Senate Democrat Seeks Basis for EPA Head’s Climate Report Doubts

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By Abby Smith

The Senate environment panel’s top Democrat wants EPA acting chief Andrew Wheeler to explain the basis for his recent comments questioning a federal climate science report.

Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, in Nov. 28 remarks downplayed projections in the Nov. 23 federal report that the effects of climate change could cost the U.S. tens of billions of dollars. The report’s modeling froze technology development and didn’t account for innovations that could reduce emissions further, Wheeler told The Washington Post in a live interview.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, rejected Wheeler’s claims about the report in a statement Dec. 4. He wants Wheeler to provide the basis for his remarks, and he is accusing the EPA head of deliberately misrepresenting climate science.

The report—the fourth installment of the National Climate Assessment—was written by scientists at 13 federal agencies, including the EPA, and nonfederal scientists. It takes a comprehensive look at the science of climate change and the impacts of global warming on the U.S.

The assessment explicitly links global warming to human-caused greenhouse gas increases, and it outlines both economic and public health damages that are more severe the less that emissions are curbed.

“We will respond to the ranking member through the proper channel,” Molly Block, an EPA spokeswoman, told Bloomberg Environment in an email.

Similar to Pruitt Requests

Carper’s request is similar to those Democrats made of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt when he cast doubt on mainstream climate science.

It could be a preview of oversight on climate science that Wheeler—whom President Donald Trump has said he will tap as the EPA’s permanent chief—may face in the next Congress when Democrats will control the House. Incoming chairmen of three House committees have announced they will schedule hearings on climate change early in 2019.

“We may not all agree about what to do to address these dire warnings, but it disturbs me greatly that counter to the commitment you made to me during your confirmation hearing, you seem to be actively working to undermine and distort the scientific evidence itself,” Carper wrote in a Dec. 3 letter, referring to Wheeler’s Nov. 8, 2017, hearing, when he was the nominee as deputy administrator.

Climate Models

Wheeler, as well as other Trump officials such as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, also said the assessment looked at worst-case scenarios at the direction of the Obama administration, which started work on the report. The assessment is required by Congress every four years by a 1990 law, and the Obama administration released the third installment in 2014.

The report considered a number of scenarios, Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and political science professor at Texas Tech University who helped write the report, told reporters Nov. 26. Those scenarios varied in how much the U.S. and other countries reduced greenhouse gas emissions and the severity of climate change impacts.

“Climate models tend to be biased in the direction of underestimating instead of overestimating” impacts, Hayhoe added, noting that modelers will only include climate effects and trends they are certain of how to represent.

That means some impacts aren’t included in projections, even though scientists may be observing them. For example, scientists know the Antarctic is warming faster than other areas of the globe, but they don’t have exact numbers that they feel confident enough to include in models projecting sea level rise and other impacts, Hayhoe said.

Wheeler and other officials’ public doubts about the economic numbers in the climate assessment echo Trump’s views—though his comments even more starkly oppose the report’s conclusions.

“I don’t believe it,” Trump told reporters Nov. 26 of the assessment’s economic forecast.

EPA Briefings

Carper is asking Wheeler to provide all briefing materials prepared for EPA officials related to the National Climate Assessment by Jan. 15, saying he wanted them to “understand the basis for EPA’s views and involvement in shaping the Trump Administration’s response to its own report.”

The materials Carper requested included briefings in May 2018 with various EPA officials, including air chief Bill Wehrum, water official Lee Forsgren, and former deputy in the EPA’s research office Richard Yamada.

Wheeler said Nov. 28 he has asked EPA staff to brief him on the economic projections in the climate assessment.

The acting EPA chief also said he hasn’t been briefed specifically on the agency’s climate research, but has spoken with individual scientists during visits at EPA labs about the work they are doing.

Request Environment & Energy Report