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Trump Removes Scientist Overseeing Key Climate Assessment Report

Michael Kuperberg is expected to be replaced by a climate change denialist who has described CO2 as “plant food.”

Grounds keepers work on the North Lawn of the White House on November 9, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration has removed Michael Kuperberg from his role as executive director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, an alarming move that may have grave consequences for future discussions and planning regarding climate change.

Kuperberg’s removal came on Friday. The agency he had overseen crafts a key report called the National Climate Assessment every four years, as required by law. The report encompasses the views and assessments of 13 federal agencies regarding how climate change will affect the United States. The next report, scheduled for a 2022 release had already been postponed before this latest development.

Kuperberg told his colleagues, after his departure was announced, that he would be returning to a job he previously held at the Department of Energy. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which oversees the Global Change Research Program, would not provide comment on why he was removed.

It’s expected that President Donald Trump will replace Kuperberg with David Legates, who currently serves as a deputy assistant secretary at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Before entering that agency, Legates was known for having worked closely with climate change denial groups.

Legates has in the past expressed a disinterest in trying to correct the damage that climate change has already wrought. “Climate has always changed and weather is always variable, due to complex, powerful natural forces,” Legates said during congressional testimony in 2019. “No efforts to stabilize the climate can possibly be successful.”

Legates has also controversially suggested that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn’t necessarily a bad thing, calling the greenhouse gas “plant food and not a pollutant.”

Some studies have found that increases in carbon dioxide do indeed benefit plant life in some ways. But the gas is detrimental to the rest of the world, particularly when it comes to climate, as it traps heat from the sun within the earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet and producing dire consequences for a number of species, including humans. Increases in CO2 can also limit nitrogen levels, another element that is key to plant growth, and thus, some researchers have suggested that increasing levels of carbon dioxide will not produce indefinite benefits for plants in the long-run, as Legates has implied.

Although a plethora of different agencies will contribute to the report, producing an assessment that includes climate change denialist language could have lasting and devastating outcomes. The assessment could become a political document, used to counter lawmakers’ attempts to craft energy policy, or attempts to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. It could also be used by the fossil fuel industry as a means to defend against proposals to regulate carbon outputs.

The 2018 National Climate Assessment report had stated that climate change was a threat to the U.S. on many fronts, likely to cause harm to those who live in coastal areas, as well as potentially hurting the economy in significant ways.

“With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century — more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. states,” the report said.

Trump expressed skepticism at the report, which his administration had released quietly in November of that year. “I’ve seen it, I’ve read some of it, and it’s fine. I don’t believe it,” he said at the time.

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