Climate change denialist given top role at major U.S. science agency
A controversial researcher who rejects climate science was hired by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a senior position, in a move suggesting the Trump administration is asserting growing influence over the study of rising temperatures.
David Legates, a geography professor at the University of Delaware, has a long history of questioning fundamental climate science and has suggested that an outcome of burning fossil fuels would be a more habitable planet for humans.
He was hired as deputy assistant secretary of Commerce for observation and prediction, according to a report by NPR.
The move marks an escalation within the Trump administration to undermine the agency’s ability to warn the public of climate risks, observers said.
Legates has spent his career denying consensus climate science while elevating the work of fringe researchers and industry-funded scientists. He has claimed that addressing climate change would do more harm than good, and he has said pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would benefit humanity.
When testifying before the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee last year, Legates blamed natural variations for the unprecedented level of warming that scientists say is caused by the release of carbon dioxide from human activity.
“Climate has always changed, and weather is always variable, due to complex, powerful natural forces,” Legates said. “No efforts to stabilize the climate can possibly be successful.”
Legates has also said that teaching children about climate change was an effort “to satisfy the climate change fearmongering agenda that pervades our society today.”
The hiring of Legates comes as wildfires are burning uncontrollably in the West after a period of intensely hot temperatures that many scientists link to climate change. It also comes amid a highly active hurricane season that NOAA research suggests could be a sign of strengthening storms.
Legates’ appointment points to the direction the Trump administration will take on climate science if the president is re-elected in November, said Myron Ebell, the former head of President Trump’s EPA transition team and the director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
It shows that Trump wants to do more than roll back climate policy by actively trying to reshape climate science. Legates is a critic of climate modeling used to predict future conditions. Ebell said Legates could play a significant role in shaping the next National Climate Assessment.
“It’s a very good sign that after sitting on their hands for three-and-a-half years, the administration is finally going to inject some science into official climate science,” Ebell said. “This is the kind of thing we have been pushing for since before Trump was elected, to get real science into the assessment, instead of junk science, which NASA and NOAA have been doing for years.”
NOAA and NASA are among the world’s premier science agencies, and the data collected by their satellites and other equipment has informed climate research around the world.
NASA peer-reviewed research has shown that climate models have largely been accurate in predicting future conditions. The National Climate Assessment, an influential report required by Congress that’s released every four years, has identified the unique ways climate change is affecting regions across the country. It has been used in local emergency preparedness, in infrastructure planning, and for development in communities across the country.
The National Climate Assessment is a comprehensive summary of the peer-reviewed science on how climate is changing and is the work of hundreds of scientists and authors around the world, said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and one of the report’s lead authors. She said attempts to skew the report away from consensus science could harm people.
“Any attempt to censor, skew or limit the information it presents will hamstring the ability of federal and state agencies to make decisions based on sound science and harm every citizen of this country who relies on their government to provide an accurate assessment of the increasingly dangerous risks they face from a changing climate,” she said.
Legates was appointed the Delaware state climatologist in 2005 but was later asked to step down by officials with the University of Delaware and was told in 2007 by then-Governor Ruth Ann Minner (D) to stop using the title.
Even as Trump rejects climate change by calling it a hoax and directing his administration to roll back emissions regulations, the climate work at NOAA and NASA has generally been untouched.
Legates is expected to report directly to acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs, who was recently criticized in an inspector general report for allowing the agency’s science to be politicized. Jacobs was cited by the independent watchdog for his role in “Sharpiegate,” when Trump displayed a map with a hand-drawn path during Hurricane Dorian in 2019.
Jacobs was pressured by the White House to criticize the work of his own weather forecasters after they corrected Trump’s false claims that Dorian was going to hit Alabama, the report said.
Neither Legates nor an NOAA spokesperson responded to requests for comment.
Legates has taken a dim view of the role the government plays in creating climate policy. He is a frequent guest at events sponsored by the Heartland Institute, which works to muddy public understanding of climate science.
In September 2019, Legates claimed that regulating carbon dioxide was actually a government control program designed to restrict the lives of ordinary Americans.
“Most governments want to keep control, and most governments get bigger and bigger over time,” he said. “Carbon dioxide becomes that molecule by which we can take control of your lives, of your efforts, and everything that goes on.”