White House Removes Scientists After Rogue Climate Denial Publications

Papers promoting debunked views on climate science were published under the Office of Science and Technology Policy seal without approval. They've now been removed, along with their authors.

by | Jan 12, 2021

David Legates, one of the scientists in question, joins a panel (2nd from right) for the propaganda film Climate Hustle. Kris Connor/Getty Images)

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has dismissed David Legates and Ryan Maue, two controversial Trump appointees to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, following their role in publishing a series of climate denial papers falsely attributed to the OSTP.

The “Climate Change Flyers” were published last week on the website of the Center for Environmental Research and Earth Sciences (CERES), an organization affiliated with former Harvard astrophysicist Willie Soon.

Soon is a co-author on a document espousing the debunked idea that the sun is responsible for global warming, along with Ronan Connolly, a self-described independent scientist who questions the reality of human-caused climate change, and his father Michael Connolly.

The “sun spots,” “solar variability,” or “solar radiation” theory has been repeatedly debunked by scientists since the 1990s, including a Mobil scientist who wrote in 1995 that “If solar variability has accounted for 0.1℃ temperature increase in the last 120 years, it is an interesting finding, but it does not allay concerns about future warming, which could result from greenhouse gas emissions.”

In a statement published to its website today, CERES claims that in late 2020, it “was asked by the OSTP to write a short brochure summarizing the ongoing scientific debate over the role of solar variability on climate change.” It also claims: “Although our brochure, and 9 others, were provisionally accepted in December 2020 for publication on the OSTP’s website in mid-January, the project has apparently now been discontinued due to recent developments.”

The other nine documents were authored by well-known contrarian scientists who have repeatedly denied the reality of climate change, downplayed its severity, or promoted debunked theories about the cause. These include Princeton physicist William Happer, and University of Alabama-Huntsville atmospheric scientists John Christy and Roy Spencer.

Each of the papers, which drew the attention of journalists and climate scientists after climate scientist Peter Gleick tweeted about them on Monday, bears the official presidential seal, and states that it is copyrighted by the OSTP. But OSTP director Kelvin Droegemeier never approved the papers, or knew of their creation prior to their publication online.

“Dr. Droegemeier was outraged to learn of the materials that were not shared with or approved by OSTP leadership,” OSTP spokeswoman Kristina Baum said in an email statement on Tuesday afternoon. “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.”

In a subsequent email, Baum clarified that the individuals responsible were Legates and Maue. Neither scientist responded to Drilled News’ request for comment.

The documents, which were taken offline Tuesday afternoon, included an essay titled “Is There a Climate Emergency?”, which misleadingly suggests that global warming over the past 200 years has led to improved living standards around the world.

Another essay, “The Faith Based Nature of Human-Caused Global Warming,” states that “recent warming of the climate system could be mostly natural and we would not even know it.” In fact, there is overwhelming evidence and a broad scientific consensus that recent global warming is being driven by human-caused carbon emissions.

Legates, a University of Delaware professor who has received research funding from Koch Industries and the American Petroleum Institute, has repeatedly questioned the scientific consensus around climate change. The Trump administration hired him in September as NOAA’s deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction. In November, he moved to a new position heading up the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which is overseen by the OSTP. The move raised concerns that the Trump administration planned to interfere with the next release of the National Climate Assessment, a quadrennial report developed by the USGCRP on how climate change is affecting the United States. The Fifth National Climate Assessment is scheduled for release in 2023.

Also in September, the White House selected private weather forecaster Ryan Maue to serve as NOAA’s chief scientist. While Maue does not deny the reality of climate change or that carbon pollution is driving it, he has criticized the models underpinning climate science and suggested the impacts of global warming will be less severe than many scientists think. Shortly after his appointment, Maue was detailed to the White House to play an oversight role at the USGCRP.

Climatologist Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies said he suspects Legates decided to organize the climate flyers after the USGRCP “didn’t give him anything to do.”

“My guess is he thought ‘let’s just do this,’” Schmidt said. “’Let me ask my pals and they can write up the same old, tired talking points and we’ll slap a logo on it and it’ll be an official thing.’”

“And that’s not how it works in government,” Schmidt went on, “so obviously they had their asses handed to them on a plate,”

In an emailed statement, Scott Smullen, deputy director of communications at NOAA, stated that the agency “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.”

Asked whether NOAA will be taking disciplinary action against the scientists over the unsanctioned publication of the climate flyers, Smullen said that the incident “will be reviewed under NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, but we don’t discuss personnel matters.”

According to The Washington Post, both Legates and Maue were scheduled to finish their positions with the Trump administration this week.

Maddie Stone
+ posts

Maddie Stone is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.