Was a Federal Scientist’s Dismissal an 11th-hour Bid to Give Climate Denial Long-Term Legitimacy?

Before his removal, Michael Kuperberg was spearheading the next National Climate Assessment. His likely replacement? A contrarian who disputes climate science.

Nov 11, 2020
President Donald Trump announces his decision for the United States to pull out of the Paris climate agreement in the Rose Garden at the White House on June 1, 2017. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Donald Trump announces his decision for the United States to pull out of the Paris climate agreement in the Rose Garden at the White House on June 1, 2017. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Why would the Trump administration remove the leader of the program that produces the National Climate Assessment just as the president's time in the White House appears to be ending? 

The dismissal of scientist Michael Kuperberg from his post as executive director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program makes little sense as a bid to exert control over the government's most comprehensive scientific report on climate risks in the United States. Any changes that promote the denial of climate science are not likely to stick in an incoming Biden administration, which fully supports the science of global warming.

But the Trump administration's lame duck move may cast a cloud over the report that lasts into the future, said Philip Duffy, a physicist and former White House policy adviser who helped coordinate the National Climate Assessment in the Obama administration.

"It suggests further politicization of science and that's not a good thing," said Duffy, executive director of the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. "It erodes the credibility of these agencies, so that even if the politically motivated folks are replaced, it still could have, I think, a long-term effect on the perceived credibility of the report."

He added, "This is the official United States government view of climate change and its effect. It's extremely important that it reflect the best scientific understanding and not be a political document."

On the evening before Democrat Joe Biden was declared winner of the presidential race, Kuperberg, who headed up the climate assessment for the past five years, was notified by email that he was being removed from his post as executive director for the U.S. Global Change Research Program, associates said.

Although his replacement has not yet been announced, sources close to the administration expect it will be David Legates, a vocal skeptic of climate science who was appointed to a top deputy position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by the Trump administration in September. NOAA is one of 13 agencies that participate in the climate assessment, a review and report on climate science that Congress has mandated the government produce every four years.

"It seems to me they're trying to push this climate denial approach as far as they can, while they can," said Donald Wuebbles, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois who has participated in the National Climate Assessment process in the past. "But it can all be undone and redone after the new administration takes office."

Michael Kuperberg. Credit: U.S. Global Change Research Program

Michael Kuperberg. Credit: U.S. Global Change Research Program

The news of Kuperberg's dismissal comes on the heels of a Trump administration appointment that won praise in the climate science community: Betsy Weatherhead, a senior scientist for the consulting firm Jupiter Intelligence, was named as director of the National Climate Assessment, and would have reported to Kuperberg. She has decades of experience as a climate scientist, including as a co-author of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports on the Arctic. Her appointment was made by White House chief science adviser, Kelvin Droegemaier, who also is a widely respected scientist.

The flurry of personnel moves, which seem to send conflicting signals, shows, if nothing else, that the final weeks of the Trump administration are likely to be as chaotic as the past four years.

The National Climate Assessment, which involves scientists both outside and inside the federal government, is meant to serve as a foundation for future decision-making, not only by Congress but by the states and localities that are experiencing the worst effects of a changing climate. The process of the fifth National Climate Assessment has just begun, with a deadline set for Saturday for the public to provide input to the administration about which scientists should serve as authors of the report and which scientific studies and technical data should be considered in the assessment. 

"Since it was first mandated, the National Climate Assessment has been a well-respected gauge of the impacts climate change is having on our planet," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat who chairs the House Science Committee. "The removal of Dr. Kuperberg appears to be a clear attempt by the defeated Trump Administration in its waning days in office to politicize the assessment during a critical early stage of its development." 

Kuperberg, an environmental toxicologist and ecologist who specializes in the study of the carbon cycle and Arctic processes, was detailed to NOAA's Global Change Research Program from the Department of Energy's Office of Science, where he had managed environmental research programs for a decade. He is expected to return to the Energy Department.

Wuebbles, who served as climate adviser in the Obama White House at the same time Kuperberg was managing the National Climate Assessment, said he and Kuperberg are friends, who speak frequently by phone. In an unrelated conversation they had on Saturday, Wuebbles said, Kuperberg broke the news that he would no longer head up the global research program. "We were talking about other things going on in our lives, and he said, 'There's one thing I need to tell you,'" Wuebbles recalled.

Kuperberg could not be reached for comment.

Opponents of action to curb fossil fuel emissions have been pressing the Trump administration to exert more control over the National Climate Assessment.

Even though the administration has relentlessly rolled back climate policy and exited the Paris climate accord, government scientists have continued to produce work that bolsters knowledge on the human contribution to climate change. The fourth National Climate Assessment presented the most dire picture yet of the climate risks facing the United States, its population and its economy. The report gained perhaps even greater attention because of the Trump administration's effort to downplay its findings by releasing the final volume the day after Thanksgiving in 2018.

"One of Kuperberg's greatest achievements was to get the fourth National Climate Assessment released intact under a Trump administration," said Duffy. "I frankly don't know how he managed to do that, and it really was a service to all of us."

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