GARFIELD In some ways you offer a hat tip to Republicans for at least reckoning with the consequences of global catastrophe. The Democrats you say, 'eh, not so much.' There's one particular Democrat who is the frontrunner for the presidential nomination, Joe Biden, who has displayed, let's just say, not the greatest sense of urgency on all of this.
KATE ARONOFF Joe Biden really is hoping to return to what Obama was doing when he was serving as vice president, which is to make a lot of very big sort of showy gestures toward the idea of doing something about climate change, while at the same time expanding oil and gas extraction in the greatest way we've seen over our lifetimes. Which is just very plainly out of touch with what we need to do to cap warming at sort of reasonable levels. That is not a status quo. It is either safe or wise to return to. And I think that's what Biden is really hoping for, is just to go back to sort of climate policy circa 2016.
BOB GARFIELD Polls are showing that the general public is gradually beginning to internalize the scale of climate catastrophe, but the future of the planet, incredibly, it doesn't seem to be exactly a hot button issue. Political scandal and the various fronts of the culture wars are so much more dependable for generating anger and emotion and political will. At this stage, is it even really a question of more information? I mean, short of video of Manhattan underwater, is there anything the government could publish or not publish that would catalyze the public?
KATE ARONOFF I don't think that there is more startling information, which can be out of the pot, which will in and of itself create sort of public backlash. I think what we've seen that has actually been very effective at catalyzing sort of public opinion around this has been the social movement uprisings, which have arisen in response to things like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report. In Europe for instance, climate is now reliably a top issue for voters. That concern came from a number of countries having these massive school strikes. So I think the science itself is obviously important, obviously the science shouldn't be stifled, but I think just as important, and maybe even more so for catalyzing political energy around this, is to really make it an unavoidable crisis.
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KATE ARONOFF And the more that that story can get out there I think the better that is.
BOB GARFIELD Kate, thank you so much.
KATE ARONOFF Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Kate Aronoff is fellow at the Type Media Center and a contributing writer at The Intercept. Her most recent piece for The Guardian is There's a Climate Crisis But Trump's Cabinet Continues to Backtrack on Science.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, money talks–incessantly, at high volume.