Like a well-oiled machine, the Trump administration is focusing on what really matters in this time of democratic crisis and pandemic: publishing climate denial “flyers” from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, including two authored by Trump hires, and then disavowing those papers and saying it “does not have intention to formalize” them. In other words, just another day in Trumpland.
That the authors of the documents called them “flyers” should give you a sense of the level of rigor here. The flyers were released by Roy Spencer, a climate science denier at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, on his blog, and on the Center for Environmental Research and Earth Sciences’ website. The official-sounding name belies a group that has published pure climate denial drivel on a site that makes Geocities look like a web version of the Louvre. There’s an added layer of irony in that the group claims “scientific research works best when it is independent from industry, government, religion, politics or ideology” yet is publishing supposedly government-backed documents, but I digress.
The 10 flyers—which share the same design sensibilities as CERES’ website—are akin to the greatest hits of climate denial. Topics include the Sun’s role in causing climate change (which is actually minimal), if computer models can be trusted (in fact, they can), if the National Climate Assessment to be trusted (also yes), if humans are responsible for climate change (surprise: yes), and if global warming is a religion (uh no). It’s all very tedious.
Likewise, the authors of the papers have been around the climate denial block. They include fossil fuel-funded astrophysicist Willie Soon, fossil fuel-funded physicist and former Trump hire William Happer, the Irish father-son duo Michael and Ronan Connolly who run CERES and other enterprises with low-budget websites, and a slew of speakers on the climate denial circuit. Which honestly appears to be the target audience for these so-called flyers.
Yet they’ve been given the imprimatur of the U.S. government. The flyers include the OSTP seal on top, an OSTP copyright on the bottom despite the office being a public entity, and introduction notes that the office is “pleased to bring you these briefs.” David Legates and Ryan Maue, both Trump hires at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who have also taken on other roles in the government, are authors as well, though they list their non-federal affiliations on the papers. Maue has been detailed to OSTP. Data pulled from the PDFs show Legates, Michael Connolly, and Spencer created them between Jan. 8 and Jan. 11, though it’s unclear how long they were in the works.
Despite the veneer of appearing official, OSTP spokesperson Kristina Baum tweeted on Monday night that “these papers were not created at the direction of The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy nor were they cleared or approved by OSTP leadership.” When reached by email with specific questions about the flyers and whether they would lead to reprimands or if the office would have them removed, Baum said OSTP was not even aware they were being produced. In a follow-up, she said the office “does not have intention to formalize these” and is still trying to get a grasp of how they came to be. That could mean the flyers are breaking a law for “fraudulently or wrongfully” using the office’s seal. The law comes with a maximum penalty of five years and the possibility of fines.
“Normally, they would send them a cease and desist,” Virginia Canter, Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s chief ethics counsel, said. “If they didn’t authorize this as an off doc of OSTP, you can send cease and desist notice.”
Canter also raised concerns about federal employees’ using the OSTP seal while writing under their non-federal affiliations, the copyright itself since there’s a “statute that bars the copyright protection” for government work, and the apparent lack of vetting. She said Legates “would be subject to disciplinary action if he wasn’t authorized to use the official designation” of OSTP as would Maue.
None of the authors responded to Earther’s request for comment, nor did NOAA in reply to questions about whether the federal authors will face consequences. Spencer did tell the Washington Post that “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. He said we are free to disseminate them widely.”
The White House posting what are essentially emails your grandpa who watches Newsmax would forward you would be galling but wholly in line with Donald Trump, a grandpa who watches Newsmax (unclear what his forwarding habits are).
There has been a push by denialists for years to do a “red team, blue team” activity to debate climate science. Happer was part of that push led by former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. But it never came to fruition, and that’s for the best, since it honestly would just be embarrassing for everyone involved. These papers may be the last gasp of those efforts. They may also be a misguided attempt to get climate denial on the public record, which could make it harder to address Trump’s rollbacks or pass new regulations. It’s also possible that, in the vacuum of presidential leadership and a new administration coming in a little more than a week, it’s just a free-for-all.
“It’s very murky,” Canter said.
It’s wildly infuriating to see shoddily produced flyers with the government’s seal on it, and to think these will be circulated at denier conferences for years to celebrate the halcyon days of the Trump administration. And yet it’s also telling that the most the deniers embedded in executive agencies could do is produce something so bad that even the administration is disavowing it.
Update, 1/12/21, 1:56 p.m.: This post has been updated with comment from Virginia Canter.
Update, 1/12/21, 3:54 p.m.: An OSTP spokesperson sent a statement noting that Kelvin Droegemeier, the head of OSTP, “was outraged to learn of the materials that were not shared with or approved by OSTP leadership. 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.”
Maue and Legates are both back at NOAA. We have reached out to see if they face discipline there and will update if we hear back.