Donald Trump does not believe that climate change is real and caused by humans, and he has done everything in his power to ensure that his administration reflects that view. In the latest effort to undermine science in favor of advancing his own agenda, the administration has hired David Legates, a longtime climate change denier, for one of the top roles at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Legates, a professor of climatology at the University of Delaware, will serve as NOAA's deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction, where he will help dictate the agency’s priorities for weather services, climate science, and Earth-observing capabilities.
He will report directly to Neil Jacobs, a Trump appointee who stirred up controversy last year when he published an unsigned letter lending NOAA's support to the president after he falsely claimed Alabama was at risk of being hit by Hurricane Dorian — an incident most remembered for Trump modifying a map showing the storm's potential path with a sharpie. Along with Jacobs, Legates will be in a senior leadership role within the agency that leads much of the federal government's efforts on weather forecasting and climate research.
For more than a decade, Legates has been one of the leading voices questioning the effects of climate change. In 2007, he was the lead author of a paper that asked whether the planet's rising temperature played a role in the destruction of polar bear habitats. The research has been widely debunked. Earlier this year, a study published in Ecological Applications and backed by NASA concluded that shrinking levels of sea ice, caused by increasing global temperatures that have reached even the most remote location on the planet, have left polar bears with less viable habitat. Further research found that the loss of ice could result in polar bears starving to death on their way to extinction by the year 2100.
Inside Climate News reported in 2015 that Legates' research on polar bear habitats, and in fact multiple other studies he published that called into question the scientific consensus of climate change, was at least in part funded by conservative groups and oil industry lobbyists. One of Legates' collaborators on the polar bear research was Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon, an astrophysicist and aerospace engineer who failed to disclose the more than $1.2 million in funding provided to him by the fossil fuel industry while publishing papers that attempted to downplay the role of human contributions to climate change. Soon accepted grants from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute, and Exxon-Mobil while working on the polar bear paper.
Legates and Soon have a longstanding history of collaboration. In 2002, Legates was an expert at the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative organization that pushed climate change skepticism. Soon served as a senior scientist for the organization during the same period. According to Greenpeace, the think tank took in nearly $1 million in funding from Exxon-Mobil from 1998 to 2011. In 2008, Legates and Soon teamed up again, this time on a video that claimed the sun, not greenhouse gases, was the true cause of climate change. "The sun is the key ingredient to climate," Legates said in the video, which was originally produced by the Idea Channel (now known as the Free to Choose Network), a libertarian advocacy organization.
It was revealed by DeSmog Blog that the video was funded by the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that has taken millions from the fossil fuel industry and in turn funded and produced research that undermines the findings of climate science. Both Legates and Soon are currently affiliated with the Heartland Institute.
At this point, the Trump administration's efforts to undermine climate science should not come as a surprise. Trump tapped a former coal lobbyist to head up the Environmental Protection Agency and a former climate change denier to serve as NASA's Administrator. While hires like Legates aren't shocking, they are disappointing, as it places defenders of the oil industry in a position to undermine scientific research. The longer Trump is in office, the more pervasive his influence becomes, and the more invaluable research gets blocked, as if simply not publishing findings that show climate change is real will somehow stop it from happening.