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Why some scientists are concerned a government climate change report won’t be released

August 8, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
A draft climate change report is making headlines as scientists reportedly express concerns about how the Trump administration will respond. The New York Times reported on key findings in the preliminary document, including that "evidence for a changing climate abounds" and that human activities are primarily responsible for the changes. Lisa Friedman of The New York Times joins Judy Woodruff.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a look at a yet-to-be-released climate change report making headlines for what it tells us about the current state of science and politics.

The New York Times, which acquired a draft of the document, reports today that among its key findings are that evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans, and that — quote — “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse or heat-trapping gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change.”

The Times also reports that scientists are expressing concerns that the Trump administration has yet to indicate how or whether it will act on the findings.

For more, we turn to New York Times reporter Lisa Friedman, who wrote today’s article.

Lisa Friedman, welcome to the NewsHour.

And we should say that, late today, the White House put out a report saying that it didn’t understand why the story was necessary, that it hasn’t made a decision on the release of this report.

But setting that aside for a moment, who commissioned this report? Where did it come from?

LISA FRIEDMAN, The New York Times: Sure. Thanks for having me.

This report is part of what’s called the National Climate Assessment. It comes out every four years. It’s congressionally mandated. And the larger report, this National Climate Assessment, will presumably come out next year.

This special report started under the Obama administration, and it was designed to be a state-of-the-science report, to tell us what we know about climate change, what we know about climate science, what we know about how it’s affecting us here and now in the United States.

So, it’s important to note that hundreds of scientists have commented on this study, but the White House has until August 18 to decide what to do with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I just cited a couple of the key findings, I guess, from this report, but what would you say the significance of it is? What’s in there that’s new and that matters that we hadn’t heard before?

LISA FRIEDMAN: I think a couple big things, one of which is that this report finds that half of the temperature rise that has occurred in the past four decades can be linked to human activity.

You know, that’s something that directly goes against what we hear from many members of the administration. We have heard many members of the administration say that climate change exists, that the climate is changing, even saying that humans have a role to play, but that the science is unclear about how much humans are contributing to climate change.

This report, done by scientists at 13 federal agencies and outside the government as well, says, effectively, no, we do know how much humans are affecting climate change — pardon me — how much humans are affecting temperature rise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so there are significant findings in here.

And what I think is also interesting is a number of the scientists you talked to who contributed to this report or who are aware of it have a concern about whether it is going to be released. Tell us what their concern is.

LISA FRIEDMAN: Sure.

Well, like I said, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has until August 18 to decide whether or not this goes forward. If it does go forward, it will publish sometime this fall.

You know, what I have heard from a number of scientists is that, as the date approached, there was increasing concern that the report would either be suppressed or changed. So far, there has been no evidence of that.

So far, many scientists tell me that there has been very little direction, in fact, from the White House about the report altogether. In fact, our reporting also notes that people who do not believe in the established science behind climate change are also worried that this report and the broader National Climate Assessment will come out, because they fear that there are not enough people paying attention to this at the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for those — well, for those in the first category — and I will ask you about the other ones next — is the concern that there won’t be actions taken at the federal level? What is the main concern if it’s not made public?

LISA FRIEDMAN: Sure.

This report doesn’t offer policy prescriptions. This is not political in any way, this report. This is a study of the science. And, you know, what I have heard from the scientists is that the real worry, if it’s not made public, is that it won’t be useful to people on the ground.

They tell me that the people who really use this report are city planners, are people in places like Florida who are trying to figure out how to best assess sea level rise around Miami Beach, people who design building codes to make them more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather.

Those are the folks who use this kind of report the most. And the concern overwhelmingly was that, if it’s not widely shared, these folks would never see it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And was that a — that was a widely held concern?

LISA FRIEDMAN: I spoke to several scientists, yes, who are concerned that this report wouldn’t get out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so when the White House issues this report today and says this is a draft, it’s still in the internal phase, we have days to go, it is the case that they don’t — as you said several times now, they don’t have to make a decision yet.

LISA FRIEDMAN: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, by your report being out there and these scientists speaking through it, they’re making their concerns known.

LISA FRIEDMAN: You know, a lot of people talked to me about this being a test case.

This is the first major federal climate science report that has been issued under the Trump administration. And all eyes are on this administration to see how they handle it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re going the leave it there and continue to watch this story, as I know you will.

Lisa Friedman with The New York Times, thank you.

LISA FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

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