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Longtime Climate Science Denier Hired At NOAA

The appointment of a climate change denier to NOAA comes as Americans face profound threats stoked by climate change, from the vast, deadly wildfires in the West to an unusually active hurricane season in the South and East.
The appointment of a climate change denier to NOAA comes as Americans face profound threats stoked by climate change, from the vast, deadly wildfires in the West to an unusually active hurricane season in the South and East.

Updated at 6:15 p.m.

David Legates, a University of Delaware professor of climatology who has spent much of his career questioning basic tenets of climate science, has been hired for a top position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Legates confirmed to NPR that he was recently hired as NOAA's deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction. The position suggests that he reports directly to Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the agency that is in charge of the federal government's sprawling weather and climate prediction work.

Neither Legates nor NOAA representatives responded to questions about Legates' specific responsibilities or why he was hired. The White House also declined to comment.

Legates has a long history of using his position as an academic scientist to publicly cast doubt on climate science. His appointment to NOAA comes as Americans face profound threats stoked by climate change, from the vast, deadly wildfires in the West to an unusually active hurricane season in the South and East.

Global temperatures have already risen nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century as a result of greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. Warming is happening the fastest at the Earth's poles, where sea ice is melting, permafrost is thawing and ocean temperatures are heating up, with devastating effects on animals and humans alike.

In 2007, Legates was one of the authors of a paper that questioned previous findings about the role of climate change in destroying the habitat of polar bears. That research was partially funded by grants from Koch Industries, the American Petroleum Institute lobbying group and ExxonMobil, according to InsideClimate News.

The same year, Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner sent a letter to Legates expressing concern about his opinions on climate change, given that he was the state climatologist at the time. Minner asked him to refrain from casting doubt on climate science when he was acting in his official role. Legates stepped down in 2011.

Legates also appeared in a video pushing the discredited theory that the sun is the cause of global warming. In testimony before the U.S. Senate in 2014, Legates argued that a climate science report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change erroneously stated that humans are causing global warming.

Legates is a professor in the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences at the University of Delaware. He is also affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a think tank that has poured money into convincing Americans that climate change is not happening and that the scientific evidence — including evidence published by the agency that now employs Legates — is uncertain or untrustworthy.

Advocates who reject mainstream climate science, such as those at Heartland, have had a leading role in shaping the Trump administration's response to global warming, including the decision to exit the Paris climate accord.

Steve Milloy, a Heartland board member and part of Trump's Environmental Protection Agency transition team, says he welcomes the Legates appointment. "David Legates is a true climate scientist and will bring a great deal of much-needed science to NOAA," Milloy writes in an email to NPR.

But climate researchers slammed NOAA's decision to appoint Legates to a key scientific position.

"He's not just in left field — he's not even near the ballpark," says Jane Lubchenco, a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University and head of NOAA under President Barack Obama.

Contrarians in science are welcome, Lubchenco says, but their claims have to be scientifically defensible. That's why official groups like the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change review the entire range of scientific research before reaching a conclusion.

Over the last 20 years, in his work and public statements, Legates has rejected the overwhelming peer-reviewed research that shows human activity is the main driver of a dangerously changing climate.

Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, says in an email to NPR that Legates has, throughout his career, "misrepresented the science of climate change, serving as an advocate for polluting interests as he dismisses and downplays the impacts of climate change."

Mann adds: "At a time when those impacts are playing out before our very eyes in the form of unprecedented wildfires out West and super-storms back East, I cannot imagine a more misguided decision than to appoint someone like Legates to a position of leadership at an agency that is tasked with assessing the risks we face from extreme weather events."

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