There's something truly out of place amid a slew of uneventful news releases on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website: Six bizarre sentences, accusing the Obama Administration of distorting climate science.
Posted to the federal agency's site on Wednesday, the brief missive contends that Obama's scientists improperly influenced the new congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment by focusing on the "worst-case scenario" for climate change this century.
The release, which cited as its corroborating evidence an article from the conservative website The Daily Caller, promotes a profoundly misleading, oversimplified, and politicized view of the climate report, which involved the work of 13 government agencies and 300 climate scientists.
The decision to publish this as an official release — from the chief office of a government agency responsible for the nation's environmental oversight — is rash, and problematic, at best.
"For the EPA’s political leadership to do this is, one might say, deplorable," Joe Goffman, a former EPA senior counsel in the Office of Air and Radiation, said in an interview.
"They’ve done something really flagrant as part of the campaign to foster misinformation to the public about climate science," Goffman, now the executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Program, added. "I would argue they committed a genuinely cardinal sin with respect to the values of scientific integrity and the trustworthiness they owe the public."
Just how flagrantly misinformed is the EPA's release?
The current incarnation of the EPA is claiming that President Barack Obama's science advisor and current Harvard professor, John Holdren, used a routine May 2015 memo to instruct the report's scientists to focus on the "worst case" climate scenario, meaning the continued release of high amounts of greenhouse gases over the coming decades.
The Climate Assessment, however, considered a variety of scenarios about the future climate based upon different carbon emission possibilities — just as it has in the past.
The highest, or "worst-case," is if trends continue as they are, allowing for historically unprecedented amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases to accumulate in the atmosphere. This scenario is formally called "RCP 8.5." The other major scenarios, contingent upon a lowering of greenhouse gas emissions, are RCP 6.0, 4.5 and 2.6 (with 2.6 being the lowest).
First, a WH spokesperson said the report was based on the “most extreme” scenario. No: the report considered a very broad range of scenarios, from one where carbon emissions go negative to one where they continue to grow. Source: https://t.co/ibXllAEsxR pic.twitter.com/k6XoeNwGFr
— Katharine Hayhoe (@KHayhoe) November 27, 2018
In the last two national climate assessments (2014 and 2018), scientists chose RCP 4.5 and 8.5 scenarios as the main, or most likely, based upon the amount of greenhouse gas emissions being expelled into the air — but it certainly did not ignore the lowest possibility (RCP 2.6). In fact, 4.5 is a low-end scenario, too.
"Wow, this EPA press release really is the express train to crazy town," Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, said over email.
"What The Daily Caller and EPA clearly want readers to think is that Holdren told the assessment team to look ONLY at the worst case scenario. That's obviously false."
What's more, the lowest of the low emissions scenario, RCP 2.6, is growing increasingly unlikely. Meeting that would require net-zero greenhouse gas emissions globally in the second half of this century, Bob Kopp, Director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University, explained over email.
That's "more ambitious than current policy, and in the opposite direction from that which current federal policy is taking us," Kopp said.
Image: bob Kopp/Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus
As it is, "RCP 4.5 requires substantial mitigation policy to achieve," noted Kopp. And, critically, we are now on a track for the higher-end, worst-case scenario — whether EPA leadership wishes to accept the data or not.
"Historical CO2 emissions have been closer to RCP 8.5 than to any other scenario," said Kopp.
Where we're ultimately headed may be the worst-case scenario, or fall somewhere in between RCP 8.5 and 4.5. That's why the climate assessment considered a range of possibilities — which is what Holdren recommended.
There's simply no deception, nor ploy here.
"This is a standard and common-sense approach —because we don't know what path emissions will follow, you try to estimate what's the best case and worst-case and assume that reality will fall somewhere in between them," said Dessler. "That's what the memo says to do and that's what the assessment did and that seems completely reasonable to me."
This makes the EPA's news release all the more bizarre. It appears as if it's coming from a whimsical social media post, or a pundit with an animosity towards Obama, or Obama's environmental policy.
"This is an official statement of the U.S. EPA," noted Goffman. "Here you have the government doing something that's affirmatively misleading."
You can't just pick from science what suits you, and to the rest you just say "I don't believe it"! Well you can, but then you're unsuitable for any position of responsibility. pic.twitter.com/PHkBPd06v7
— Stefan Rahmstorf (@rahmstorf) November 29, 2018
For nearly two years now, the EPA has made efforts to both hide information about and mislead the public about the truth behind climate science.
The agency has completely eliminated its climate change webpages, and in March sent its staff "talking points" on how to speak about climate research — encouraging scientists to emphasize any uncertainties in the science.
The latest U.S. Climate Assessment lays out how every portion of the U.S. will be impacted by climate change under the likely emissions scenarios.
"The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country," the report reads. "More frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities."
The EPA's chief, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, has publicly questioned the report, though he hasn't finished reviewing it.
President Donald Trump simply dismisses both the report and climate science that is agreed upon by scientists globally. The EPA's release — which includes a picture of Obama and Holdren — is blatantly an attempt to promote the Trump Administration's denial of accumulating climate science... but a sloppy one.
"I think the transparently misleading nature of this [EPA] argument underscores how few legitimate arguments the Administration has against this powerful report," said Dessler.