Experts from a recently canceled climate change panel spoke to CNN
They warned about the potential suppression of climate change findings
The Trump administration has fired another shot at the scientific community, this time dismantling a federal advisory committee on climate change.
Members on the 15-person committee tell CNN they learned the news by email Friday. CNN has obtained a copy of the email sent from acting National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Benjamin Friedman.
“On behalf of the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), I am writing to inform you that per the terms of the charter the Federal Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment (Committee) will expire on August 20, 2017,” the email read. “The Department of Commerce and NOAA appreciate the efforts of the Committee and offer sincere thanks to each of the Committee members for their service.”
The advisory committee’s big work was coming once a congressionally mandated climate report was released; the federal report, required every four years, provides a comprehensive statement from the scientific community on where the nation stands in relation to climate change. The advisory committee would then make recommendations to government agencies based on those findings.
The Trump administration’s dismissal of the advisory committee on climate change, first reported by The Washington Post, will not affect the completion of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, according to NOAA, which says the report remains a key priority.
The White House did not explain the decision to do away with the panel, but told CNN in an email that “the Federal Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment was chartered in 2015 to provide advice on sustained assessment activities and products. Per the terms of the charter, the committee expired on August 20, 2017. The National Climate Assessment 4, which is coming out next year, is not affected by this change.”
The experts who sat on the now-defunct committee warn that without their advice and guidance, the release of the federal climate report could be the equivalent of a large scientific data dump absent of useful context for a public that lacks scientific expertise.
“The job of this advisory committee was to help federal agencies, state and local governments and the private sector understand all the science and data behind climate change,” said Riley Dunlap, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State University who was one of the experts on the committee.
Jessica Whitehead, a coastal communities hazards adaptation specialist in North Carolina, who also sat on the committee, told CNN, “We helped the science make sense.”
“It’s now going to be a big challenge for government entities to easily understand how to use the science when making decisions on things like land use and infrastructure.” Whitehead added. “If states or towns, for example, need to install new storm-water pipes, those pipes won’t be very effective if they make those decisions without a good understanding of the science of climate change and how it’s impacting that community.”
The advisory committee was formed in 2015, and the membership represents a wide range of sectors, including industry, academia, government and nonprofits. The advisory committee offers expertise on such things as climate effects and risk assessment and management.
Scientists have told CNN they fear that the administration might try to bury the findings of the congressionally mandated climate report. Even if the report is released, there’s concern it will effectively be suppressed if the general public doesn’t understand what’s in it.
“It was our job to advise government and private sector what they needed to know about climate change,” said Kim Knowlton, an environmental health sciences professor at Columbia University, who also sat on the committee.
“The job if the advisory committee was to help ensure the big climate report and the information in it would be usable and user-friendly,” Dunlap added.
The committee’s chairman, Richard Moss, said in an email response to NOAA, “I regret the outcome – as I expect you and others at NOAA do. The sad fact is that the American people will be the ones adversely affected by allowing the charter to expire. The quadrennial reports are essential but not sufficient to provide decision makers with the information needed to prepare for the effects of interacting changes in land use, climate, biodiversity, demographic patterns, and other challenges.”
Advisory committee members were appointed by the NOAA administrator in consultation with the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Committee members said they did not receive explicit reasoning for why the federal advisory committee on climate science was disbanded. Many of them told CNN they were disappointed but not surprised about the White House’s actions.
“Given what’s happened over recent months, when you look at the things being said by key people in the administration like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about climate science, it’s fair to say we were all a bit concerned,” Dunlap said. “But I expected the committee’s term to be renewed.”
Whitehead agreed: “Usually these committees are renewed.”