Politics Bleed Into U.S. Briefing on World’s Warmest Year

On Wednesday, some of the U.S. government’s top climate scientists held a call to discuss how global temperatures keep rising.

In a lot of ways, it was the same call NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have routinely held for years. They confirmed that, for the third year in row, temperatures set a record high in 2016. They repeated the usual data pointing to man-made carbon emissions as the culprit. That’s where the state of politics began seeping into the conversation.

On Friday, a president will take office who has questioned whether climate change exists. Donald Trump’s cabinet picks have taken a softer stance of late. Scott Pruitt, his nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency, told Congress Wednesday that, while the climate may be changing, the extent of its impact is still up for debate. The administration’s uncertain position is clouding the future of environmental research that the agencies involved in Wednesday’s call have spent years carrying out.

For their part, NOAA and NASA steered clear of the politics. When asked whether there was a message Trump could take away from their data, NOAA climate researcher Deke Arndt responded by saying their assessments were “for the benefit of the American people.”

“Our mission is strictly to describe the state of the climate and our methods on how we got there.”

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was posed the same question. After an eight-second pause, Arndt repeated his remarks. And then NOAA spokesman Brady Phillips reminded reporters on the call: “We are sticking to the science.”

While both agencies show the world is warming, they have slightly different results. NASA says the world warmed by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (0.99 Celsius) above the 1951-1980 average. NOAA says the globe is 1.69 degrees warmer than the 1901-2000 average. Another difference is that NASA samples more of the Arctic, which is warming faster than the rest of the planet.

The agencies’ confirmation that 2016 was the world’s hottest year yet comes at a signature moment for President Barack Obama’s battle against climate change. His outgoing administration defied automakers on Friday by preserving vehicle efficiency standards. Last month, it banned new offshore drilling in parts of the U.S. Arctic and released a stream-protection rule that may be fatal for one style of underground coal mining. The administration is fighting in court to keep a plan to cut power-plant emissions alive.

For a look at how temperatures in 2016 line up with previous years, click here.

They’re the type of regulations that have played right into the Trump team’s line on protecting U.S. industry from “job-killing” policies that hurt the nation’s competitiveness. Trump’s vowed to roll back key environmental rules imposed by the Obama administration, including his Clean Power Plan.

In an interview before the climate call on Wednesday, NASA’s Schmidt noted that both his agency and NOAA report to the executive branch of the U.S. government. He said he’d keep researching climate until someone decided “we should be doing different things with our time.”

“The scientists that work both at NOAA and NASA are professionals,” he said, “who will do their jobs with integrity at all times.”

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