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

September 15, 2020
CNN
Gretchen Goldman
Research Director, Center for Science & Democracy

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.