Draft Dodging: Major Climate Report Goes Public, Circumventing Agency Review

Influential climate report makes its way to the public bypassing federal agency review. 

It began with President Trump’s selection of noted climate deniers to high-profile cabinet positions. It escalated when he signaled his intent to turn back the clock on renewable energy in favor of coal, and began pursuing more oil and gas drilling on our public lands and waters. Then the Trump administration propelled the issue to a whole new level by withdrawing the U.S. from the historic Paris Climate Agreement, eliminating federal climate science programs, research, and positions, and wiping climate science from the pages of federal agency websites.

But the administration’s outright war on climate science also prompted a remarkable development: somebody released the near-final draft of a major report on “the state of the science relating to climate change and its physical impacts” to the public via The New York Times, bypassing final review by thirteen federal agencies.

A Primer on the Climate Science Special Report

The “Climate Science Special Report” (CSSR) is a major source of scientific information for the National Climate Assessment (NCA), a report mandated every four years by a 1990 law called the Global Change Research Act. The next NCA is due in 2018 and is expected to summarize observed and probable climate change impacts across U.S. regions and sectors (such as agriculture, public health, forests, etc.). It was no secret that the CSSR was under development; a “third-order draft” (or third draft) of the CSSR was released for public comment in December. What’s unusual is the unauthorized release of the “Fifth-Order” or “Final Clearance Draft,” which begins on page 545 of the file obtained by The New York Times.

This new draft of the CSSR, which incorporates both public comments received in response to the earlier draft and the results of an experts’ panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences in March, was submitted to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in June. Under normal circumstances, it would be working its way through a routine final approval process. But these circumstances are anything but normal.

First of all, the OSTP only has one-quarter of the staff it had under President Obama and President Trump has yet to nominate someone to lead the agency. So, it’s not quite clear how the agency would manage to approve the release of a climate science compendium. And that, pardon the cheap climate metaphor, is only the tip of the iceberg.

The program that officially releases the NCA is comprised of thirteen different departments and agencies, each of which must sign off on the Final Clearance Draft. One of those agencies is the Environmental Protection Agency, now led by climate change denier Scott Pruitt. Another is the Department of the Interior, administered by Secretary Ryan Zinke who, despite claiming to accept climate change, recently rattled off six glaring errors about climate science and policy in the span of just three minutes during a recent congressional hearing. Given this cast of characters and the not-so-subtle dismantling of our federal government’s engagement on climate science, it is not surprising that the final draft report mysteriously made its way into the hands of The New York Times for public dissemination.

So now that the information has been made public, what exactly does it say? The latest, near-final draft delves into greater detail than previous draft versions, but describes a strikingly similar and dire prognosis:

  • There is “very high confidence” that global temperatures have increased by 1.8 degrees F since the beginning of the 20th century, and it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20thcentury”
  • Similarly, there is “very high confidence” that “Average annual temperature over the contiguous United States is projected to rise.” The exact amount of warming depends on our emissions trajectory, but without any action it could increase by nearly 12 degrees F.
  • There is “very high confidence” that high temperature extremes have outpaced low temperature extremes over the past 20 years, and extreme precipitation events have been increasing in frequency and intensity in many areas.

The final draft report includes detailed sections about the contributors to climate change, how climate models work and what assumptions they entail, as well as individual chapters on temperature, precipitation, storms, floods, droughts, sea level rise, Arctic and ocean impacts, and more. For an extra dose of existential terror, the report also includes a chapter on compound effects and “tipping points” – events that are difficult to model, but could nonetheless occur, like drought simultaneously striking multiple agricultural regions, or ice melt triggering major changes in ocean circulation. While unlikely, these kinds of “mega-events” could cause massive widespread ecological damage and intensified misery for human communities.

Looking Into the Future

What does the future hold for this report, as well as the other parts of the Climate Science Special Report and the broader National Climate Assessment? That still remains to be seen, as does whether the abrupt release of the near-final draft will affect the final federal approval process. In a related and potentially ominous twist, over the weekend the administration disbanded the 15-member advisory committee that was helping to finalize the NCA.  The future remains uncertain for these highly influential reports, but what perhaps remains even more alarmingly unclear is what the future could hold for the climate and people, habitats and wildlife that depend on it.

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15 Responses to “Draft Dodging: Major Climate Report Goes Public, Circumventing Agency Review”

  1. Kim Fremont

    I stopped reading after all the negative language and biased opinions in the first paragraph. I continue to believe that your message is stronger with facts and leave out the personality and selective of bashing adjectives….it turns me and many like me completely off. Therefore your message is lost.

    • CS Snyder

      For this reader, the core message is coming through loud and clear: 1) climate change is real; 2) the huge acceleration in climate change occurring over the past century, for which there is overwhelming scientific evidence, is human-caused; 3) the terrible consequences of climate change are already being manifest throughout the world; and 4) we humans can only hope to slow climate change (alas, we can’t reverse it) by changing our behaviors, something that can be very hard to do.
      The first paragraph contains verifiable facts concerning the Trump administration’s actions. What statements in this paragraph (regarding president Trump, his administration, or their collective actions) does Ms. Fremont deny or argue against? Or is that even the issue for Ms. Fremont? I doubt it. I think I understand where Ms. Fremont may be coming from. Perhaps she is loyal to the Republican party or a supporter (or at least a defender) of President Trump. For this reason she is choosing to tune out on the issue of climate change. Why? Because Climate Change has become politically polarizing, and THAT is a huge problem we must address. Those of us who accept the reality and the ominous dangers of climate change must continue to fight the Trump administration’s actions, virtually all of which reflect his own bias that “Climate Change is a hoax.” But please let’s also try to brainstorm a way to make the issue of climate change less a litmus test of one’s overall political leaning … less divisive. As it stands now, Climate Change divides the American public into warring tribes of “red states and blue states,” all chanting, “You’re either with me or against me. Choose your side.”

    • Maggie Frazier

      How can a message be “lost” if you stopped reading at the first paragraph? Negative language? I guess so – disbanding the 15 member advisory board is also negative, wouldnt you say? I admit I didnt read the report but this article certainly makes clear that there IS such a thing as climate change and it is being worsened by we humans! NOW I will go back & read the actual report!

  2. Sue

    I’m wondering which she stopped reading, the report or your article? The report like all scientific papers a bit of a slog – like the graphics though.

  3. Jim

    Anyone that denies the Facts about Climate Change adversely affecting the Earth and the the inhabitants has their head buried in the Sand

  4. Barbara

    Unfortunately, everything stated in the first paragraph is true, despite of its negativity. Zinke and Pruitt don’t believe in the science of climate change; neither does Trump, despite mountains of peer-reviewed scientific papers, and these biblical hurricanes, droughts, the meltdown of the Arctic, and enormous fires in the Pacific NW. It’s because all of them are in the pocket of Big Oil. Big Oil won’t admit it knows the truth, even though the L.A. Times and Inside Climate News exposed that Exxon’s own scientists, 40 years ago, told them what to expect.

    Now it’s happening, and yet people complain of “negativity”? If the fires in the Pacific Northwest, the drought in North Dakota, Bangladesh 1/3 flooded, and these monster hurricanes aren’t “negative”, I don’t know what is. It’s the beginning of the 6th mass extinction, and the end of organized human activity (civilization) unless we get our s#!t together real fast.

    • Linda Adsit

      As much as I hate to say this, it would seem, to a logical thinker, that our president is behind this terrible problem, and asking him to leave may be the only way out.

  5. Paula Smith

    Just re-read the first paragraph to see what I missed. I see only the facts, not opinion or “bashing”. Trump did appoint climate deniers- they (Pruit et al) have stated their lack of belief many times. He definitely did withdraw from the Paris agreement- no opinion there, just fact. Climate facts WERE removed from the EPA website- 6 months ago, it was loaded with great climate change information, now it is all gone… and Trump has shown a definite bias toward coal and away from renewables. I fail to see bias or bashing- this is the history of why this report needed to be released publicly.

  6. Charlene Rush

    If, and I repeat ‘IF’, human actions were not affecting climate change to our nations detriment, doesn’t it make common sense to err on the side of caution? The disastrous results of _fracking_ to our natural resources is cause enough to end this procedure. Drilling for coal, oil and gas, have all proven to destroy the health of our citizens, plant and animal life, and the beauty of our planet.
    This is a perfect example where corporate power and greed, overrides everything else.

  7. Deborah Gordon-Brown

    If you stopped reading, Kim, at the first paragraph (and I don’t know what was in it) it would be best if you contacted the organization and registered your distaste. The writer was one of at best 5 or 6 people and perhaps you suggestions would have been worthwhile. In any case, the writer does not represent the whole organization which does excellent and much needed work. It may have been an error in an editor’s thinking. It may have been an attitude the organization need to work on. Your suggestion may be valuable but without it no progress in correcting it or considering it can be made. We (they) need your contributions which are to animals and wild places and they can’t write.
    Hope you get a chance to read this.

  8. Rebecca

    Thank you for your article and the hard work of all the scientists involved. I know it’s difficult for some people who haven’t been reading the newspapers or keeping up with debates, but really, it’s quite obvious to me that we shoud try to come together & get some things done. anyone who pays any attention at all to the weather knows things are different now than they were 30 years ago- less smog in L.A. for instance, and fiercer hurricanes, drought in the west & flooding in the midwest & south. Please keep putting the information out there & God bless.

  9. Barbara Bien

    I re-read the first paragraph and am wondering where Kim found the “negative
    language and biased opinions”; I thought they were just facts. I found the
    article well-researched and enlightening. Thank you.

  10. Gale mccullough

    I avoid arguing about climate with folks that deny it exists and doubly deny humans are in anyway responsible. Time is too valuable and at this point it is running out. Rather I ask if they plan to have children or have children or grandchildren and if they worry about their future. Fundamental things: do they worry about clean water, air, soil to raise healthy food. Do they see the change in places they cared about? Do they care about the well being of wildlife and wild places. If so what are they willing to do to help give their children those things they value?

    It seems if they are disturbed by the environmental damage around them and willing to act effectively for the wellbeing of their children, that matters much more than whether we agree about climate change? It seems we have enormous daunting work to do and butting heads over denying or espousing climate change right now gets in the way of getting it done.

    I say this as someone who has worried about the way things were going since the 1970’s.

  11. Gale mccullough

    P.S. I admire how politely and thoughtfully folks responded to Kim. And I am interested in her answer to my question.

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