A set of terrible arguments about climate science may actually have violated laws.
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Update 1/12/2021, 6:15pm EST: NOAA has now joined OSTP in disavowing this material, stating, “NOAA was not involved in the creation or posting online of the climate change flyers that have been allegedly attributed to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, nor does NOAA endorse the flyers.”
Update 1/12/2021, 3:45pm EST: The OSTP has now released a formal statement on these documents via a pair of tweets, and it’s an angry one. Dr. Droegemeier was outraged to learn of the materials that were not shared with or approved by OSTP leadership,” the statement reads. “He first became aware of the documents when contacted by the press, As a result, Dr. Droegemeier took swift action and the individuals responsible have been relieved of their duties at OSTP.”
That would still leave Legates and Maue with positions at NOAA, but there is probably not enough time left in the administration for them to even establish a role for themselves in that agency, much less do further damage.
The reality of climate change has frequently put the Trump administration in an awkward position. Determined to set policies that ignored climate change and staffed by political appointees that refused to accept it, the administration nonetheless found itself responsible for scientists who kept publishing reports filled with awkward facts.
The administration’s response has been erratic. At several points, administration officials considered forming a “red team” of known contrarians to dispute the science, and they even put a prominent climate denialist on the National Security Council. Although these efforts fizzled out for various reasons, that didn’t stop the administration from seemingly trying again with the appointment of David Legates, another noted climate contrarian, to NOAA in September. Legates’ exact role was unclear, but speculation focused on two possibilities: another attempt at red-teaming the climate or an attempt to dilute the science of the next National Climate Assessment.
But any big plans Legates may have had got short-circuited by the results of the election in November, which meant he only had a few months to get anything done. Now, with time running ever shorter, Legates has dumped his handiwork on the public: an attempt to red-team climate science done by a usual-suspects list of climate contrarians. In addition to emphasizing just how feeble the contrarians’ case is scientifically, the way the documents were released is at best bewildering and may have actually violated federal law.
What even are these?
Rather than appearing on an official government website, the documents first appeared late last week on the blog of Roy Spencer, who helped developed one of the satellite-based measurements of the Earth’s temperature. Spencer is notable largely for rejecting evidence that recent warming is the product of human activity (for good measure, he also refuses to accept the evidence for evolution). Spencer’s post refers to the documents as “brochures,” and he wrote that Legates hopes to get them posted to the White House website before time runs out on the Trump administration.
While aiming for publication by the White House might seem a bit grandiose, it would actually be the appropriate venue for this material. Legates’ government job was at NOAA, where he had been assigned to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). That’s where he was joined by Ryan Maue, who has similar views to Legates and Spencer and was the author of one of the brochures. Given their positions, the appropriate place to publish the pieces is on the OSTP website, which is part of the White House domain.
But working at an agency is no guarantee that it will be interested in or willing to publish your material. We talked with Gavin Schmidt, who as head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies has a fair bit of experience with publishing government reports. He noted that publication is an extended process, with the report needing approval, going through peer review, and having to conform to the requirements of the Data Quality Act. Most critically, Schmidt told Ars, “OSTP management has to want it.”
In other words, Kelvin Droegemeier, the head of OSTP, would have to have decided he was willing to have this material as part of his legacy as head of the OSTP. And that doesn’t seem to be the case. An OSTP spokesperson told The Washington Post that “These papers were not created at the direction of The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy nor were they cleared or approved by OSTP leadership.”
There’s no indication that any of these documents have gone through any sort of formal review process. And there are issues with the documents that may make them problematic for the government to publish at all. With very few exceptions, the US government has to release its works into the public domain; they cannot be copyrighted. Yet each of the brochures has a prominent notice assigning copyright to the OSTP. In addition, the documents all have the seal of the President’s Executive Office on top, which may create legal issues if these were not, in fact, officially sanctioned publications.
Schmidt was amused by the apparent ineptitude of it all, telling Ars, “This is a jokeit’s actually genuinely funny.”
But other scientists weren’t ready to laugh. Katharine Hayhoe, who co-directs Texas Tech’s Climate Center, said, “The manner in which they were presentedas OSTP documents when it appears that they, in fact, were notis unprofessional at best.”
If climate scientists were skeptical of the process of producing the documents, they were even less impressed by the content of the results. “These essays consist of zombie arguments that have long been debunked in the scientific literature,” Hayhoe told Ars.
Schmidt said, “They’re just garbagethey don’t even make the arguments they purport to make.”
Schmidt noted that the contribution by William Happer, formerly on the National Security Council, spends eight pages providing a textbook description of the transfer of energy from the Sun’s radiation to the atmosphere before ending with a short paragraph that says the changes in this, driven by greenhouse gasses, are too small to matter. The entire extent of its analysis is literally “It is very hard to convince people with technical common sense that such small changes will have any harmful consequences.”
Spencer was also one of the contributors, but his short piece can be summed up as saying “uncertainties are large” and “the planet’s undergone climate change in the past”precisely the sorts of zombie arguments that Hayhoe referenced. Another piece, purportedly on the Sun’s influence on the climate, actually devotes half its text to discussing the long-term orbital cycles that drive glacial cycles, not the short-term warming we’re currently experiencing. The rest is a discussion of the greenhouse effect and a contention that short-term warming is caused by urbanization, something that scientists have explored in detail and determined is negligible. Not once does it even attempt to connect solar activity to recent warming.
Schmidt dismissed the collection as “fifth-grade-level essays where people don’t even know what they’re arguing,” adding, “It’s so poorly done, it’s not going to influence anything.”
More generally, he told Ars that the papers were an indication of how irrelevant the climate contrarians have become. Even with the most sympathetic administration imaginable, with contrarians working within the White House itself, they couldn’t muster enough support for an official publication, and their informal publications are too low-quality to convince anyone who wasn’t already sold on their point of view.