WASHINGTON, D.C. — Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler did not read the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA) before it was released last Friday, even though the EPA was one of the 13 federal agencies involved in drafting the report, the EPA chief said Wednesday.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Washington Post, Wheeler attempted to downplay the quadrennial report’s findings by implying the assessment was a political document created by the Obama administration.
Several times during the conversation, Wheeler told Washington Post senior national affairs correspondent Juliet Eilperin that the majority of the report was drafted during Barack Obama’s presidency. Since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, Wheeler said, the report has primarily been undergoing peer review.
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and one of the report’s authors, said on Twitter Wednesday that Wheeler was incorrect. “I began Chapter 2 in May 2017,” she tweeted. “The entire report went out for public and National Academy review on Nov 3, 2017.”
The NCA, released the day after Thanksgiving last week, has been blasted by Trump and other administration officials such as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for offering dire predictions for the planet’s future due to a rise in carbon emissions.
The 1,600 page assessment concluded that climate change has already caused irreparable harm to communities across the United States. It also reaffirmed the scientific consensus that human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, is the primary cause for the warming temperatures.
At the Wednesday event, Wheeler sought to defend his decision not to review the report prior to its publication.
“If we had intervened and made changes to the report, we would have been accused of manipulating the scientific recommendations of the career staff,” Wheeler told Eilperin, who interviewed the EPA chief on stage.
Since the report’s release, however, Wheeler said he has started to look over it but has yet to finish reading it.
— Washington Post Live (@postlive) November 28, 2018
Wheeler acknowledged that the assessment’s worst-case scenario has troubled administration officials. “I don’t know this for fact [but] I wouldn’t be surprised if the Obama administration told the report’s authors, ‘Take a look at the worst-case scenario for this report,’” he said.
The standard worst-case scenario, known as Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5, assumes rapid and unrestricted economic growth, which will see rampant burning of fossil fuels. In addition, it also assumes no further action will be taken to limit warming other than the policies countries are already pursuing.
The assessment forecast that, under the worst-case scenario, by 2100, climate change could cause billions of dollars in economic losses — as much as a 10 percent loss of gross domestic product — and kill thousands of people.
Eilperin asked Wheeler about the steps the administration plans to take to address the findings in the report. Wheeler said he is unaware of any formal process to review the assessment as part of an effort to combat climate change.
Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, took over as leader of the EPA after former administrator Scott Pruitt resigned on July 5 under a cloud of scandals. Earlier this month, Trump said he plans to nominate Wheeler to take over the position permanently.
The acting EPA administrator also said he has not had any formal briefings with any climate scientists at the agency to learn about any current research or their assessment of the climate crisis.
For the next assessment, scheduled for release in 2022, Wheeler believes the government should take a look at revising the modeling used by the scientists to determine the effects of climate change. The most recent report did not offer a realistic projection of the advancements in technology that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he argued.
Liz Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club, said Wednesday in a statement, that “It comes as no surprise that coal lobbyist and Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler would try to discredit a report urging the U.S. away from fossil fuels — he’s still serving polluter interests.”
This piece has been updated with Hayhoe’s comments.