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White House recruited climate critics for NOAA – ‘White House has been quietly working in recent weeks to reshape the leadership of NOAA with a goal of criticizing climate science’

Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter

At least three prominent researchers who question the severity of climate change rebuffed the opportunity to take a senior position at NOAA.

The White House has been quietly working in recent weeks to reshape the leadership of NOAA with a goal of criticizing climate science, according to people who were contacted about the job.

The revelation that administration officials approached multiple researchers with long records of casting doubt on human-caused climate change points to a political campaign to undermine mainstream science at one of the world’s leading climate agencies, experts and observers said.

After the initial candidates declined the position, the White House turned to David Legates, a geography professor at the University of Delaware who rejects the basic principles of climate science. Legates, now the deputy assistant secretly for observation and prediction at NOAA, has claimed that rising carbon dioxide levels would make the earth more hospitable to humans.

John Christy, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, told E&E News that a White House official promised him he would be given a free hand to change the way NOAA approaches climate research.

“The pitch was I would have new influence on the future direction of the agency,” Christy said, adding that if he had accepted the job, “I would redirect money from the climate modeling project into the weather modeling project.”

Christy, who downplays the severity of rising temperatures, said he was unable to take the job due to his academic commitments. His colleague Roy Spencer, a meteorologist affiliated with the Heartland Institute, also was mentioned as a possibility, but he did not pursue the opportunity.

Christy reached out to Judith Curry, the former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, to see if she would be interested in the NOAA position, Curry told E&E News. She, too, rebuffed the offer.

“I’m totally uninterested in anything having to do with D.C. and government,” Curry said.

In addition to Legates, the White House installed Ryan Maue, a former employee of the Cato Institute, as NOAA’s chief scientist, and Erik Noble, who worked as a data analyst for the Trump campaign, as the agency’s acting chief of staff.

The changes symbolize a coordinated effort to reshape NOAA’s senior leadership in the dusk of President Trump’s first term. Until now, the agency has remained relatively unscathed by the president’s embrace of conspiracy theories about climate change.

But the moves being taken now by administration officials could outlast Trump’s presidency even if he loses the November election to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, according to Andrew Rosenberg, who served as a deputy director at NOAA in the Clinton administration.

Rosenberg, who now runs the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the political appointments could be a strategic way to get climate denialists “burrowed” in at NOAA. If the political appointees are offered career positions, they will be much harder to dismiss after Trump is gone because of protections for federal workers, Rosenberg said.

“They’re packing these positions, and I’m worried they’re going to get burrowed in into career positions in NOAA. First of all, getting appointed in the first place is sending a very strong signal that we are not interested in the overall scientific evidence of climate change; we’re going to go with the view of the fringe. That’s very distressing, not only to climate change, but everything NOAA does.”

Two of the new hires — Legates and Maue — have a record of downplaying climate science and have published claims in direct contradiction to NOAA peer-reviewed research.

Outside advisers to the White House have said Legates is expected to attempt to influence the next National Climate Assessment, the congressionally mandated body of research that informs policymakers around the country about how climate change is affecting their regions.

The climate ‘lie’

Some NOAA employees are nervous about what the moves herald if Trump wins a second term. Climate scientists seem particularly nervous that their work will be affected. In recent months, political appointees at the Commerce Department, which includes NOAA, have been monitoring climate research more closely, according to NOAA employees.

“If your morale is not already sapped, you aren’t paying attention,” said one NOAA staffer who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions.

A NOAA spokesman did not respond to a request seeking comment, and the White House declined to comment on the record.