The Trump administration removed the head of the program tasked with producing the National Climate Assessment last week and is expected to replace him with a climate change denier, according to the New York Times.
Dr. Michael Kuperberg was reportedly told Friday that he would no longer lead the National Climate Assessment, a scientific report mandated by Congress that’s released every four years. The last edition was released in November 2018, and contradicted the Trump administration’s posture on a wide range of climate issues.
For example, the 2018 assessment directly blamed climate change for increasingly out-of-control wildfires that have devastated the western United States, and said that “the area burned by wildfire from 1984 to 2015 was twice what would have burned had climate change not occurred.” During this summer’s record-breaking wildfires in California, Trump blamed poor forest management.
Kuperberg had led the program since 2015, and has reportedly told colleagues he’ll return to a previous job at the Department of Energy, which he joined as a biologist in 2003. “[Kuperberg] was extremely dedicated,” a former White House official told the Washington Post. “He did a very good job of figuring out how to walk that political line. He had no idea it was coming.”
To replace Kuperberg, the Trump administration is reportedly expected to tap Dr. David Legates, who joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization as a deputy assistant secretary in September. Legates, a former climatology professor at the University of Delaware, was Delaware’s state climatologist for seven years before being forced out in 2011 because he is a climate change denier.
Legates is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that promotes climate change skepticism. In 2015, the university declined to comply with a Congressional request to disclose Legates’ funding sources, citing academic freedom.
Given the election of Joe Biden and the fact that the next assessment is two years away from publication, it’s unclear what impact a new head of the climate assessment could have. “I can only speculate they want to see if they can manipulate the Fifth National Climate Assessment before the next administration comes in,” University of Illinois climate scientist Don Wuebbles told the Washington Post. “Why they want to do that, I don’t understand.”
But Kuperberg’s ouster is in keeping with the Trump administration’s reputation for removing political and non-political appointees who don’t toe the administration line. On Monday, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a tweet. And on Friday, the same day they removed Kuperberg, the White House also demoted Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chair Neil Chatterjee—a Republican who previously worked as an aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell—after he came out in support of carbon pricing, which could drive up the cost of coal.
“It is 100 percent retribution,” Chatterjee told the New York Times. “This validates my independence and integrity. I’m going to hold my head up high.”