Scientists protest as President Trump picks climate change skeptic for key NOAA post

President Trump has tapped a climate skeptic to help run the federal agency charged with overseeing the government’s research on climate change.

David Legates, a professor of climatology at the University of Delaware and a member of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that denies climate change represents a serious threat to the world, was appointed last week to serve as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s deputy assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction, NPR reported.

The appointment comes as wildfires that most scientists agree have been made worse by climate change continue to rage throughout the Western states. Temperature records continue to fall, with NASA concluding that 2010-2019 was the hottest decade ever recorded. Hurricane Sally, the latest in a series of unusually strong tropical storms that scientists believe are linked to warming oceans, unleashed torrential downpours on Alabama and Florida on Wednesday. For just the second time in recorded history, five tropical cyclones are now active in the Atlantic Ocean.

In April, Legates published a piece that appeared on the Heartland Institute’s website which summed up his skepticism on climate change.

“Natural forces have caused climate changes and extreme weather events throughout history. What proof is there that what we see today is due to fossil fuel emissions and not to those same natural forces?” Legates and co-author Paul Driessen wrote.

In 2019, Legates spoke at a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee and denied what is now accepted scientific fact, that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere leads to the greenhouse effect, trapping solar radiation and warming the atmosphere.

“Carbon dioxide is not this magic knob that decides the temperature of the planet. In particular, there’s an awful lot of other things that happen with it too. The planet does not warm like a greenhouse,” Legates testified.

But the agency to which he was just appointed also notes on its website that “the annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000-17,000 years ago.”

Since the preindustrial era, the average global surface temperature has risen by roughly 2 degrees Celsius, according to NOAA.

Legates also published a 2007 paper questioning whether the habitat for polar bears was being affected by climate change, Inside Climate News reported. That paper was based on research funded by ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries.

Sea ice in the Arctic has been shrinking by as much as 14 percent per decade, leading to starvation among some populations of polar bears that depend on it for hunting seals.

In response to Legates’s appointment at NOAA, the nonprofit American Geophysical Union issued a terse statement calling for his removal.

“With climate change producing raging wildfires in the western United States and devastating hurricanes in the Atlantic, our nation — and the world — cannot afford to have our federal government undermining the important work of climate scientists,” the group said on its website. “Legates’ appointment not only threatens our ability to combat the climate crisis and protect our planet for future generations, it undermines scientific integrity at NOAA.” 

NOAA did not respond to a request for an interview for this story. On its website, however, the lead story on Wednesday highlighted the findings of the agency’s latest global climate report.

“Not only was August 2020 the second-warmest August on record, but the Northern Hemisphere had its warmest summer, and the globe as a whole had its third-hottest three month season, too,” the site said.

Without mentioning climate change specifically, NOAA detailed the continued decline of Arctic sea ice to the smallest amount on record, and noted that “the 10 warmest Augusts have all occurred since 1998 — with the five warmest occurring since 2015.”

While Legates has made a career of downplaying the threat of climate change, he doesn’t have much company in the scientific community, including within the administration.

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