The administration is imposing new limits on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that would undercut action against global warming.

NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. The official responsible for scientific integrity was recently replaced. 
NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. The official responsible for scientific integrity was recently replaced. Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

By Christopher Flavelle and Lisa Friedman

  • Oct. 27, 2020Updated 

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has recently removed the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation’s premier scientific agency, installed new political staff who have questioned accepted facts about climate change and imposed stricter controls on communications at the agency.

The moves threaten to stifle a major source of objective United States government information about climate change that underpins federal rules on greenhouse gas emissions and offer an indication of the direction the agency will take if President Trump wins re-election.

An early sign of the shift came last month, when Erik Noble, a former White House policy adviser who had just been appointed NOAA’s chief of staff, removed Craig McLean, the agency’s acting chief scientist.

Mr. McLean had sent some of the new political appointees a message that asked them to acknowledge the agency’s scientific integrity policy, which prohibits manipulating research or presenting ideologically driven findings.

The request prompted a sharp response from Dr. Noble. “Respectfully, by what authority are you sending this to me?” he wrote, according to a person who received a copy of the exchange after it was circulated within NOAA.

Mr. McLean answered that his role as acting chief scientist made him responsible for ensuring that the agency’s rules on scientific integrity were followed.

The following morning, Dr. Noble responded. “You no longer serve as the acting chief scientist for NOAA,” he informed Mr. McLean, adding that a new chief scientist had already been appointed. “Thank you for your service.”

It was not the first time NOAA had drawn the administration’s attention. Last year, the agency’s weather forecasters came under pressure for contradicting Mr. Trump’s false statements about the path of Hurricane Dorian.

But in an administration where even uttering the words “climate change” is dangerous, NOAA has, so far, remained remarkably independent in its ability to conduct research about and publicly discuss changes to the Earth’s climate. It also still maintains numerous public websites that declare, in direct opposition to Mr. Trump, that climate change is occurring, is overwhelmingly caused by humans, and presents a serious threat to the United States.

Replacing Mr. McLean, who remains at the agency, was Ryan Maue, a former researcher for the libertarian Cato Institute who has criticized climate scientists for what he has called unnecessarily dire predictions.

Dr. Maue, a research meteorologist, and Dr. Noble were joined at NOAA by David Legates, a professor at the University of Delaware’s geography department who has questioned human-caused global warming. Dr. Legates was appointed to the position of deputy assistant secretary, a role that did not previously exist.

Neil Jacobs, the NOAA administrator, was not involved in the hirings, according to two people familiar with the selection process.

The agency did not respond to requests for comment and a request to make the new officials available for an interview.

David Legates, second from right, was appointed to the position of deputy assistant secretary. 
David Legates, second from right, was appointed to the position of deputy assistant secretary. Credit…Kris Connor/Getty Images

NOAA officials have tried to get information about what role the new political staff members would play and what their objectives might be, with little success. According to people close to the administration who have questioned climate science, though, their primary goal is to undercut the National Climate Assessment.

The assessment, a report from 13 federal agencies and outside scientists led by NOAA, which the government is required by law to produce every four years, is the premier American contribution to knowledge about climate risks and serves as the foundation for federal regulations to combat global warming. The latest report, in 2018, found that climate change poses an imminent and dire threatto the United States and its economy.

“The real issue at play is the National Climate Assessment,” said Judith Curry, a former chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology who said she has been in contact with Dr. Maue, the new chief scientist. “That’s what the powers that be are trying to influence.”

In addition to Dr. Curry, the strategy was described by Myron Ebell, a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a former member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, and John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Dr. Christy, a critic of past National Climate Assessments, said he was asked by the White House this summer to take on a senior role at NOAA, according to E&E News, but declined the offer. He said he understood the role to include changing the agency’s approach to the climate assessment.

Ms. Curry and the others said that, if Mr. Trump wins re-election, further changes at NOAA would include removing longtime authors of the climate assessment and adding new ones who challenge the degree to which warming is occurring, the extent to which it is caused by human activities and the danger it poses to human health, national security and the economy.

A biased or diminished climate assessment would have wide-ranging implications.

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