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Trump Administration Alters the Metrics for Measuring Global Warming

Due to changes in metrics allowed to be utilized in climate models, portions of the federal government will no longer meet scientific metrics of accuracy when reporting on the future effects of a rapidly warming planet and predicting what Earth may look like by 2100 if major changes to the global economy do not occur. While changes are occurring throughout the government, the most recent example involves the United States Geological Survey, whose director, James Reilly, has ordered that the office use only computer-generated climate models that project the impact of climate change through 2040, rather than through the end of the century, which was previously the required timeline for modeling.


President Trump has rolled back environmental regulations put in place by the Obama administration, including pulling out of the Paris climate accord, in an effort to alter the United States’ approach to a changing climate. In the coming months, the White House will complete the rollback of the broadest federal effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, expand efforts to impose President Trump’s environmental views on the global community, and decline to sign a communique to protect the Arctic region unless it is stripped of any references to climate change. This pattern of deregulation and denial extends further throughout the federal government as Trump’s first term continues.

For the last several decades, the federal government has taken a central role in what scientists consider an urgent need in climate science studies—reporting on the future effects of current emissions and the rapidly warming planet in order to determine what Earth might look like at the end of the century if changes are not made. Yet alterations to how the federal government approaches its ongoing environmental studies can have wide-ranging effects on how informative those studies may be as society attempts to grapple with global warming.

The United States Geological Survey

In May, James Reilly, the president’s appointed director of the United States Geological Survey, ordered that scientific assessments produced by that office use only climate models projecting the effects of climate change through 2040. This significantly curtails the models previously in effect, which predicted the likely effects by the end of the century. Scientists indicate that will create a misleading picture because the most dramatic effects of current emissions will be felt after 2040. Current models predict the planet will most likely warm at about the same rate through about 2050, which has made that a popular date for efforts to reduce carbon emissions and get global warming under control. From 2050 through 2100, the rate of warming is expected to differ significantly depending on an increase or decrease in carbon emissions in the interim.

The main focus of this change is the National Climate Assessment, produced by a federal interagency task force roughly every four years since 2000. Government scientists used computer-generated models in the most recent report to project that if fossil fuel emissions continue at current levels, the atmosphere could warm by up to eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That level of increase would lead to drastically higher sea levels, more devastating storms and droughts, crop failures, food losses, and severe health consequences.

The next National Climate Assessment is expected to be released in 2021 or 2022, and work has already commenced to create the report. Yet following Reilly’s order, predictions that take into account warming trends over the longer term will not automatically be included in the National Climate Assessment or other reports produced by the federal government.

Trump’s Proposed Climate Review Panel

The Trump administration’s goals extend beyond altering the methodology used for climate models in the National Climate Assessment through the creation of a new climate review panel. That effort, led by former Princeton physicist William Happer, is backed by National Security Adviser John Bolton, remains divisive even within the administration. Yet President Trump has indicated he is inclined to allow the panel to move forward.

Conclusion and Implications

Changes to the National Climate Assessment are a small but significant portion of a trend to roll back prior climate initiatives. The previous Assessment, which the Trump Administration released on the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2018, has the potential to create legal problems for Trump’s agenda of abolishing regulations. This summer, the EPA is expected to finalize the rollback of President Obama’s regulations to curb pollution from vehicle tailpipes and power plant smokestacks, and opponents to the rollbacks have stated they intend to use the 2018 National Climate Assessment to argue that the government cannot justify the reversals when it has concluded the effects of removing these regulations could be so harmful.

In light of these statements, the proposed changes to the National Climate Assessment fit into a broader pattern of creating the legal framework for environmental deregulation. However, taken alone, the changed methodology of the National Climate Assessment risks perhaps, set the stage for a false optimism for the future effects of pollutants and carbon emissions, and risks the loss of the federal government as a source for reliable climate research.

(Jordan Ferguson)