The Trump administration has hired David Legates, an academic who doesn't believe that human activity is causing climate change, to work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- the agency that produces much of the climate research funded by the government.
NOAA had struggled to escape the political influence from the government, although it succeeded in carrying out its weather forecasting and climate research without much intervention. This contrasted with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other science agencies in which the government has sidelined climate scientists. But now, things might change.
Legates was hired as NOAA's deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction, reporting directly to Neil Jacobs, the agency’s acting head. The move has raised concerns in the scientific community that this could be a move by the White House to influence the scientific reports of the agency.
“He's not just in left field — he's not even near the ballpark,” Jane Lubchenco, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and head of NOAA under President Barack Obama, told NPR. He said contrarians in science are welcomed but only when their claims can be scientifically defended.
Legates has a long track of using his position as an academic to cast doubt on climate science. The appointment comes at a time the US is directly dealing with the effects of climate change, with a record wildfire season in California, influenced by a strong heatwave, to an active hurricane season in the South and the East.
Back in 2007, Legates co-authored a controversial paper that questioned the role of climate change in destroying the habitat of polar bears. The study was partially funded by fossil fuel companies, InsideClimate News showed, adding even more concerns about the study's objectivity. At the time, Legates was working as a state climatologist for Delaware and the governor sent him a letter asking him to stop casting doubt on climate science. He later resigned in 2011.
But that’s not it. He appeared in a video in 2011 supporting the idea that the sun’s natural cycles were the reason behind global warming, instead of human action. He reiterated the same argument when speaking at the Senate, dismissing the findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body that groups climate researchers. Legates is also affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a think tank that spends millions of dollars every year to question the scientific evidence of climate change, including the research produced by NOAA, his new employer.
Heartland has had a leading role in shaping the views on climate change by the Trump administration. Reacting to Legates' appointment, Vice President Jim Lakely published a column in which he congratulated Legates and questioned the criticism by “corrupt media” against him.
“The question that The Heartland Institute raises — via the hundreds of scientists we worth with across the globe — is that human activity is not the main driver of climate change. That is what the data shows, including NOAA's. They just don't like to admit it. Legates, hopefully, will not let them get away with more alarmism via hiding the pea,” Lakely wrote.