President Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security and national security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States, according to sources who have heard the president’s private remarks and been briefed on a National Security Council memorandum that recorded those comments.
Behind the scenes: During
one hurricane briefing at the White House, Trump said, “I got it. I got
it. Why don’t we nuke them?” according to one source who was there.
“They start forming off the coast of Africa, as they’re moving across
the Atlantic, we drop a bomb inside the eye of the hurricane and it
disrupts it. Why can’t we do that?” the source added, paraphrasing the
Asked how the briefer reacted, the source recalled he said something to the effect of, “Sir, we’ll look into that.”
replied by asking incredulously how many hurricanes the U.S. could
handle and reiterating his suggestion that the government intervene
before they make landfall.
briefer “was knocked back on his heels,” the source in the room added.
“You could hear a gnat fart in that meeting. People were astonished.
After the meeting ended, we thought, ‘What the f—? What do we do with
raised the idea in another conversation with a senior administration
official. A 2017 NSC memo describes that second conversation, in which
Trump asked whether the administration should bomb hurricanes to stop
them from hitting the homeland. A source briefed on the NSC memo said it
does not contain the word “nuclear”; it just says the president talked
about bombing hurricanes.
source added that this NSC memo captured “multiple topics, not just
hurricanes. … It wasn’t that somebody was so terrified of the bombing
idea that they wrote it down. They just captured the president’s
The sources said that
Trump’s “bomb the hurricanes” idea — which he floated early in the first
year and a bit of his presidency before John Bolton took over as
national security adviser — went nowhere and never entered a formal
White House response:
A senior administration official said, “We don’t comment on private
discussions that the president may or may not have had with his national
A different senior administration official,
who has been briefed on the president’s hurricane bombing suggestion,
defended Trump’s idea and said it was no cause for alarm. “His goal — to
keep a catastrophic hurricane from hitting the mainland — is not bad,”
the official said. “His objective is not bad.”
people near the president do is they say ‘I love a president who asks
questions like that, who’s willing to ask tough questions.’ … It takes
strong people to respond to him in the right way when stuff like this
comes up. For me, alarm bells weren’t going off when I heard about it,
but I did think somebody is going to use this to feed into ‘the
president is crazy’ narrative.”
The big picture:
Trump didn’t invent this idea. The notion that detonating a nuclear
bomb over the eye of a hurricane could be used to counteract convection
currents dates to the Eisenhower era, when it was floated by a
keeps resurfacing in the public even though scientists agree it won’t
work. The myth has been so persistent that the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. government agency that predicts
changes in weather and the oceans, published an online fact sheet for the public under the heading “Tropical Cyclone Myths Page.”
page states: “Apart from the fact that this might not even alter the
storm, this approach neglects the problem that the released radioactive
fallout would fairly quickly move with the tradewinds to affect land
areas and cause devastating environmental problems. Needless to say,
this is not a good idea.”
About 3 weeks after Trump’s 2016 election, National Geographic published an article titled, “Nuking Hurricanes: The Surprising History of a Really Bad Idea.” It found, among other problems, that:
a nuclear bomb into a hurricane would be banned under the terms of the
Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty between the U.S. and the former
Soviet Union. So that could stave off any experiments, as long as the
U.S. observes the terms of the treaty.
The main difficulty with using explosives to modify hurricanes is the amount of energy required. A fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate of 5 to 20×1013 watts and converts less than 10% of the heat into the mechanical energy of the wind. The heat release is equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. According to the 1993 World Almanac, the entire human race used energy at a rate of 1013 watts in 1990, a rate less than 20% of the power of a hurricane.
If we think about mechanical energy, the energy at humanity’s
disposal is closer to the storm’s, but the task of focusing even
half of the energy on a spot in the middle of a remote ocean
would still be formidable. Brute force interference with
hurricanes doesn’t seem promising.
In addition, an explosive, even a nuclear explosive, produces a
shock wave, or pulse of high pressure, that propagates away from
the site of the explosion somewhat faster than the speed of
sound. Such an event doesn’t raise the barometric pressure after
the shock has passed because barometric pressure in the
atmosphere reflects the weight of the air above the ground. For
normal atmospheric pressure, there are about ten metric tons
(1000 kilograms per ton) of air bearing down on each square
meter of surface. In the strongest hurricanes there are nine. To
change a Category 5 hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane you
would have to add about a half ton of air for each square meter
inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion
(500,000,000) tons for a 20 km radius eye. It’s difficult to
envision a practical way of moving that much air around.
Attacking weak tropical waves or depressions before they have a
chance to grow into hurricanes isn’t promising either. About 80
of these disturbances form every year in the Atlantic basin, but
only about 5 become hurricanes in a typical year. There is no
way to tell in advance which ones will develop. If the energy
released in a tropical disturbance were only 10% of that released
in a hurricane, it’s still a lot of power, so that the hurricane
police would need to dim the whole world’s lights many times a
The Trump administration on Monday announced that it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, significantly weakening the nation’s bedrock conservation law and making it harder to protect wildlife from the multiple threats posed by climate change.
The new rules would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species, the classification one step below endangered. And, for the first time, regulators would be allowed to conduct economic assessments — for instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat — when deciding whether a species warrants protection.
Critically, the changes would also make it more difficult for regulators to factor in the effects of climate change on wildlife when making those decisions because those threats tend to be decades away, not immediate.
Over all, the revised rules appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the changes would modernize the Endangered Species Act — which is credited with rescuing the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and the American alligator from the brink of extinction — and increase transparency in its application. “The act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent and efficient implementation,” he said in a statement Monday.
The new rules are expected to go into effect next month.
Environmental groups, Democratic state attorneys general and Democrats in Congress denounced the changes and vowed to challenge them in Congress and in the courts.
Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, called the changes “reckless” and said states would “do everything we can to oppose these actions.”
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the committee that oversees the Interior Department’s budget, said Democrats were considering invoking the Congressional Review Act, a 1996 law that gives Congress broad authority to invalidate rules established by federal agencies, to block the changes.
The Endangered Species Act has been regulators’ most powerful tool for protecting fish, plants and wildlife ever since it was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1973. The peregrine falcon, the humpback whale, the Tennessee purple coneflower and the Florida manatee all would very likely have disappeared without it, scientists say.
Republicans have long sought to narrow the scope of the law, saying that it burdens landowners, hampers industry and hinders economic growth. Mr. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist,wrote in an op-ed last summer that the act places an “unnecessary regulatory burden” on companies.
They also make the case that the law is not reasonable because species are rarely removed from the list. Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded.
Over the past two years Republicans made a major legislative push to overhaul the law. Despite holding a majority in both houses of Congress, though, the proposals were never taken up in the Senate. With Democrats now in control of the House, there is little chance of those bills passing.
The Trump administration’s revisions to the regulations that guide the implementation of the law, however, mean opponents of the Endangered Species Act are still poised to claim their biggest victory in decades.
Among the most controversial changes are the limitations on the ability of regulators to take climate change into consideration when making listing assessments.
David J. Hayes, who served as a deputy interior secretary under President Barack Obama and is now executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, said the changes would “straitjacket the scientists to take climate change out of consideration” when determining how to best protect wildlife.
Climate change, a lack of environmental stewardship and mass industrialization have all contributed to the enormous expected global nature loss, the United Nations report said.
Another contentious change removes longstanding language that prohibits the consideration of economic factors when deciding whether a species should be protected.
Under the current law, such determinations must be made solely based on science, “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of determination.”
Gary Frazer, the assistant director for endangered species with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said that phrase had been removed for reasons of “transparency.” He said the change leaves open the possibility of conducting economic analyses for informational purposes, but that decisions about listing species would still be based exclusively on science.
Environmental groups saw a danger in that. “There can be economic costs to protecting endangered species,” said Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans at Earthjustice, an environmental law organization. But, he said, “If we make decisions based on short-term economic costs, we’re going to have a whole lot more extinct species.”
The new rules also give the government significant discretion in deciding what is meant by the term “foreseeable future.” That’s a semantic change with far-reaching implications, because it enables regulators to disregard the effects of extreme heat, drought, rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change that may occur several decades from now.
When questioned about that change and its implications in the era of climate change, Mr. Frazer said the agency wanted to avoid making “speculative” decisions far into the future.
Among the animals at risk from this change, Mr. Caputo listed a few: Polar bears and seals that are losing crucial sea ice; whooping cranes whose migration patterns are shifting because of temperature changes; and beluga whales that will have to dive deeper and longer to find food in a warmer Arctic.
Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, applauded the changes, saying the Endangered Species Act had become a “political weapon instead of a tool to protect wildlife” under the Obama administration.
“These final revisions are aimed at enhancing interagency cooperation, clarifying standards, and removing inappropriate one-size-fits-all practices,” he said.
Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, also praised the new rule and said the changes would reduce “duplicative and unnecessary regulations.”
The Environmental Protection Agency told staff scientists that it was no longer opposing a controversial Alaska mining project that could devastate one of the world’s most valuable wild salmon fisheries just one day after President Trump met with Alaska’s governor, CNN has learned.
The EPA publicly announced the reversal July 30, but EPA staff sources tell CNN that they were informed of the decision a month earlier, during a hastily arranged video conference after Trump’s meeting with Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The governor, a supporter of the project, emerged from that meeting saying the president assured him that he’s “doing everything he can to work with us on our mining concerns.”
The news came as a “total shock” to some top EPA scientists who were planning to oppose the project on environmental grounds, according to sources. Those sources asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
The copper-and-gold mine planned near Bristol Bay, Alaska, known as Pebble Mine, was blocked by the Obama administration’s EPA after scientists found that the mine would cause “complete loss of” the bay’s fish habitat.
EPA insiders tell CNN that the timing of the agency’s internal announcement suggests Trump was personally involved in the decision.
Dunleavy met with Trump aboard Air Force One on June 26, as the President’s plane was on the tarmac in Alaska. The President had stopped there on his way to the G20 summit in Japan.
Four EPA sources with knowledge of the decision told CNN that senior agency officials in Washington summoned scientists and other staffers to an internal videoconference on June 27, the day after the Trump-Dunleavy meeting, to inform them of the agency’s reversal. The details of that meeting are not on any official EPA calendar and have not previously been reported.
Those sources said the decision disregards the standard assessment process under the Clean Water Act, cutting scientists out of the process.
The EPA’s new position on the project is the latest development in a decade-long battle that has pitted environmentalists, Alaskan Natives and the fishing industry against pro-mining interests in Alaska.
In 2014, the project was halted because an EPA study found that it would cause “complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering, and fragmentation of streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources” in some areas of Bristol Bay. The agency invoked a rarely used provision of the Clean Water Act that works like a veto, effectively banning mining on the site.
Some current and former EPA officials say the decision to remove the Clean Water Act restriction ignores scientific evidence. The decision follows a series of regulatory rollbacks and political appointments within the Trump administration’s EPA that have been criticized by former EPA administrators as favoring industry interests over the environment.
The June 26 meeting between Trump and Dunleavy marked the fourth time the two had met since December.
Dunleavy has publicly supported the mining project and wrote a letter to Trump in March protesting the EPA’s prior handling of the matter. He had dinner with Tom Collier, the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, the project’s developer, in February and spoke to him on the phone in May, according to copies of Dunleavy’s calendar reviewed by CNN. A member of Dunleavy’s administration used to work on the Pebble project in public relations.
In response to CNN’s question about whether Dunleavy asked Trump to direct the EPA to lift the restriction during the June meeting, Dunleavy’s press secretary said the two discussed mining and a public land order, but he declined to provide specifics of the conversation.
Dunleavy said in a statement, “This project, like all projects, should be scrutinized and examined under a fair and rigorous permitting process prescribed by law. That was not the case under the EPA’s unprecedented preemptive veto.”
Neither the White House nor the EPA responded to CNN’s question on whether the White House directed the EPA to lift the restriction on the mine.
Christine Todd Whitman, who served as an Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the George W. Bush administration, said the EPA’s decision to lift the restriction on the mine before the agency’s scientists fully reviewed the matter could violate the Clean Water Act.
On Wednesday, the United States Environmental Protection Agency doubled down on one of the most controversial environmental deregulation moves of the Trump presidency. Under pressure from a looming court-ordered deadline, the EPA reaffirmed its 2017 decision to reject a proposal from the agency’s own scientists to ban an insecticide called chlorpyrifos that farmers use on a wide variety of crops, including corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, Brussels sprouts, cranberries, broccoli, and cauliflower.
The pesticide in question, chlorpyrifos, is a nasty piece of work. It’s an organophosphate, a class of bug killers that work by “interrupting the electrochemical processes that nerves use to communicate with muscles and other nerves,” as the Pesticide Encyclopediaputs it. Chlorpyrifos is also an endocrine disrupter, meaning it can cause “adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects,” according to the National Institutes of Health.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is at a record high, Europe is in the midst of a hellish heat wave, and extreme weather is ravaging large swaths of the globe, but President Donald Trump dismissed the need for climate action during the G20 summit in Japan on Saturday and falsely claimed that air and water in the U.S. are the “cleanest” they have ever been.
Trump told reporters during a press conference Saturday morning that he is not ignoring the threat of the climate crisis, but he doesn’t want to take action to confront the emergency because such a move would threaten corporate profits.
“So we have the best numbers that we’ve ever had recently,” Trump said. “I’m not looking to put our companies out of business.”
“I’m not looking to create a standard that is so high that we’re going to lose 20-25 percent of our production. I’m not willing to do that,” Trump continued. “We have the cleanest water we’ve ever had, we have the cleanest air—you saw the reports come out recently. We have the cleanest air we’ve ever had. But I’m not willing to sacrifice the tremendous power of what we’ve built up over a long period of time, and what I’ve enhanced and revived.”
As the Associated Pressreported after Trump claimed earlier this month that the U.S. is “setting records environmentally” with its air and water quality, “U.S. does not have the cleanest air, and it hasn’t gotten better under the Trump administration.”
“The U.S. ranks poorly on smog pollution,which kills 24,000 Americans per year,” according to AP. “On a scale from the cleanest to the dirtiest, the U.S. is at 123 out of 195 countries measured.”
Furthermore, according to a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tens of millions of Americans are exposed to unsafe drinking water each year.
Trump’s comments came amid reports that the U.S. president attempted to pressure allies to weaken the G20 commitment to fighting climate change.
According toPolitico, Trump tried “to enlist the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Australia, and Turkey in opposing commitments to stand by the Paris climate agreement made at previous G-20 summits.”
Trump’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, as the U.S. remained the sole outlier in refusing to back the summit’s climate declaration.
“Under the compromise struck at the last minute on Saturday,” Politicoreported, “heads of state from 19 of the 20 countries backed the Paris agreement, while the United States secured a carve-out under an ‘agree to disagree’ framework—the same solution as in previous G20s since U.S. President Donald Trump was elected.”
President Donald Trump is pressuring some of his fellow leaders to help weaken a G-20 commitment on fighting climate change in a move that could kill chances of agreeing on a final leaders’ declaration.
Three senior officials told POLITICO that Trump is trying to enlist the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Australia and Turkey in opposing commitments to stand by the Paris climate agreement made at previous G-20 summits.
The U.S. has refused to back the part of the G-20 declaration that supports the Paris accord since the G-20 summit in Hamburg in 2017, but supported the final communique under an ‘agree to disagree’ arrangement.
But this year, Trump is pushing allies to join him in opposition and French President Emmanuel Macron warned he would rather veto a final communiqué rather than allow the climate change section to be weakened further. Officials said negotiations would go on through the night and would likely be left for the leaders themselves to continue on Saturday.
The failure to secure agreement on a final communiqué would be a stinging defeat for the summit host, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who has sought to maintain consensus and a spirit of multilateralism.
“The President has spoken with many of those leaders that could be part of those that are lowering the ambition of the language on climate,” a senior Elysée official said. “He spoke with Turkish President Erdoğan, with Brazilian President Bolsonaro, to say that it was absolutely imperative to maintain the format 19+1 … and that no backtracking on the Paris agreement was imaginable.”
For the EU leaders including Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the communiqué must read that the Paris agreement is “irreversible” and that the G-20 countries “fully commit” to implementing it, officials explained.
Backtracking on that specific language would raise the question of whether a final communiqué was even worth it, an official said.
The Trump administration has refused to publicize dozens of government-funded studies that carry warnings about the effects of climate change, defying a longstanding practice of touting such findings by the Agriculture Department’s acclaimed in-house scientists.
The studies range from a groundbreaking discovery that rice loses vitamins in a carbon-rich environment — a potentially serious health concern for the 600 million people world-wide whose diet consists mostly of rice — to a finding that climate change could exacerbate allergy seasons to a warning to farmers about the reduction in quality of grasses important for raising cattle.
All of these studies were peer-reviewed by scientists and cleared through the non-partisan Agricultural Research Service, one of the world’s leading sources of scientific information for farmers and consumers.
None of the studies were focused on the causes of global warming – an often politically charged issue. Rather, the research examined the wide-ranging effects of rising carbon dioxide, increasing temperatures and volatile weather.
The administration, researchers said, appears to be trying to limit the circulation of evidence of climate change and avoid press coverage that may raise questions about the administration’s stance on the issue.
“The intent is to try to suppress a message — in this case, the increasing danger of human-caused climate change,” said Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “Who loses out? The people, who are already suffering the impacts of sea level rise and unprecedented super storms, droughts, wildfires and heat waves.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who has expressed skepticism about climate science in the past and allegedly retaliated against in-house economists whose findings contradicted administration policies, declined to comment. A spokesperson for USDA said there have been no directives within the department that discouraged the dissemination of climate-related science.
“Research continues on these subjects and we promote the research once researchers are ready to announce the findings, after going through the appropriate reviews and clearances,” the spokesperson said in an email.
“USDA has several thousand scientists and over 100,000 employees who work on myriad topics and issues; not every single finding or piece of work solicits a government press release,” the spokesperson added.
However, a POLITICO investigation revealed a persistent pattern in which the Trump administration refused to draw attention to findings that show the potential dangers and consequences of climate change, covering dozens of separate studies. The administration’s moves flout decades of department practice of promoting its research in the spirit of educating farmers and consumers around the world, according to an analysis of USDA communications under previous administrations.
The lack of promotion means research from scores of government scientists receives less public attention. Climate-related studies are still being published without fanfare in scientific journals, but they can be very difficult to find. The USDA doesn’t post all its studies in one place.
Since Trump took office in January 2017, the Agricultural Research Service has issued releases for just two climate-related studies, both of which had findings that were favorable to the politically powerful meat industry. One found that beef production makes a relatively small contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and another that removing animal products from the diet for environmental reasons would likely cause widespread nutritional problems. The agency issued a third press release about soy processing that briefly mentioned greenhouse gas emissions, noting that reducing fossil fuel use or emissions was “a personal consideration” for farmers.
By contrast, POLITICO found that in the case of the groundbreaking rice study USDA officials not only withheld their own prepared release, but actively sought to prevent dissemination of the findings by the agency’s research partners.
Researchers at the University of Washington had collaborated with scientists at USDA, as well as others in Japan, China and Australia, for more than two years to study how rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could affect rice — humanity’s most important crop. They found that it not only loses protein and minerals, but is also likely to lose key vitamins as plants adapt to a changing environment.
The study had undergone intensive review, addressing questions from academic peers and within USDA itself. But after having prepared an announcement of the findings, the department abruptly decided not to publicize the study and urged the University of Washington to hold back its own release on the findings, which two of their researchers had co-authored.
In an email to staffers dated May 7, 2018, an incredulous Jeff Hodson, a UW communications director, advised his colleagues that the USDA communications office was “adamant that there was not enough data to be able to say what the paper is saying, and that others may question the science.”
“It was so unusual to have an agency basically say: ‘Don’t do a press release,’ ” Hodson recalled in an interview. “We stand for spreading the word about the science we do, especially when it has a potential impact on millions and millions of people.”
Researchers say the failure to publicize their work damages the credibility of the Agriculture Department and represents an unwarranted political intrusion into science.
“Why the hell is the U.S., which is ostensibly the leader in science research, ignoring this?” said one USDA scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid the possibility of retaliation. “It’s not like we’re working on something that’s esoteric … we’re working on something that has dire consequences for the entire planet.”
“You can only postpone reality for so long,” the researcher added.
* * *
With a budget of just over $1 billion, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service — known as ARS — is often referred to as “one of the best kept secrets” in the sprawling department because of its outsize impact on society. The agency has pioneered a variety of major breakthroughs, from figuring out how to mass produce penicillin so it could be widely used during World War II to coming up with creative ways to keep sliced apples from browning, and has for decades been at the forefront of understanding how a changing climate will affect agriculture.
The agency has stringent guidelines to prevent political meddling in research projects themselves. The Trump administration, researchers say, is not directly censoring scientific findings or black-balling researchon climate change. Instead, they say, officials are essentially choosing to ignore or downplay findings that don’t line up with the administration’s agenda.
Some scientists see the fact that the administration has targeted another research arm of USDA, the Economic Research Service, as a warning shot. Perdue is moving ERS out of Washington, which some economists see as retribution for issuing reports that countered the administration’s agenda, as POLITICO recently reported.
“There’s a sense that you should watch what you say,” said Ricardo Salvador, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s going to result in some pretty big gaps in practical knowledge. … it will take years to undo the damage.”
Among the ARS studies that did not receive publicity from the Agriculture Department are:
A 2017 finding that climate change was likely to increase agricultural pollution and nutrient runoff in the Lower Mississippi River Delta, but that certain conservation practices, including not tilling soil and planting cover crops, would help farmers more than compensate and bring down pollutant loads regardless of the impacts of climate change.
A January 2018 finding that the Southern Plains — the agriculture-rich region that stretches from Kansas to Texas — is increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, from the crops that rely on the waning Ogallala aquifer to the cattle that graze the grasslands.
An April 2018 finding that elevated CO2 levels lead to “substantial and persistent” declines in the quality of certain prairie grasses that are important for raising cattle. The protein content in the grass drops as photosynthesis kicks into high gear due to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — a trend that could pose health problems for the animals and cost ranchers money.
A July 2018 finding that coffee, which is already being affected by climate change, can potentially help scientists figure out how to evaluate and respond to the complex interactions between plants, pests and a changing environment. Rising CO2 in the atmosphere is projected to alter pest biology, such as by making weeds proliferate or temperatures more hospitable to damaging insects.
An October 2018 finding, in conjunction with the USDA Forest Service, that climate change would likely lead to more runoff in the Chesapeake Bay watershed during certain seasons.
A March 2019 finding that increased temperature swings might already be boosting pollen to the point that it’s contributing to longer and more intense allergy seasons across the northern hemisphere. “This study, done across multiple continents, highlights an important link between ongoing global warming and public health—one that could be exacerbated as temperatures continue to increase,” the researchers wrote.
Those were among at least 45 ARS studies related to climate change since the beginning of the Trump administration that did not receive any promotion, according to POLITICO’s review. The total number of studies that have published on climate-related issues is likely to be larger, because ARS studies appear across a broad range of narrowly focused journals and can be difficult to locate.
Five days after POLITICO presented its findings to the department and asked for a response, ARS issued a press release on wheat genetics that used the term “climate change.” It marked the third time the agency had used the term in a press release touting scientific findings in two and a half years.
While spokespeople say Perdue, the former Georgia governor who has been agriculture secretary since April 2017, has not interfered with ARS or the dissemination of its studies, the secretary has recently suggested that he’s at times been frustrated with USDA research.
“We know that research, some has been found in the past to not have been adequately peer-reviewed in a way that created wrong information, and we’re very serious when we say we’re fact-based, data-driven decision makers,” he said in April, responding to a question from POLITICO. “That relies on sound, replicable science rather than opinion. What I see unfortunately happening many times is that we tried to make policy decisions based on political science rather than on sound science.”
President Donald Trump, for his part, has been clear about his views on climate science and agricultural research generally: He doesn’t think much of either.
In each of his budgets, Trump has proposed deep cuts to agricultural research, requests that ignore a broad, bipartisan coalition urging more funding for such science as China and other competitors accelerate their spending. Congress has so far kept funding mostly flat.
The president has also repeatedly questioned the scientific consensus on climate change. After the government released its latest national climate assessment in November, a sweeping document based on science, Trump bluntly told reporters: “I don’t believe it.”
Officials at USDA apparently took the hint and the department did not promote the report, despite the fact that it was drafted in part by its own scientists and included serious warnings about how a changing climate poses a threat to farmers and ranchers across the country.
* * *
The USDA’s failure to publicize climate-related research does more than just quell media coverage: It can also prompt universities, fearful of antagonizing a potential source of funding, to reconsider their own plans to publicize studies.
The saga of the rice study last spring shows how a snub from USDA can create spillover effects throughout the academic world.
Emails obtained by POLITICO from one of the study’s co-authors show that ARS communications staff actually wrote a release on the study, but then decided not to send it out. The Agriculture Department and UW in Seattle had initially planned to coordinate their releases, which would both be included in a press packet prepared by the journal Science Advances, which published the study in May.
The journal had anticipated there would be significant media interest in the paper. Several earlier studies had already shown that rice loses protein, zinc and iron under the elevated CO2 levels that scientists predict for later this century, raising potentially serious concerns for hundreds of millions of people who are highly dependent on rice and already at risk of food insecurity. This latest study by ARS and its academic partners around the world had confirmed those previous findings and — for the first time — found that vitamins can also drop out of rice in these conditions.
Several days before the paper was slated to be published, Hodson, the UW communications official, sent ARS communications staff a draft of the press release the university was planning to send out. ARS officials returned the favor, sending UW their own draft press release. The headline on USDA’s draft was clear: “Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels Can Reduce Vitamin Content in Rice,” though the body of the release did not mention the word “climate.”
All seemed to be on track for the rollout. A few days later, however, Hodson got a phone call from an ARS communications staffer. She told him that the agency had decided not to issue a press release after all and suggested UW reconsider its plans, noting that senior leaders at ARS now had serious concerns about the paper, according to the emails.
The staffer explained that officials were “adamant that there was not enough data to be able to say what the paper is saying, and that others may question the science,” Hodson wrote in his email to his colleagues shortly after the call.
Having the Agriculture Department question the data just days before its publication struck many of the co-authors as inappropriate. The paper had already gone through a technical and policy review within ARS, both of which are standard procedure, and it had gone through a stringent peer-review process.
Kristie Ebi, one of the co-authors from UW, replied to Hodson: “Interesting — USDA is really trying to keep the press release from coming out.”
Nonetheless, senior leaders at UW took USDA’s concerns about the paper seriously, Hodson said. (It also wasn’t lost on anyone, he said, that other parts of the university receive substantial grant funding from the Agriculture Department.) The university conducted an internal review and determined that the science was sound. It went ahead with its press release.
The USDA’s attempt to quash the release had ripple effects as far as Nebraska. After catching wind of USDA’s call to the University of Washington, Bryan College of Health Sciences, in Lincoln, Neb., delayed and ultimately shortened its own release to avoid potentially offending the Agriculture Department.
“I’m disappointed,” said Irakli Loladze, a mathematical biologist at Bryan who co-authored the rice paper. “I do not even work at the USDA, but a potential call from the government agency was enough of a threat for my school to skip participating in the press-package arranged by the journal. Instead, our college issued a local and abbreviated release.”
A spokesperson for Bryan College said that the institution supports Loladze’s work and noted that the college ultimately issued its own press release and covered the study in its own publications.
“There was no omission or intentional delay based on what others were saying or doing,” the spokesperson said.
Despite the efforts of the Agriculture Department, the rice paper attracted substantial international press coverage, largely because many of the outside institutions that collaborated on the study, including the University of Tokyo, promoted it.
Kazuhiko Kobayashi, an agricultural scientist at the University of Tokyo and co-author on the paper, said he couldn’t understand why the U.S. government wouldn’t publicize such findings.
“It’s not necessarily bad for USDA,” he saidin an interview.“Actually, it’s kind of neutral.”
“In Japan we have an expression: sontaku,” he said, offering his own speculation about the political dynamic in the United States. “It means that you don’t want to stimulate your boss … you feel you cannot predict your boss’s reaction.”
A USDA spokesperson said the decision to spike the press release on the rice study was driven by a scientific disagreement, not by the fact that it was climate-related.
“The concern was about nutritional claims, not anything relating to climate change or C02 levels,” the spokesperson said in an email. “The nutrition program leaders at ARS disagreed with the implication in the paper that 600 million people are at risk of vitamin deficiency. They felt that the data do not support this.”
The spokesperson said no political appointees were involved in the decision.
Authors of the rice study strongly disagreed with the concerns USDA raised about their paper. In an email leading up to publication, Loladze, the Bryan College researcher, accused the department of essentially “cherry picking” data to raise issues that weren’t scientifically valid, according to the emails.
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When the Agriculture Departmentchooses to promote a study, the impact can be significant, particularly for the agriculture-focused news outlets that are widely read by farmers and ranchers.
Earlier this year, when the agency decided to issue its release about the study finding that producing beef — often criticized for having an outsize carbon and water footprint — actually makes up a very small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions, the agricultural trade press cranked out several stories, much to the delight of the beef industry. The study had also been supported by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The USDA’s efforts to hide climate work aren’t limited to ARS. A review of department press releases, blog posts and social media shows a clear pattern of avoiding the topic. These platforms largely eschew the term “climate change” and also steer clear of climate-related terms. Even the word “climate” itself appears to have now fallen out of favor, along with phrases like carbon, greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation and sequestration.
In April, for example, USDA sent out a press release noting that USDA officials had signed on to a communique on the sidelines of a G-20 agricultural scientists’ meeting that reaffirmed their commitment to “science-based decision making.” The release made no mention of the fact that most of the principles USDA had agreed to were actually related to “climate-smart” agriculture.
Scott Hutchins, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, told POLITICO at the time that he emphasized science-based decision-making in the release — not climate — because that was the strength the participants brought to these international dialogues. He added that there was “no intent whatsoever” to avoid including the words “climate smart” in the release.
A spokesperson for USDA said that department leadership “has not discouraged ARS or any USDA agency from using terms such as climate change, climate, or carbon sequestration, or from highlighting work on these topics.”
But David Festa, senior vice president of ecosystems at the Environmental Defense Fund, which works with farmers and ranchers on climate mitigation, said tensions within the USDA over climate issues are preventing a more robust discussion of the effects of climate change on American agriculture.
“USDA really could and should be leading … and they’re not,” Festa said.
Aaron Lehman, an Iowa farmer whose operation is roughly half conventional, half organic grain, said farmers are simply not getting much information from USDA related to how to adapt to or mitigate climate change.
“My farmers tell me this is frustrating,” said Lehman, who serves as Iowa Farmers Union President.
The gap in the conversation is particularly pronounced right now, he said, as an unprecedented percentage of growers across the Midwest have had difficulty planting their crops because fields are either too wet or flooded — an extreme weather scenario that’s been disastrous for agriculture this year.
“Farmers have a sense that the volatility is getting worse,” he said.
“You get the sense that it’s very sensitive,” Lehman said of the current dynamic around climate science at USDA. “But if you can’t have an open conversation about it, if you feel like you’re being shunned, how are we going to make progress?”
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Even during the George W. Bush administration, when climate change was first deemed a “sensitive” topic within ARS — a designation that means science and other documents related to it require an extra layer of managerial clearance — the department still routinely highlighted climate-related research for the public.
In the first three years of Bush’s second term, for example, USDA promoted research on how farmers can change their tilling practices to reduce carbon being released into the atmosphere, a look at how various farm practices help capture carbon into soil, and a forecast on how rising CO2 levels would likely affect key crops. The communications office highlighted work showing that using switchgrass as a biofuel in lieu of ethanol could store more carbon in soil, which would not only mitigate greenhouse gas emissions but also boost soil health. There was also a release on a study simulating how climate change would pose challenges to groundwater.
Under Bush,the department publicly launched a five-year project on “Climate Friendly Farming” and touted a sweeping initiative aimed at better understanding and reducing agriculture’s greenhouse emissions.
“Even a small increase in the amount of carbon stored per acre of farmland would have a large effect on offsetting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,” an ARS release noted in 2005.
Jim Connaughton, who served as chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and director of the White House Office of Environmental Policy during the Bush administration, said he was encouraged that USDA and other agencies have so far been able to continue conducting climate science even as the issue has become more politically sensitive within the current administration. However, he noted it was “really unusual” for research agencies to systematically hold back scientific communication.
During the Bush era, he said, “The agencies were unfettered in their own decisions about publicizing their own science.”
“The tone from the top matters,” he added. “The political appointees are taking signals about their own communication products.”
During the Obama years, USDA became increasingly outspoken about climate change and the need to involve agriculture, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation.
The department came up with sweeping action plans on climate change and climate science and highlighted its work on a number of different platforms, including press releases, blog posts and social media blasts. In 2014, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also launched Climate Hubs in 10 regions across the country aimed at helping farmers and ranchers cope with an increasingly unpredictable climate.
“We were trying to take science and make it real and actionable for farmers,” said Robert Bonnie, who served as undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at USDA during the Obama administration. “If you’re taking a certain block of research and not communicating it, it defeats the purpose of why USDA does the research in the first place.”
A Trump administration official consulted with advisers to a think tank skeptical of climate change to help challenge widely accepted scientific findings about global warming, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.
William Happer, a member of the National Security Council, made the request to policy advisers with the Heartland Institute this March.
Happer and Heartland Institute adviser Hal Doiron discussed Happer’s scientific arguments in a paper attempting to knock down climate change as well as ideas to make the work “more useful to a wider readership” in a March 3 email exchange.
Happer also said he had discussed the work with another Heartland Institute adviser, Thomas Wysmuller, according to the emails obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request by the Environmental Defense Fund.
The National Security Council declined to comment on the emails.
Jim Lakely, interim president of Heartland Institute, told The Hill that the government’s stances on climate change are not above question.
“As for Wysmuller and Doiron, they are unpaid policy advisors and friends of The Heartland Institute and have known Dr. Happer for many years,” he said.
“It would be hard to find a group of men with more qualifications or experience to criticize NASA’s alarmist public statements on the climate than Happer, Doiron, and Wysmuller.”
The Trump administration is reportedly considering creating a new panel headed by Happer to the question the broad scientific consensus that climate change is driven by human activity and is potentially dangerous.
Democratic lawmakers have raised concerns over the proposed panel, saying it would fly in the face of scientific evidence.
Happer is a well-known climate change skeptic, having argued that carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas from the burning of coal, oil and gas, is good for humans and that carbon emissions have been demonized like “the poor Jews under Hitler.”
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Andrew Wheeler, chose to go “off script” Wednesday morning when he warned the agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) against trusting the media.
“I caution you to be careful what you read in the media,” Wheeler said, concluding his remarks to the public meeting — the first time the SAB has meet in a year.
Wheeler was specifically referring to a tweet by Yahoo News journalist Alexander Nazaryan on Monday which quoted Wheeler telling the National Press Club, “‘The media does a disservice to the American public’ by reporting on global warming, says EPA head Andrew Wheeler. Wants more positive coverage.”
And indeed, on Monday, Wheeler did take time to list five things he believes the press “consistently gets wrong” — this included reporting that the environment is getting worse. Instead, the press should be talking more about how it’s been getting better since the 1970s, Wheeler argued.
Nazaryan’s tweet was quickly circulated around the internet, including by a New York Times journalist and the Sierra Club. In response, the EPA sent out a press release stating that the tweet was “misleading,” and accused the Yahoo journalist of choosing to “deliberately spread false information on Twitter.”
This argument was reiterated on Wednesday by Wheeler, who said the fact that the Sierra Club started promoting the tweet made him wonder whether the media and environmental groups were “colluding” for fundraising purposes.
Under the Trump administration, however, the EPA has actively worked to rollback environmental protections, often in line with fossil fuel or other industry interests. Most recently this includes challenging the underlying risk calculations that support clean air rules.
The media has played a critical role in reporting on, and investigating, not just these various policy decisions but also potential ethics controversies and conflicts of interest plaguing the agency.
But Wheeler urged scientists not to trust the media and come to him or other top EPA officials if they had questions or concerns.
This isn’t the first time that the Trump administration’s EPA has “fact-checked” the media or been antagonistic toward reporters. Last year, reporters from major news outlets, including the Associated Press and CNN, were banned from attending a summit on harmful chemicals; one journalist was even forcibly removed by security.
And in September 2017, the EPA’s press office sent out a press release titled “EPA Response To The AP’s Misleading Story,” which accused AP reporter Michael Biesecker of writing an “incredibly misleading story” about Superfund sites and Hurricane Harvey. (The EPA did not, however, contradict any facts in Biesecker’s story.)
Meanwhile, the EPA has used articles written by climate science deniers, including the Heartland Institute and the Daily Caller, as their own press releases rather than citing expert staff members — a move which the National Association of Science Writers labeled “unprofessional” and “unethical.”
All of this is part of the larger confrontational relationship with the press promoted by President Donald Trump, who consistently calls media “fake news” and has repeatedly encouraged violence against the media.
The press release was fairly standard, announcing the expansion of a Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminal at the Freeport facility on Quintana Island, Texas. It would have gone unnoticed had an E&E News reporter not noted the unique metonymy “molecules of US freedom.”
DOE Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg is quoted as saying, “With the US in another year of record-setting natural gas production, I am pleased that the Department of Energy is doing what it can to promote an efficient regulatory system that allows for molecules of US freedom to be exported to the world.”
Also in the press release, US Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes refers to natural gas as “freedom gas” in his quote: “Increasing export capacity from the Freeport LNG project is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world by giving America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy.”
Slate notes that the term “freedom gas” seems to have originated from an event with DOE Secretary Rick Perry. Earlier this year, the secretary signed an order to double the amount of LNG exports to Europe, saying, “The United States is again delivering a form of freedom to the European continent. And rather than in the form of young American soldiers, it’s in the form of liquefied natural gas.”
A reporter at the order signing jokingly asked whether the LNG shipments should be called “freedom gas,” and Perry said, “I think you may be correct in your observation.”
If the DOE is still running with the term as a joke, then the wit in the Energy Secretary’s office is bone dry. Ars contacted the DOE to see if “freedom gas” and “molecules of US freedom” are now going to be standard in department communication with the public. We are also curious if any potential drop in LNG exports could result in patriotism bloat. The DOE has not responded, though we’ll update the story if it does.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and Japan were the top importers of freedom gas last year. China, India, and the UK buy a smaller number of molecules of US freedom.