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White House reassigns officials who published papers questioning seriousness of climate change

  • Author: Andrew Freedman, Jason Samenow, The Washington Post
  • Updated: January 12
  • Published January 12

WASHINGTON - The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has reassigned Trump appointees David Legates and Ryan Maue, senior officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who were appointed by President Donald Trump, for their role in producing and publishing papers questioning the seriousness of climate change without White House approval.

The two had been detailed to the White House since November, but were removed from their postings Tuesday after the papers, which were published on nongovernment websites, came to light. The papers bear the imprint of the Executive Office of the President and say they were copyrighted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

But they were never approved by Kelvin Droegemeier, the director of the office.

“Dr. Droegemeier was outraged to learn of the materials that were not shared with or approved by OSTP leadership,” said OSTP spokeswoman Kristina Baum in an email Tuesday afternoon. “He first became aware of the documents when contacted by the press. As a result, Dr. Droegemeier took swift action and the individuals responsible have been relieved of their duties at OSTP.”

Baum said Monday night that the papers, which make disputed claims about climate science, were not created at OSTP’s direction or cleared by its leadership. She said Tuesday morning that the science and technology arm of the White House “has no intention to formalize these” by publishing them on the agency’s site.

The OSTP dismissal of Legates and Maue, both Trump appointees, means they will return to NOAA, where they were first hired. Legates’ and Maue’s last day working for the White House office is this week.

Scott Smullen, deputy director of NOAA communications, said the publication of the documents will be reviewed under the agency’s scientific integrity policy. He distanced the agency from the documents, known as the “Climate Change Flyers.”

“Science papers from NOAA follow a rigorous peer-reviewed process under agency regulations on scientific publications. NOAA was not involved in the creation or posting online of the climate change flyers that have been allegedly attributed to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, nor does NOAA endorse the flyers. OSTP is investigating the issue,” Smullen said in a statement.

The papers include the claim that human-caused global warming “involves a large measure of faith” and that computer models are “too small and slow” to produce meaningful climate simulations.

Legates, who led the production of the papers, did not reply to requests for comment regarding why the papers were published bearing the seal of the Executive Office of the President when they were not approved.

Legates, a climate skeptic and climatology professor at the University of Delaware, has been a mysterious figure at NOAA since he started in September. Shortly after joining the agency, he was assigned to oversee the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates federal climate change research, while remaining a NOAA employee.

Some at NOAA feared that Legates, who has a long history of contributing to the Heartland Institute and its efforts to cast doubt on mainstream climate science findings, was working on a pet project, possibly one that could be harmful to NOAA’s climate research programs.

The Climate Change Flyers comprise nine essays that question the reliability of computer models, the human-induced causes of climate change, links between climate change and hurricanes and other topics.

“These flyers have been written by top scientists from leading institutions from around North America,” says the introduction to the series, written by Legates. “The Office of Science and Technology Policy is pleased to bring you these briefs to further your understanding of climate change by learning from these learned scholars.”

There is no information provided regarding whether the essays were peer-reviewed or the process for developing them.

One essay, titled “Systematic Problems in the Four ‘National Assessments’ of Climate Change Impacts on the United States,” attempts to discredit all the U.S. government’s previous authoritative reports, which were subject to rounds of extensive peer review, including by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

Legates was appointed by the White House to oversee the next such assessment, which is slated to be published in 2023, but his last day is this week.

The papers are intended to influence the 2023 assessment, according to Myron Ebell, a climate skeptic close to the Trump administration who directs the energy and global warming program at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute. “This looks like a preparatory effort to get the national assessment pointed in the right direction,” he said in an interview.

Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA official and director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, described the papers as an effort to “seed the record for the National Climate assessment and future legal action by circumventing the peer review and consensus process.”

“They want to get nonsensical debunked pseudoscience into the ‘official’ government record without subjecting it to independent evaluation,” Rosenberg wrote in an email.

John Holdren, who headed the OSTP during Barack Obama’s presidency, characterized the papers as “Misguided and thoroughly erroneous screeds,” and said they “would not have been issued by any body with a shred of scientific integrity.”

Holdren also called for Legates to be fired.

Betsy Weatherhead, the director of National Climate Assessment, said in a statement to The Washington Post that studies intended for the report should be thoroughly vetted.

“Thoughts written down without process of peer review and lacking the multiple layers of scientific evaluation which goes into modern assessments are hardly worth reading when one wants trustworthy information,” she wrote.

She added, “The last National Climate Assessment involved hundreds of scientists and reviewers and concluded that climate change is happening, primarily caused by an increase in greenhouse gases and will likely continue.”

The controversial, unapproved papers were published on a website hosted by the Center for Environmental Research and Earth Sciences, which calls itself “a multi-disciplinary and independent research group,” but provides no information as to any individual or organization that supports it and asks its visitors to provide donations.

The group is affiliated with longtime climate contrarian Willie Soon.

It appeals for contributions by declaring its independence “from industry, government, religion, politics or ideology,” despite posting the documents from Legates bearing the Executive Office of the President’s seal.

The papers were written by well-known climate-change contrarians including William Happer, a professor emeritus of physics at Princeton University, who served a stint on the White House National Security Council in the Trump administration, and Ross McKitrick, an economics professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Several of the authors who contributed to the White House effort have received funding from the fossil fuel industry, are affiliated with anti-regulatory organizations or both, including Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, but it’s unclear where the funding for this series of papers came from.

Legates is listed as the main author of the series, with other contributors including Maue, who was installed as NOAA chief scientist in September and sent to the OSTP in November. Maue recognizes the reality of human-caused climate change but has spoken out repeatedly against what he views as overly alarmist findings or interpretations of climate science.

Roy Spencer, who wrote a paper in the series titled “The Faith-Based Nature of Human-Caused Global Warming,” is a climate scientist at the University of Alabama who has long questioned the extent of the link between climate change and human activities. He posted the entire set of papers on his personal blog last week but indicated that they had not been approved for publication on the official White House website.

“David [Legates] hopes to be able to get these posted on the White House website by January 20 (I presume so they will become a part of the outgoing Administration’s record) but there is no guarantee given recent events,” Spencer wrote. “He said we are free to disseminate them widely.”

Spencer also wrote on his blog that Legates had asked him and other scientists to write these papers late last year to support the view that “there is no climate crisis or climate emergency” and to point out “the widespread misinformation being promoted by alarmists through the media.”

Holdren, the former OSTP director, wrote that the papers’ appearance under the banner of the Executive Office of the President and OSTP without authorization was “not merely outrageous but, apparently, illegal.”

U.S. Code states: “Whoever fraudulently or wrongfully affixes or impresses the seal of any department or agency of the United States . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

The OSTP did not reply to a question regarding any disciplinary measures for Legates’s actions.