The Resistance: In the President’s Relentless War on Climate Science, They Fought Back

The scientists' efforts were often unseen and sometimes unsuccessful. But over four years, they mounted a guerilla defense that kept pressure on the Trump Administration.

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Every time the word “climate” was deleted from the name of his program at the Environmental Protection Agency, Dan Costa stuck it back in.

Chris Frey fought back in the unlikely setting of a hotel conference room, where he and 20 other members of an EPA science review panel dismissed by the Trump administration met to do their job anyway, later publishing their views in a prestigious medical journal.

And as Jeff Alson was walking out the door of the EPA in frustration after a 40-year career at the agency, he gave pep talks to the younger engineers about why they had to stay on.

“I told them what I’m going to do for you is go out and tell the truth, so that the public knows that this rollback is not being done by EPA staff, it is being done by other people in the government,” Alson said. 

These are snapshots of the resistance. Although their names are little known and their efforts often went unseen, they defied the relentless campaign President Donald Trump and his administration waged against mainstream science during the four years of his presidency—particularly the scientific consensus on climate change.


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The outcome of this war is yet to be written. Trump has rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations, loosening restrictions on fossil fuel development when the science points ever more urgently to the need to stop the reliance on energy sources that produce greenhouse gas emissions. In California earlier this year, the president summarized his administration’s attitude toward scientific expertise: “I don’t think the science knows,” he said, as the state’s worst wildfire season on record raged all around him.

But the Trump administration’s drive to dismiss and deny climate science has made only partial headway. In what may be a sign of the robustness of both the science and the U.S. institutions that support it, scientists inside and outside the federal agencies fought back.

When Trump and his team sidelined or silenced government experts, the scientists spoke out. When the administration eliminated or radically reshaped panels of outside advisers, scientists made sure their advice got on the record anyway. Fringe theories were relegated to footnotes or ignored, despite the administration’s efforts to elevate them. Mainstream views—including that greenhouse gases pose a danger to human health and the environment—largely prevailed.

It is unclear whether continued distrust in science will prove to be Trump’s lasting legacy, a hindrance to President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to put the nation on course to net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. 

In the final weeks of 2020, as it became clear (though perhaps not to the president himself) that Trump’s tenure was drawing to a close, his administration was attempting to lock disdain for science into federal decision-making, installing climate contrarians in influential positions and finalizing rules to hamper environmental protection for years to come.

But the scientists who stood their ground on climate say they see hope in Biden’s victory, and in a president-elect whose campaign included the most ambitious climate platform ever advanced by a major party’s presidential nominee, and was waged amid the worst public health crisis in a century.

“There’s a recognition in the American public that the nation didn’t pay attention to the science, and we are paying the price for it now,” said Chris Zarba, one of hundreds of EPA scientists who resigned or retired early in the Trump administration. “As a result, there may be an opportunity for a renewed appreciation for science by the American public, and the pandemic and the Biden administration may be able to make that point very powerfully.”

If so, the ground troops that paved the way for that resurgence included Zarba and other EPA staffers, alumni, and advisers—and even some of the Trump administration’s own appointees—who engaged in a four-year, multi-front guerilla defense of environmental science.

Small Protests Kept the Pressure On

In his 2016 campaign, Trump derided climate science as an expensive “hoax” and promised to reduce the EPA “to little tidbits.” Based on such pronouncements, his presidency was seen as a threat in the science community from early on. Yet few foresaw how complete the administration’s rollback of climate policy would be, or the devastation that would result from its sidelining of federal scientists and embrace of fringe theories about the coronavirus pandemic.

“No previous administration in the modern era has so willfully, brazenly, and comprehensively based its decision-making on ignorance,” said Geoffrey Supran, a science history fellow at Harvard University. 

Lab-coated demonstrators registered their objections in March 2017, in a nationwide March for Science that Supran helped organize. Yet the most important protests during the Trump administration took place not in the streets but behind the scenes, in hearing rooms, in paper trails, in quietly placed phone calls. 

Dan Costa did not set out to be part of this underground resistance against the Trump administration. Director of the Air, Climate and Energy Research Program at EPA’s campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, when Trump was elected, Costa put together briefing material for the incoming administration, just as he had done in the four previous presidential turnovers he had witnessed in his 34 years at the agency. “Every administration brings in a different philosophy, not just a political philosophy, but also a kind of modus operandi—how they get things done,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of these transitions before. I thought we’d figure it out.”

But when the day came for the Trump transition team to arrive at the agency (“when people bring out the coffee and cookies,” as Costa put it), no one showed up.

What seemed at first like disregard soon looked more like outright hostility. In June 2017, The New England Journal of Medicine published groundbreaking air pollution research—one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted—funded in part by Costa’s program. In an analysis of the health records of 60 million Medicare recipients, the Harvard researchers showed that tens of thousands of premature deaths were linked to exposure to fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, the pollution from combustion, even at levels that met the national standard.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at The Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. Credit: Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at The Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. Credit: Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

The study had great significance for climate, because it underscored the risks of fossil fuels, and great significance for the EPA, because the agency was in the midst of a legally required review of the adequacy of the PM 2.5 standard.

So Costa was stunned to read an attack on the study by an EPA staffer in a story in The Washington Times.  An unnamed Trump administration spokesman from EPA’s public affairs office was quoted as saying that the conclusions of the research were not “supported by direct evidence.” The spokesman said, falsely, that the study had failed to take into account risk factors such as smoking, obesity and income, or the possibility that people had died in car crashes—all of which had been addressed by researchers, both in the study design, which factored out more than 100 confounding variables, and in multiple quality checks, called sensitivity analyses.

Most disturbing of all to Costa, the spokesman suggested that the Harvard researchers were hiding something. “The authors should release the data to better inform the public of the merits of its conclusions,” the spokesman said. But the data was already publicly available from Medicare, the EPA, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It was just completely bogus,” Costa said of the Trump administration’s response. Knowing he was nearing retirement, Costa told his supervisor he was willing “to take the bullet” and speak out in the study’s defense, contradicting the administration’s party line. But his boss advised him not to rock the boat, and Costa agreed, not wanting to make life harder for his colleagues.

He hung on at the agency until the end of Trump’s first year, getting his group started on research into the pulmonary effects of wildfire, a topic he felt would not draw the ire of Trump’s political team, since the link to favored industries like coal was indirect. He watched his colleagues hunker down, too.

“All during this period, particularly on the climate side, there was a growing sort of self-censorship,” Costa said. “You change the words. You don’t have ‘climate’ up front. You talk about ‘environmental changes,’ or ‘evolving environmental concerns.'” 

None of the Trump administration political appointees said anything to Costa directly, but when they sent him budget documents for review, they removed the word “climate” from his program’s name. He reinserted it, doing so again and again until he retired from the agency in January 2018. The administration promptly renamed the program the “Air and Energy Research Program.”

Although the Trump administration won the naming battle, once Costa left the agency, he began speaking out. He joined a newly-formed group of EPA alumni, the Environmental Protection Network, who came together to share their inside knowledge with the press, with health and environmental advocacy organizations, and with politicians on Capitol Hill. Costa began working with the American Thoracic Society on a proposal for increased funding for research into the health effects of wildfire. And he testified before Congress on the public health effects of climate change, and his view that the Trump administration was derailing the mission that had guided EPA since it was established 50 years ago. 

“I knew I could speak out freely once out, and did so,” Costa said. “I felt I had a unique perspective, coming from hard science and being part of the science leadership with daily policy interactions.”

Trump EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has dismissed the criticisms of “that politically active group of former EPA staffers that just attack everything.” 

But Costa said he thinks the activist network, which now numbers 500 EPA alumni, “kept the pressure on EPA, brought some critical things into the open, and set the stage for a rebuild, perhaps rebirth, of EPA as it enters the next 50 years of its existence.”

Costa was one of more than 1,600 federal scientists who left the federal government in the first two years of the Trump administration, according to calculations The Washington Post made earlier this year—a 1.5 percent drop compared with an 8 percent increase in the number of government scientists under President Barack Obama. 

The pressure on climate scientists was not just at EPA, it was across the federal government. At the Interior Department, scientific studies on the health effects of mountaintop removal mining and the safety of offshore drilling were canceled, and scientists in the U.S. Geological Survey’s Climate and Land Use Change Research Program were dispersed. At the Agriculture Department, dozens of studies on climate change were buried and offices relocated, prompting top agency climate scientists to quit. At the Energy Department, more than 40 studies on the benefits of renewable energy were blocked from publication by agency officials. 

But at no agency was the strain more severe than at the EPA, under Trump’s first administrator, Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who had sued the agency more than a dozen times, and then his successor, Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist. Although Congress never went along with the massive budget cuts Trump proposed for the agency, staffing at EPA fell by nearly 10 percent in a single year, to about 14,200, its lowest level in 33 years.

“These are people who had spent their lives establishing the scientific foundations for those regulations, or had worked to craft sensible regulations and put them in place,” said John Holdren, co-director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at Harvard, who served as Obama’s top science adviser. “They were then forced to watch it all destroyed, pell-mell.”

Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who served as President George W. Bush’s first EPA Administrator, had experience in clashing with the White House over climate change. But she said there was nothing like the Trump administration’s effort to manipulate how science was conducted. “There were certainly people who questioned science within the Bush administration,” she said. “But there wasn’t a war on science. This has been an outright war on the EPA, a physical effort to strangle the agency.”

‘They Basically Cooked the Books’ 

Jeff Alson, a senior engineer with EPA’s vehicles lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan, knew something was wrong soon after Trump took office, when the fuel economy group at the Department of Transportation stopped talking to his team. 

The two agency teams had worked hand-in-hand on the nation’s first greenhouse gas standards for automobiles under Obama. “We had worked together every month, most of the time every week, and sometimes every day when we had deadlines coming up,” Alson recalled recently. “We knew the names of their spouses and how many kids they had and where they went on vacation.” Now, the fuel economy group wouldn’t return the phone calls of EPA’s engineers.

The Transportation Department analysts finally unveiled their work to Alson’s dumbstruck team at EPA via a video conference call in January 2018. The cost-benefit analysis they had previously worked on together was replaced with new numbers that shrunk the benefits of reducing carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, and added new costs, like increased car crashes, noise and congestion. Instead of the government’s previous conclusion that the clean car standards would bring $100 billion in net benefits to the economy, the new analysis concluded they would result in $200 billion in net costs. 

Jeff Alson discusses energy efficiency advances with an auto industry representative at a 2014 technology showcase at EPA's National Vehicle Fuel Economy Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Credit: EPA
Jeff Alson discusses energy efficiency advances with an auto industry representative at a 2014 technology showcase at EPA’s National Vehicle Fuel Economy Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Credit: EPA

Alson, 63, had worked on dozens of cost-benefit analyses, but he had never seen such a dramatic reversal.

“I concluded that they had been told what the answers had to be if they were going to roll back the standards. They had to show the public that they were way too expensive, which they did by basically cooking the books,” Alson said. “When I saw how dishonest the whole analysis was in those early stages, that’s when I decided I wanted to get out of there. I thought maybe I can do more good on the outside.”

Alson, like Costa, left the agency and joined the EPA alumni in the Environmental Protection Network. He began speaking out and with 40 other former EPA engineers, scientists, policy analysts, attorneys and managers, filed formal comments on the proposed fuel economy rollback. A prominent economist whose work the Trump administration had heavily cited in its proposal, Antonio Bento of the University of Southern California, published a peer-reviewed critique in the journal Science, detailing everything that the Trump team had gotten wrong. 

“Inconsistent with basic economic principles,” Bento and his co-authors concluded about the Trump analysis, the most striking flaw being an assumption that looser standards would result in 6 million fewer cars on roads in the United States. 

The public critiques by engineering and economics experts put the Trump administration in a bind. With the threat of litigation against its rollback looming, it had no choice but to address the flaws in its cost-benefit analysis in the final version of the “Safe Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule” published on March 31 of this year. But those corrections forced the agencies to concede that the rollback could be expensive, imposing as much as $22 billion in additional fuel bills and other costs on the economy. And that unfavorable cost-benefit analysis left the Trump rollback vulnerable in the courts, where it has been challenged by multiple states and health and environmental groups.

“They wanted to take money from our pockets and give it to the oil companies, because that’s basically what you’re doing if you make people buy cars that are less fuel efficient,” said Alson, who said a driving force behind his speaking out was to defend the reputation of the EPA. 

“We did everything we could to try to do the best standards that we could so the American public would benefit,” he said.

As he was retiring, Alson said, he encouraged the young engineers on staff to continue their work, despite the setbacks of the Trump administration.

“Don’t lose faith in EPA,” he said he told them. “Because if we’re going to save the planet, people have to still have faith that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can do the job.”

In the End, They Were Scientists First

At the same time that the Trump administration was losing expertise from within the government, it was seeking to limit input from outside experts in environmental science. This helped Trump’s team quell some of the scientific arguments against its rollbacks of environmental protection. But opposition made it onto the record anyway, sometimes with the help of the administration’s own appointees.

EPA’s science advisory boards had long been a target for the ire of the fossil fuel industry and its allies, who sought to overturn environmental regulations. Courts had frequently upheld rules based on the EPA’s reliance on advice from scientific experts. Soon after taking office, the Trump administration set out to gain maximum control over the kind of advice the EPA would get.

“Process matters,” said EPA Administrator Pruitt, at a gathering at the agency in October 2017, with two of EPA’s harshest critics seated in the front row, then-Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). Taking up an idea that Smith and Inhofe had championed in Congress, Pruitt announced that scientists who had received EPA grants would be banned from serving on the agency’s science advisory boards, asserting that it was a conflict of interest. 

“Joshua says to the people of Israel, ‘Choose this day who you are going to serve,'” said Pruitt, once a deacon in his Southern Baptist church back in Oklahoma. “I would say this is sort of like the ‘Joshua principle.'”

The Anti-Scientists

Because the EPA is one of the largest sources of U.S. environmental research funding outside of industry, the effect of the ban was to remove most of the scientists whose work was funded not by industry but by grants from the federal government.

“It was just a smokescreen to give some legitimacy to the idea of kicking real experts off,” said Chris Frey, an environmental engineer at North Carolina State University, who had served on numerous EPA advisory boards.

Three federal courts ruled this year that Pruitt’s directive was illegal. But it had already had a dramatic impact. There was no similar conflict-of-interest rule barring industry-funded scientists from serving. As a result, by the start of 2018, the make-up of EPA’s advisory boards had shifted away from academics and toward industry consultants, with the overall number of outside advisers at EPA and other environmental science agencies at its lowest level since 1997. When Wheeler—a former Senate staffer for Inhofe—replaced Pruitt as agency administrator, he continued paring that number down.

Nowhere was the impact more striking than on EPA’s seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), which had a large role in reviewing the adequacy of the current air quality standard on fine particulate matter. Pruitt and Wheeler had both taken steps to speed up the review, moving the timeline up by two years so that the process would be complete by the end of Trump’s first term in office.

The new chairman of the CASAC, Denver statistician Louis Anthony Cox, a consultant for the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups, had long argued that there should be a much higher burden of proof for concluding that pollution was harmful to health. Cox dominated the discussion at the committee’s meetings. Meanwhile Wheeler disbanded the 20-member committee of pollution experts that was supposed to advise CASAC on particulate matter. The CASAC had no experts of its own on epidemiology or other relevant fields of study. 

 A 2,000-page assessment by EPA’s in-house scientists had concluded that tens of thousands of lives could be saved by tightening the PM 2.5 standards. But Cox, citing contrarian science, blasted the assessment and questioned whether PM 2.5 should be considered a cause of death at all. 

Some committee members agreed, others disagreed, and the result was that the committee’s advice to the agency was divided. Wheeler, in finalizing a decision earlier this month to keep the PM 2.5 standard as it was, cited the divergent views as evidence that the science was uncertain. And he dismissed from consideration emerging science indicating that PM 2.5 pollution increased the risk of Covid-19 mortality.

Wheeler has said that EPA’s reviews of the air quality standards were taking longer than the law allowed, and that “the process had gotten out of control.” And he maintained that all the changes he and Pruitt enacted were necessary to streamline the process, and still conduct a “thorough review of the science.”

But while Trump’s team could stack the deck against tightening the fine particulate standard, it could not block scientific critiques from entering the public record, put there by the activism of former EPA science advisors who had been pushed out. In an extraordinary move, the 20 members of the disbanded PM 2.5 science review panel held their own two-day meeting in an Arlington, Virginia hotel conference room last fall, with support from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

With about half the team on site and the others calling in remotely, Frey, the North Carolina State environmental engineer, chaired the meeting according to the same ground rules that governed EPA’s official science advisory boards.

The panel unanimously recommended that the PM 2.5 air quality standard be strengthened. They submitted the recommendation to the administrative record and published their findings last summer in an opinion column in The New England Journal of Medicine. “The epidemiologic evidence is consistent across studies with diverse designs, populations, pollutant mixtures, locations and statistical approaches,” Frey and his colleagues wrote.

Assisting Frey in organizing and running the meeting was Zarba, an environmental scientist who had spent the last 18 of his 38 years at the EPA as director of the agency’s outside advisory boards.

Zarba had developed a deep appreciation for the work of the advisers, many of whom waived the honorarium that the agency pays for their work.

“I know of no place where so few people can have such a huge impact on the effectiveness and the credibility of the Environmental Protection Agency as on the science advisory boards,”  Zarba said. “The attacks on what EPA does coming from every direction are so frequent and so aggressive that you need the SAB to push back.”

He added that it was easy for industry and others affected by regulation to criticize EPA decisions, he said, but the SAB process normally forced those critics to make their case with data, before experts who understood the science.

When Pruitt instituted his “Joshua principle,” though, Zarba was given the job of firing those experts. And Pruitt made clear he was going to make his own decisions in replacing them, Zarba said; in a departure from previous practice, Pruitt wanted no briefing from EPA staff on the expertise needed on the committee or on the qualifications of the applicants. The only thing that Zarba could do was make sure that the outside world knew what was happening.

“I think there’s a little bit of an advantage when you know you can retire at any time,” Zarba said. “I could fight some fights and push back a little bit harder.” 

Chris Frey, left, chairing a public meeting of the Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Virginia. Credit: Francis Chung/E&E News

Because the boards were covered by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and their proceedings were required to be public, Zarba was cleared to communicate with the press. 

“So I was able to work with the press to help them get up to speed before some things were actually pushed out to the public,” Zarba said. “I would let them know, ‘I’m going to fire these scientists next week, at noon on Tuesday. And if you want to get quotes from them, you could start working it now, but you just can’t print anything until Wednesday.”

It wasn’t the job that Zarba was used to. “It was very stressful,” he said. In January 2018, he retired and joined the Environmental Protection Network, to advocate for a restoration of the EPA science advisory boards.

To the surprise of some, the EPA’s largest body of outside experts, its chartered Science Advisory Board, became a persistent critic of many of the Trump administration’s decisions. This was the case even though Pruitt and Wheeler had appointed the majority of the board’s members, including its only climate scientist, the prominent contrarian John Christy. For example, the board blasted the Trump rollback of fuel economy standards as lacking in scientific basis, in a report that relegated Christy’s outlier view—that fuel economy standards would have no effect on climate change—to a footnote. Christy “was able to gain little traction with more than a few other members of the board,” said Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund, who sat on the board until his term ended in September 2019. 

Whether because of the advisory board’s size—it had 44 members—or the dynamic that emerged as the group began to scrutinize the Trump rollback proposals closely, the ultimate advice from the board turned out to be mainstream.

“The magic, which I didn’t see coming, is that on the SAB, the identity of members as scientists has been dominant for almost everyone,” said Hamburg. “The number of extremists on the panel is not that great—there are a few, there’s no doubt about it—but they are pretty isolated on the board.”

Because the law requires that the SAB’s work be open to the public, the Trump EPA wasn’t able to keep the critical SAB reports under a lid, even though the agency delayed their publication and delayed the board from meeting for several months. And although Wheeler last year issued a new directive intended to limit the regulatory decisions the advisory board reviewed, he was persuaded to scale back the plan by the SAB’s then-chairman, Michael Honeycutt, director of the toxicology division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That ensured that decisions on which EPA proposal the board would review would be made in public, by a sub-committee of the board.

Environmental advocates who balked when Honeycutt, an opponent of stronger air quality standards in Texas, was made chairman of the SAB, now credit his leadership with bringing important scientific questions about the Trump EPA’s proposal to light. 

“I can understand why people would be concerned, but I hope that the board demonstrated that we did the best job we could,” Honeycutt said recently.

“I know I felt whenever you sign up to be on the board, you take your day hat off, and you put your SAB hat on,” he said. “And I know people from industry and people from environmental groups and people from academia—we all did that. We all sort of put aside what I’ll call our professional bias, just to look at things as a scientist and just took the job very seriously.”

The Science Proved Durable 

The pushback from scientists both inside and outside the agency frustrated the administration and others who opposed action on global warming. Trump took the big step early on of announcing an exit from the Paris climate accord, and he never wavered from his climate denial. But his administration did not succeed in making a significant dent in the science.

In fact, the science won over converts. Jim Bridenstine, the former Oklahoma Congressman and climate denier who Trump appointed to lead NASA, said he had experienced an evolution in his thinking after several months at the agency. By 2018, he was telling Congress he now accepted the science that human activity was driving global warming. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s own political advisers shot down an idea floated by climate deniers as a way to shine a spotlight on contrarian science: staging an administration-sponsored “red team-blue team” debate on climate change. The advisers feared negative political fallout from such a forum, first championed by Pruitt and later by William Happer, a prominent climate science denier and physicist who served for a year on Trump’s National Security Council.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks prior to the swearing-in of Jim Bridenstine as the 13th NASA Administrator, Monday, April 23, 2018 at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks prior to the swearing-in of Jim Bridenstine as the 13th NASA Administrator, Monday, April 23, 2018 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Equally disappointing to foes of climate action, Trump’s EPA officials never moved to rescind the agency’s 2009 “endangerment finding,” that greenhouse gases pose a danger to human health and the environment. In a landmark decision two years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled that the emissions met the definition of pollutants under the Clean Air Act, opening the way for the EPA to act.   

“They did not even mount a serious challenge to that,” said one senior EPA scientist, who asked not to be named because he was not cleared by the administration to speak on the issue. “I think that’s an under-appreciated fact that should really stand out. That even this administration, which was so clearly against climate action, and which had a lot of people yelling at them to take back the endangerment finding, did not take that on. I think they knew they would lose.” 

In November 2018, despite the administration’s attempts to subvert the effort, the federal government issued its Fourth National Climate Assessment, delivering the most blunt warning yet from scientists on the threat of global warming in the United States. 

Thirteen federal agencies and more than 300 scientists from within and outside the government worked on the report, which is required by law. There were attempts by Trump political appointees to weaken the findings, but the extensive public review process and the determination of the government scientists on the steering committee, some of whom would later be removed from their role in the assessment, ensured that the work was delivered intact.

Although the final volume of the assessment was released over Thanksgiving weekend in 2018 (in an effort to “bury” its findings, Happer said), the report sounded a call for action. Its detailed look at the threats in different regions of the country were highlighted by local media from Tampa to Des Moines to Seattle. And over the following two years, record wildfires in the West and tropical storms in the East lent credence to the report’s dire warnings.

A Final Assault

The next National Climate Assessment now has become one focus of a wide-ranging effort by the Trump administration and its allies to make a final mark on climate science. They are seeking to inject doubt into the assessment, due out in 2023, and to put limits on the use of science in future government decision-making, especially research showing the harmful health effects of fossil fuels.

The opening salvo of this anti-climate science drive came just a few weeks before the election, when the White House pushed for the appointment of two prominent climate science deniers and a former Trump campaign official to top positions at NOAA. After the election in November, the contrarian scientists, David Legates and Ryan Maue, were put in charge of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, which was just getting underway with a call for authors.

Myron Ebell of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, who served as Trump’s chief environmental transition adviser but has been disappointed in his failure to dismantle climate science, said he is hopeful that Legates’ appointment will have a lasting impact.

Although the Biden administration would probably be able to replace Legates and reverse any decisions he made, Trump’s allies hope the impression that competing views on climate science deserve equal consideration will stick. In any case, Ebell said, contrarian scientists who are removed by Biden administration officials could join together produce their own assessment.

“They’d have a good case to make that ‘the government isn’t letting us do this, but we’re going to do it ourselves,'” said Ebell, “and we’re going to present it as an alternate report.'”

In other words, the Trump administration is readying an alternate science that will bear Trump’s implicit stamp of approval, just as Biden is attempting to launch aggressive action on climate change.

Biden allies are expressing confidence—in public, anyway—that the checks built into the process will ensure the integrity of the climate assessment.

The Trump administration is also working in its last weeks to finalize a slew of new rules that benefit the fossil fuel industry, many of them designed to limit the use of science in federal decision-making.

On Dec. 9, Wheeler finalized an overhaul of EPA’s cost-benefit process that makes it harder to justify air pollution rules, especially the regulation of carbon dioxide. 

And the EPA administrator is aiming to cap his tenure by finalizing a proposal—which in some form has been on the fossil fuel industry’s wish list for years—to limit the agency’s use of any science that is based on individualized health data. Wheeler called it a “transparency” measure, characterizing the ordinary health confidentiality protections around that data as a nefarious form of secrecy. 

But in an outpouring of nearly 1 million comments on the proposal, the nation’s leading public health, science and academic institutions warned that it would hobble the EPA, barring the agency from relying on the most powerful studies on the health risks of pollution.

And in a remarkable protest, Thomas Sinks, the EPA career scientist assigned the job of shepherding the “transparency” rule, filed an opinion letter with the agency objecting to the proposal just before he retired in September, a move first reported by The New York Times. 

Sinks, an epidemiologist with 35 years of government experience, wrote that if finalized, the rule “will compromise the scientific integrity of our scientists, the validity of our rulemaking, and possibly the health of the American People.”

One protest from a retiring scientist may not be enough to stop the proposal; the Trump administration has pushed past the resistance on nearly every front to enact its agenda. But the voices of insiders and former insiders resound like no others in the war that has been waged over U.S. environmental protection for the last four years.

They have punctured the facade that the Trump administration is acting on behalf of a unified government and illuminated the obscure corners of its battle plan. They have revealed how Trump’s presidency has loosened restraints on the dominant industries of the past, while ignoring the scientific imperative to build a different future.

The Biden administration now has pledged to take up that mandate, following the difficult path that in many ways has been laid bare by the underground combatants of the Trump years. To confront climate change, Biden and his team will need to build back not just an economy, but trust—in government, in science and in our capacity for change.