What I Told CNN: A Climate Denier Shouldn’t Be Leading at NOAA

, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | September 15, 2020, 3:40 pm EDT
Bookmark and Share

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just appointed a climate denier to an agency leadership position. I went on CNN’s Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer yesterday to explain why the appointment of Dr. David Legates is dangerous for NOAA, for the future of federal climate change leadership, and for the public. Here’s why this appointment is a reckless move.

David Legates has a long history of accepting fossil fuel industry funding and spreading misinformation about climate change. He does not accept long-established climate science and spends time sowing doubt about the science, even directly to Congress. This is not the kind of person that should be in a leadership position at NOAA—an agency that leads the world in conducting climate science and communicating climate information to the public.

First and foremost, we shouldn’t overlook the absurdity of appointing a climate denier to federal leadership at the exact moment that climate-fueled wildfires are ravaging the West and a(nother) hurricane is about to slam into the Gulf Coast on top of higher seas, driven by climate change. We need government leaders ready to address these huge threats, not deny their very existence.

The presence of a climate denier in the senior ranks of a federal agency can have devastating impacts on scientific integrity across the agency. With climate deniers at the helm, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of the Interior have seen climate science and climate scientists sidelined left and right since 2017—with entire webpages removed, climate communications altered, and scientists blocked from speaking publicly.  Such losses of scientific integrity at agencies harm the ability of our government to inform and protect the public from the threats of climate change. Even before Legates, dozens of NOAA scientists reported, in a 2018 survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University, being told not to use the term “climate change” in their work. Leadership hostile to climate science is likely to worsen this censorship.

Below the overt tampering with climate science we’ve seen in recent years, climate-denying leadership at agencies can also lead to harmful self-censorship. On that 2018 survey, scientists at agencies with climate deniers in leadership, such as the EPA and the US Geological Survey, reported higher numbers of scientists choosing to avoid use of the term “climate change” or doing climate-related work even though they weren’t explicitly directed to. A reason for this effect is that a climate-denying leadership creates a culture of fear that threatens federal scientists’ ability to freely conduct and communicate scientific work.

The good news is that we can expect NOAA employees to resist any attempts to suppress science. Scientific integrity policies and practices are especially strong at NOAA, and as we learned during the SharpieGate fiasco, NOAA scientists are ready to push back if their work is challenged. But importantly, they shouldn’t have to. We deserve federal science leadership that’s competent, credentialed and fit to lead.


Posted in: Science and Democracy, Science Communication, Scientific Integrity Tags: , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments

Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Joe Torpey

    I would like the Scientist to study what the effect of the recent fires and past fires in California have had on climate change. Fires have burned in California for years. Just take a hike up in the hills above Malibu and you will come upon old foundations from the 40s or 50s maybe 60s that were burned and never rebuilt. Fires need fuel and in them there hills there is plenty of it. The planet has warmed and cooled for eons. to place blame on that as the cause of the recent fires is preposterous.

  • This appointment is disgusting and obsurd!

    • Joshua Burlingame

      Science should never be questioned or challenged. Climate models are always right and all climate predictions over the last 20 years have come true. Man no longer needs religion as we now can put our faith in scientific consensus.

      • pilkers

        All models are wrong, but some are useful. Those include climate models, who have consistently gotten the large-scale patterns of warming right. Joshua, you suck as a human being and should try a bit harder. Go read a book.

      • Joshua Burlingame

        Be careful, your tolerance is showing.

      • baldrad

        Heresy will not be tolerated; SHUNNING and more severe measures will be employed on those who deviate from orthodox narrative. No new data, tests of hypotheses, or other inquiry that may undermine the dogma will be tolerated…