Wednesday, December 14, 2016

US Climate Scientists Move to Protect Data Ahead of Trump Administration

Last week, a memo sent by the Trump transition team to the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) made news when it was revealed that it asked for the names of employees “who have attended any Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon meetings.” Further news was made when the DoE responded by basically denying the request. Energy Department spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder released a statement saying in part: “We will be forthcoming with all publicly available information with the transition team. We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team.”

The Trump memo raised a few eyebrows among Democrats in Congress. Representative Elijah Cummings told the Washington Post: “I am sure there are a lot of career scientists and others who see this as a terrible message of fear and intimidation – ‘either ignore the science or we will come after you.’”

At this point, the Trump administration has not suggested it will come after climate scientists or dismantle Obama administration programs designed to fight climate change. But that hasn’t stopped the scientific community from preparing for a new administration that, based on statements from Trump and some of his key cabinet picks, questions the reality of human-impacted climate change. In a recent TV interview, Trump was noncommittal. “Nobody really knows,” he told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. “Look, I’m somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows. It’s not something that’s so hard and fast.”

But it is hard and fast, at least among the overwhelming majority of scientists who study the climate. And the Obama administration is aggressively preparing the country to fight rising temperatures and preparing for the reality of rising sea levels, and an increase in the number and severity of extreme climate events.

The science is settled

According to the Government Accountability Office, the United States alone spent over $11 billion on issues related to climate change in 2014. The lion’s share of that money went towards developing new technologies to reduce the industrial emissions that are speeding up the rate that temperatures are rising across the globe.

FILE - SunPower solar panels are stacked in Positive Energy Solar's warehouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 9, 2016. The United States spent over $11 billion on issues related to climate change in 2014, according to U.S. goverment data.

FILE – SunPower solar panels are stacked in Positive Energy Solar’s warehouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 9, 2016. The United States spent over $11 billion on issues related to climate change in 2014, according to U.S. goverment data.

But the costs associated with a warming planet could be much greater. A 2015 White House report predicts that a 3 degree Celsius rise in average temperature could erode the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the tune of more than $150 billion.

The U.S. Department of Defense is aggressively planning for a warmer future. In another 2015 report, Pentagon officials stated clearly that the U.S. military “recognizes the reality of climate change and the significant risk it poses to U.S. interests globally.”

The Pentagon is focusing on scenarios in which “the military could be called upon more often to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief…” and acknowledging that “our coastal installations are vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased flooding” as the planet warms.

Since 2014, the science has become more clear on that the planet is warming at an unprecedented rate. This year’s annual Arctic Report Card put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded: “The average surface air temperature for the year ending September 2016 is by far the highest since 1900, and new monthly record highs were recorded for January, February, October and November 2016.”

Saving data, advocating for science

President-elect Trump has suggested that his primary concern when it comes to environmental regulations is that they not put U.S. business at a disadvantage.

Based on statements like that, many scientists have concluded Trump will dismantle Obama climate change-related programs. In response, many are collecting and downloading federal climate data to non-government servers.

FILE – Pedestrians walk past a digital thermometer reading 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius) in the Canoga Park section of Los Angeles, Aug. 15, 2015. “The average surface air temperature for the year ending September 2016 is by far the highest since 1900,” according to U.S. government data.

Meteorologist and self-described “climate hawk” Eric Holthaus began collecting data on a Google spreadsheet last week. His efforts have since been taken over by the Pennsylvania Program in the Environmental Humanities, which operates out of the University of Pennsylvania.

Other researchers are leaning towards activism, an unusual move for data-driven scientists. An open letter signed by 500 women scientists expressed “fear that the scientific progress and momentum in tackling our biggest challenges, including staving off the worst impacts of climate change, will be severely hindered under this next U.S. administration. Our planet cannot afford to lose any time.”

Their concern has been heightened by the president-elect’s picks for key environment-related cabinet posts.

Scott Pruitt, Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has been battling Obama administration environmental policies in court. He has called for an end to new regulations on climate-changing emissions, describing them as anti-business, and says new anti-emission regulations amount to a “war on coal.”

Former Texas governor Rick Perry, possible head of the Department of Energy, says climate change “hasn’t been proven.”

Rex Tillerson, the pick for secretary of state, is the CEO of ExxonMobile. In a number of interviews, he has acknowledged that human activity is in fact warming the planet but that our fears about the impact can be overcome by human ingenuity. “We have spent our entire existence adapting,” he said in a recent speech. “It’s an engineering problem, and there will be an engineering solution.”

What a Trump administration will actually do about climate change remains to be seen. What is true is that while it is clear that human activity is warming the planet, there are different schools of thought on the best way to deal with the problem… if at all.

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