Leak of Climate Change Report Could Do Damage, Scientists Say

President Donald Trump refers to amounts of temperature change that humans have allegedly caused as he announces his decision that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris Climate Agreement. Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Several authors of an important, as-yet-unpublished climate change report tell Newsweek that a leak of the document, published by The New York Times, could impede the upcoming approval process.

The Times on Monday night published a widely shared article that suggested the authors of the report, which comes to stark conclusions about the reality of human-caused climate change, fear the Trump administration might suppress their findings. Along with the article, the Times shared the latest version of the report, which hasn't been made publicly available and wasn't scheduled for release until 2018.

But some of the researchers say the expressions of fear are premature and potentially damaging; the White House is actively reviewing the report, and hasn't yet finished the process. When asked if he thinks the Trump administration might try to dismiss or suppress the report, one of the study's lead authors, James Kossin, a physical scientist with National Centers for Environmental Information, says "there's nothing to suggest that has happened or will happen."

"I think it's a bit alarmist" to make that suggestion, Kossin says. "The report is going through the process that reports normally go through," albeit with "some hand-wringing."

The leaking of the study—which is part of the National Climate Assessment, and is required by Congress to be published every four years—could do more harm than good, says one author, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report hasn't been released. The report needs to be signed off on by 13 federal agencies and the White House by August 18, and the Times article could hamper this process by stoking tensions between agencies and scientists, the author says.

That being said, the report itself comes to some alarming conclusions that are squarely at odds with the stated views of the president and much of his cabinet, including Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, which must sign off on the report. The report authors say it's "extremely likely" that a majority of the warming witnessed in the past 40 years has been caused by human activities. They also conclude it's likely that human emissions have caused between 0.9 F and 2.3 F degrees of warming between 1951 and 2010.

"Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are primarily responsible for the observed climate changes over the last 15 decades," the report notes. "There are no alternative explanations. There are no apparent natural cycles in the observational record that can explain the recent changes in climate."

Other authors, however, say they thought the Times coverage was warranted. John Bruno, a professor at the University of North Carolina, says he "very much" fears the Trump administration might try to suppress the document. "The report is supposed to go through the White House, but they haven't really staffed their science policy offices and they are obviously hostile to climate change science."

Most of the dozens of authors contacted for this article declined to comment on the study, as it hasn't been officially released. That's slated to happen in 2018, assuming the process unfolds as it is supposed to. That hasn't always been the case, however. The second Bush administration was widely criticized for hampering and interfering with the second and third National Climate Assessments, which gives wary researchers reason to believe something similar could happen again under a White House that has been even more vocal about its feelings toward climate change. But it may be a little early to express fears, some say.

"Whoever says that they don't believe in [human-caused] climate change—we recognize that those opinions exist," Kossin says. "But we asses the science and come up with a different answer."