New Documents Show How Trump Interior Official Pushed Climate Misinformation into Federal Reports

Read time: 8 mins
Indur M. Goklany

A major New York Times investigative report, published March 2, revealed efforts by Indur M. Goklany, a Department of Interior employee with ties to the Heartland Institute and other fossil-funded denial organizations, to modify federal reports to include misleading information about climate science. 

DeSmog has obtained some of the emails cited by The Times in that investigation, published here for the first time.

The misleading language appears in at least nine reports, including environmental studies and impact statements on major watersheds in the American West that could be used to justify allocating increasingly scarce water to farmers at the expense of wildlife conservation and fisheries,” The Times found.

The direct consequences from the phrasing inserted by Goklany, nicknamed the “Goks uncertainty language” by other employees, could be meaningful, advocates told The Times.

Both scientists and environmental groups are concerned that Mr. Goklany’s campaign will start to build a body of evidence that will undermine the agency’s response to climate change in a region where water is already a highly contested resource,” The Times reported. “The language could ‘create a loophole that would prevent future legal challenges from succeeding,’ said Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of Western Values Project, a public-lands advocacy group.”

The Times investigation was picked up by other venues nationwide. Vice headlined its coverage, “Trump's Interior Department Is Claiming Climate Change Is Actually Good for Plants,” a reference to an email Goklany sent suggesting “that CO2 may have increased the water use efficiency of plants globally.” New York magazine's Intelligencer summed up its coverage in the headline, “Trump’s Interior Department Reportedly Changed Scientific Reports to Say Climate Change Is Good.” And Vanity Fair cut right to the crux with a piece titled, “The Trump Administration Is Just Flat-Out Lying About Climate Change.”

Uncertainty Language 'A Requirement'

In addition to the documents DeSmog is first publishing here, other documents related to Goklany’s efforts to insert uncertainty into discussions of climate change — despite a scientific consensus on the topic and the fact that climate models have proved to be very predictive over the past several decades — were published by E&E News in 2018.  

Please, however, make sure that the attached uncertainty language is incorporated somewhere within the document,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s David Raff wrote in a December 13, 2018 email to others at the bureau, referring to a final environmental impact statement draft. “This was a requirement established within the department in 2017 and I haven’t heard that it is changed.”

The documents suggest that there was tension inside Interior over the language Goklany promoted, indicating that the Goks uncertainty language was the product of “delicate” conversations and that the requirement was created as the result of an agreement inside Interior resulting from discussions with Goklany.

In May 2017, Raff had sent an email to Goklany defending climate change models, linking to a scientific study. “The performance seems pretty darn good,” Raff wrote, “especially when the point for us at a regional level is to describe the risk possibilities and not to pin point any specific projection.”

Pushing Inaccurate Information on Climate

In the 2017 email exchange, Goklany appears to refer to a then-debunked hypothesis that climate warming had reached a “hiatus.” (In his email, Goklany objects to the term hiatus, writing, “The correct terminology should be slowdown, possible [sic] followed by a question mark.”)

In June 2015, The New York Times reported that those “hiatus” claims had been based on inaccurate data. “The slowdown, sometimes inaccurately described as a halt or hiatus, became a major talking point for people critical of climate science,” the Times reported. “When adjustments are made to compensate for recently discovered problems in the way global temperatures were measured, the slowdown largely disappears, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared in a scientific paper published Thursday. And when the particularly warm temperatures of 2013 and 2014 are averaged in, the slowdown goes away entirely, the agency said.”

In 2017, the notion of a “hiatus” was once again debunked by more recent scientific research, as Inside Climate News reported in January of that year. “Using a global network of buoys, robotic floats, and satellites to trace the rise of sea surface temperatures, the study, published January 4 in Science Advances, shows there was no slowdown in the pace of global warming,” they wrote. “The so-called hiatus was widely reported and used by climate science deniers to bolster their political opposition to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.”

The emails also show Goklany circulated research he had not yet read, writing, “Also, just for information, following is the abstract of a new paper that indicates that CO2 may have increased the water use efficiency of plants globally. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the full text version,” Goklany wrote in one September 12, 2017 email.

Public Trust in Government Science

The recent New York Times report found that Goklany, a long time Interior employee, saw his career reach new heights when the Trump administration arrived in Washington.

In interviews, four current and former Interior Department officials said Mr. Goklany’s rise was abrupt and unexpected,” The Times reported. “‘They were like, “Who the hell is this guy?”’ said Joel Clement, a former top climate-policy expert at the Interior Department who quit in 2017 and testified in Congress that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was purging the agency of government scientists working to address climate change — allegations later backed by the agency’s inspector general,” The Times report said.

The news comes at a time when the credibility of government science is particularly consequential, given the recent spread of COVID-19, known broadly as the coronavirus, to countries including the United States.

When you learn you have a dangerous disease, you need to be able to trust your doctor,” Dr. Leana S. Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health, wrote in a January 22 op-ed in the Washington Post. “When entire populations face a dangerous public health crisis, they need to be able to trust their governments.”

The Trump administration has already come under fire for its mixed messages on COVID-19. A February 27 op-ed column, also published in the Washington Post, makes the case that the Trump administration’s credibility on science (or lack thereof) could play a role in how the public responds to reassurances from the Trump administration about the extent to which the spread of the disease and its economic fallout can be contained.

Contention Over Goklany's Actions Not New

Goklany, who has been at Interior since the 1980s, has been at the center of controversies over the Trump administration’s response to climate change in the past. In 2018, a Washington Post profile noted that Goklany’s supervisor resorted to filing a Freedom of Information Act request for Goklany’s emails, because, the Post quoted his supervisor as saying, “he refused to discuss these activities with his supervisors while I was there at [Department of Interior], and his work products, a mystery to all of us in the career ranks, were likely to represent threats to scientific integrity.”

Goklany also interpreted media coverage of climate for high-level Interior officials,” the Post reported. “He described a Los Angeles Times article about California’s brutal wildfire season as ‘better than most’ while deriding a New York Times story about the impact of sea-level rise and other climate effects on Guam by arguing that ‘tide gauge data, however, doesn’t show any acceleration in sea level rise due to man-made global warming or whatever.’”

E&E News had also earlier reported on Goklany’s influence over climate science information at Interior. At one point, emails show Goklany questioning whether the melting of glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park might offer benefits. “I could also make the argument that it's not clear that tourism would necessarily suffer since touring season may expand, and hiking may replace glacier-viewing, but that might be a secondary effect,” he wrote.

In fact, visits to the park peaked in 2017, and the following year visits were down 10 percent due in part to a wildfire in one of the park’s most renowned destinations. Those wildfires, including ones sparked on a day that temperatures in Glacier National Park reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first time, were linked in press reports to the impacts of climate change.

It’s a small detail, perhaps, but one that shows that off-the-cuff predictions like Goklany's can often be even less useful for guiding actions today than the climate models developed by scientists that have been confirmed by observations.

Because after all, if you’d put what climate science deniers like Golkany have predicted about climate science in recent decades to the test against computer models and the product of scientific research into human-caused climate warming, they might not like the end results.

The hallmark of good science, however, is the ability to make testable predictions, and climate models have been making predictions since the 1970s,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrote in a January 2020 feature on climate models. “Now a new evaluation of global climate models used to project Earth’s future global average surface temperatures over the past half-century answers that question: most of the models have been quite accurate.”

Main image: Screenshot from YouTube video of Indur Goklany speaking at the Heartland Institute's 12th International Conference on Climate Change (ICCC12)

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