White House removes scientist picked by Trump official to lead key climate report

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Officials at the White House Office of Science Technology Policy, which oversees the research program, made the decision to reassign Weatherhead, these people said. Jane Lubchenco, who headed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during President Obama’s first term, leads climate matters at OSTP. The office did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the matter. Weatherhead declined to comment on the matter.

According to people with knowledge of the situation, there was friction between Weatherhead and some of the officials among the 13 agencies participating in the research program on the direction of the report.

Considered a mainstream climate scientist, it came as a surprise when Weatherhead was selected to lead the assessment in November because she does not question the seriousness of climate change like other scientists who were installed by the Trump administration to work on the issue. She accepts human-induced climate change is happening and is a substantial physical, ecological and economic threat. She was picked by Kelvin Droegemeier, the director of OSTP. Although a Trump appointee, Droegemeier was on the record accepting climate change as real.

Weatherhead’s stance on climate change sharply contrasts from David Legates and Ryan Maue, also assigned roles within the research program under the Trump administration, but through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rather than OSTP. The duo both publicly questioned the seriousness of climate change.

Just a week before Trump left office, Legates and Maue were involved in the production of unapproved papers that cast doubt on mainstream climate science findings. Outraged, according to an OSTP spokesperson at the time, Droegemeier relieved the scientists of their duties and reassigned them to NOAA. They resigned from the government days later, just prior to Biden’s inauguration.

Weatherhead, unlike Legates and Maue, was not politically appointed but was brought into the government through the USGS as part of the career civil service and was detailed to the research program to run the assessment. This allowed her to keep her job after Biden took office.

But her connection to Droegemeier, despite his efforts to support climate science by choosing her and subsequently dismissing Maue and Legates, may have made her a target of the Biden White House since he was appointed by Trump.

The assessment, which Weatherhead was tasked to lead, is a congressionally mandated report intended to support federal climate policy. Its primary audiences are Congress, the president, and state and local government leaders. It’s also meant to inform and engage every American affected by climate change.

Weatherhead was removed despite decades of experience as a climate scientist in the academic and private sectors. Before joining the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Weatherhead had served as a senior scientist at Jupiter Intelligence, a a company that helps businesses and governments prepare for climate change. Before that, she worked at the University of Colorado for nearly 25 years, contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, among others. She holds expertise in Earth observations, ozone depletion and the intersection of weather and climate, and served on NOAA’s Science Advisory Board.

When she was named director of the assessment, several scientists, including those who have worked for Democrats, praised the decision. “She’s bright and accomplished…. she’s certainly a reasonable choice for this,” said Don Wuebbles, who led the development of the Climate Science Special Report for the Fourth National Climate Assessment in the Obama administration.

While broadly-respected and considered mainstream, Weatherhead has historically placed great emphasis on communicating scientific uncertainty, which may have made her unpopular with Biden administration officials who wish to present an unnuanced portrayal of the threat of climate change.

In a series of position papers obtained by The Washington Post articulating Weatherhead’s vision for the assessment, she stressed the importance of incorporating the viewpoints of a diverse set of scientists and reflecting a broad range of perspectives. She contended this approach would make the report’s results more defensible and help highlight what areas require improved understanding.

Rich Sorkin, chief executive at Jupiter Intelligence and previously Weatherhead’s boss, called her “one of the world’s experts on uncertainty,” which he said he believed resonated with the Trump administration.

People with knowledge of the situation said some of Weatherhead’s ideas for the direction of the report clashed with Federal officials involved in the research program. Weatherhead sought to change the structure of the report, bring in more authors from the private sector, while increasing the number of chapters on climate change mitigation and adaptation options. Some of the agency participants felt were uncomfortable with these changes.

A replacement for Weatherhead has yet to be named, nor has a new director for the overarching research program.

The next leaders of the research program and the assessment itself face an enormous challenge in synthesizing the latest research on climate change and doing so in a timely manner. The assessment is supposed to be published no less than every four years and the last one came in 2018.

“There is a need to make this next assessment exceed the expectations of prior assessments, but they are out of time,” said Kathy Jacobs, who directed the report under President Obama, in an email. “My recommendation (if they were to ask) would be to simultaneously plan a modest update that meets the legal standard, while working on the longer-term sustained process that will ensure that this on again-offagain approach to meeting the legal requirements is replaced by something that is more separated from politics and serves the American people and the world more appropriately over time.”