With both NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in President Trump's crosshairs, climate change deniers in the White House and Congress wishing to gut research on the topic will also be looking toward the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees a lion's share of the federal government's climate change research. There are already troubling signs indicating the direction the agency is headed.
Kenneth Haapala, leading policy expert for the Heartland Institute, a right wing think tank notorious for spreading climate change skepticism, appears to have been a part of the Trump transition team for the Department of Commerce, which includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—one of the federal government's main agencies for climate change research.
After a letter sent to Trump on January 24th from Democratic congressmen expressing concern over Haapala's role in NOAA's transition, the administration has said he is no longer a part of the team. The details of his involvement are unclear, but concerns remain for NOAA employees.
"In the past, [the Department of] Commerce hasn't concerned itself overly with NOAA operations," a NOAA affiliated researcher who wished to remain anonymous told Motherboard. "Now nobody knows what the new situation is going to be."
"People are politically aware at NOAA and are concerned," she said.
Haapala has a masters in economics but no academic training in the natural sciences. He has accused the federal government of trying to expand its power under the guise of climate change legislation that he says is based upon "flimsy science," and fear mongering.
After becoming aware of Haapala's presence on the transition team, Democratic Congressmen Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona crafted a letter imploring President Trump to remove Haapala from this position. "He certainly does not understand or appreciate NOAA's mission and therefore is unfit to serve in any capacity that oversees operations or personnel decisions at the agency," they wrote.
"The work NOAA does is too important to public safety and the economy to allow ideologues like him to meddle with the agency and its scientists," said Rep. Grijalva in a public statement.
The lobbyist group fills its coffers with deep-pocketed donations from some predictable sources like the Koch brothers—famous conservative donors. A leak of documents in 2012 also revealed that the think tank tried to pay a science communication consultant to the Department of Energy to push a curriculum in K-12 schools that depicts climate change as controversial.
In 2012, the think tank ran a billboard campaign in the Chicago area equating believers of widely held climate science with terrorists and murderers like the Unabomber, Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden. When criticized over the signs, it doubled down, saying: "The most prominent advocates of global warming aren't scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen."
After initial reports of the January 24th letter and Haapala's connection to the Department of Commerce came out, an anonymous official from the Department contacted the McClatchy news network and said that Haapala was no longer on the team. The official wasn't able to say when exactly he departed. "From inauguration on forward, he has not had a role," the official said.
A few days later, though, Haapala made it sound like he was still active in the transition process when he defended himself from Democrats' calls for his removal in his weekly newsletter. "Daring to confront conventional thinking has its own responsibilities and penalties," he wrote.
Last Tuesday, the White House, which had previously been silent on the issue, told McClatchy Haapala no longer had a role in the transition. As of when is still unknown.
"Our understanding is that he is no longer involved with the transition but that he was at the time we sent our letter," Rep. Grijalva, told Motherboard via email. "Hopefully we helped apply the pressure needed to get him out of there."
Perhaps as a sign of the times, Grijalva isn't holding out much for a peaceful NOAA future. "I am hopeful that Haapala's presence – and departure – was the end of the attacks on NOAA, but I am not optimistic," he said, adding "If the folks who are widely reported to be Trump's science advisors (including climate deniers William Happer and David Gerlenter) end up inside the government, that will be bad news for NOAA scientists."
NOAA employees and affiliates remain on alert about the future of climate change research under a Trump administration. The organization has a $5.8 billion annual budget, with $190 million of that going to climate research, but has long struggled with lack of funds. Many researchers are worried these could shrink even further. The Department of Defense, by comparison, has an annual budget of over $580 billion.
"The problem is that we're starting out from a deficit in terms of funding," the researcher told Motherboard. "People are used to doing more with less, but that only works up to a certain point. People are concerned."
The researcher pointed out that whoever is in charge cannot erase the data collected in the past, thanks in large part to NOAA's tendency to proactively publish its data online where the public can view and download it. "Those data are out there in the world in a way that can't be rescinded," the researcher said. "The danger is continuing that data collection into the future is at risk depending on who's in charge."