The White House Tried to Bury a Major Climate Report. It Backfired, Big Time.

The Trump administration thought that releasing a blockbuster climate assessment on Black Friday would keep people from talking about it. That’s not what happened.

November 30, 2018

Andrew Harnik/AP

Friday afternoons are the landfills of White House announcements. When an administration has uncomfortable news that it hopes to see buried as quickly and quietly as possible, officials dump it out on a Friday—optimally after lunchtime, just as editors and TV producers are escaping the office a little early, theater tickets in hand, and beat reporters are preparing out-of-town getaways. And releasing unwelcome news on the Friday after Thanksgiving? Well, that’s just gravy.

That’s what the Trump administration did last week when it released the Fourth National Climate Assessment on Black Friday—a day when it must have assumed that many Americans were too busy buying large-screen TVs and gorging on leftovers to be paying attention to government press releases.

Except it didn’t work out that way. Instead of ignoring the climate report, members of the media, recognizing a torpedoing when they saw one, ran hard with the story, often leading with the observation that the timing of the report was highly suspect. Major newspapers and cable networks featured it prominently all weekend, to such a degree that the administration’s strategy—if you can even call it that—backfired spectacularly. Even Fox News felt obliged to make it a top story.   

And the buzz didn’t die down once the weekend was over. White House officials (including the president) kept being asked to respond—which, in turn, kept the story alive throughout much of the following week.    

A quick glance at the report’s general overview makes perfectly clear why the Trump administration would want to suppress the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which at 1,700 pages represents the collective expertise of 13 federal agencies and the insight of 300 top scientists. In precise, unambiguous language, the assessment neatly distills the argument climate advocates have been making for years: that climate change—which is unquestionably caused by the burning of fossil fuels—threatens to destroy not only our environment but our economy, our health, our agriculture, and indeed our very social fabric. The first two sentences of the overview sum up the situation as well as anything I’ve read on the topic:

Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future—but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur.

Texas National Guard personnel help rescue people after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Lt Zachary West/Texas National Guard

Had the Fourth National Climate Assessment been generated by an environmental organization or a consortium of nongovernmental scientists, the administration could have ignored it. But that pesky “.gov” suffix in the report’s web address complicated the White House response. Would Trump officials really go so far as to reject the findings of a government-issued report, simply because those findings contradict the White House’s policy of passive-aggressive climate denialism? Or could the report’s publication signify the turning point that so many of us have been hoping for: the moment when the Trump administration finally broke character, acknowledged the stark reality of climate change, and solemnly pledged to take action?

Of course, we should all know better than to expect this White House to adhere to basic epistemological and societal norms. For these folks, evidence isn’t evidence if it runs counter to the administration’s climate meta-narrative, which is that the jury is still out on whether anthropogenic climate change is even a thing. “I don’t believe it,” huffed the president, responding to a journalist’s question about the climate assessment’s validity. The report was “not based on facts,” according to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “We need to take a look at the modeling that is used for the next assessment,” said acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Wednesday, in the same calm, measured tone of voice that mob enforcers use when visiting small-business owners who’ve missed a protection payment.

Once, not that long ago, such blatant displays of willful know-nothingism might have come across as frightening. Now we recognize them as feeble. That’s because the vast majority of us aren’t stupid and gullible—despite the White House’s desperate hope that we are, and that we will remain so.

The American people have eyes and ears and minds. They’re being asked right now to choose between two testimonies that offer two strikingly different versions of reality. One is a 1,700-page document that has taken years to produce, was commissioned by Congress, reflects the evidence-backed opinions of literally hundreds of credentialed scientists and other experts, and was published under the imprimatur of more than a dozen U.S. government agencies. The other is boilerplate from a dishonorable rapid-response machine whose operator is prone to making word-salad pronouncements like this one:

One of the problems that a lot of people like myself—we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including—just many other places—the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from? And it takes many people to start off with.

It takes a special kind of intellectually lazy xenophobe to dodge a question about climate change by switching the topic to Asian marine debris. But that’s our Commander in Chief for you.

The choice between these two versions of reality is really no choice at all. One is rooted in science and reason, offering within its grim diagnosis at least a kernel of hope. The other is rooted in dissembling and defensiveness, nothing more.

The jury isn’t still out. Most Americans now accept that the jury has come in—and has forcefully rendered its verdict. The time for justice, and for action, has come.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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