The Environmental Protection Agency published a 150-page document this past week with a straightforward message for coping with the fallout from natural disasters across the country: Start planning for the fact that climate change is going to make these catastrophes worse.
The language, included in guidance on how to address the debris left in the wake of floods, hurricanes and wildfires, is at odds with the rhetoric of the EPA’s own leader, Andrew Wheeler. Just last month, Wheeler said in an interview with CBS that “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.”
Multiple recent studies have identified how climate change is already affecting the United States and the globe. In the western United States, for example, regional temperatures have increased by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970s, and snowmelt is occurring a month earlier in areas, extending the fire season by three months and quintupling the number of large fires. Another scientific paper, co-authored by EPA researchers, found that unless the United States slashes carbon emissions, climate change will probably cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars annually by 2100.
The divergence between Wheeler and his own agency offers the latest example of the often contradictory way that federal climate policy has evolved under President Donald Trump. As the White House has sought to minimize or ignore climate science, government experts have continued to sound the alarm.
The president has said he intends to withdraw the nation from a key international climate accord, but last fall 13 agencies issued a report concluding that "the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans' physical, social, and economic well-being are rising."
The White House has repeatedly sought ways to question the broad scientific consensus that human activities are driving climate change, and it is considering creating a federal advisory panel to reexamine those findings. But while the National Security Council is still pursuing the task force proposal, it has encountered resistance from military and intelligence officials as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Even some of the administration's symbolic efforts to change the government's climate message have fizzled. In the summer of 2017, top EPA officials had plans to tweak references to climate change in the agency's official museum, and possibly to put a piece of coal on display. The overhaul plans stalled and are now not expected to materialize, according to two individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Still, Trump officials often home in on references to climate change in key documents.
In the case of April 24 guidance from the EPA's Office of Land and Emergency Management, documents show, the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs sought to downplay climate change's impact on the intensity of natural disasters. But these efforts, first reported by E&E News, did not entirely remove those references.
The document published Wednesday in the Federal Register repeatedly makes the link between climate change and more-severe floods, wildfires and storms.
While the White House struck one phrase attributing extreme weather events to climate change, the document still refers to "climate change" and "a changing climate" 22 times.
"According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, which is a detailed report on climate change impacts on the U.S., climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of some natural disasters," it states. "The amount of debris generated by natural disasters, and the costs to manage it, will likely increase as a result."
The guidance is directed toward "communities at increased risk from natural disasters due to climate change," according to the document, which included a section titled "Incorporate Climate Change Adaptation into Debris Management Planning."
Asked about the document Friday, the EPA declined to comment.
"This EPA guidance is clearly telling the public you need to start dealing now with disasters that are being made worse by climate change and will be made even worse due to climate change," said Amit Narang, regulatory policy advocate at the group Public Citizen. "It's pretty troubling to me to see the head of EPA saying the exact opposite thing."
To some extent, the new document reflects the advances scientists have made attributing extreme events to climate change since a landmark analysis was published in 2004 looking at a deadly European heat wave the year before.
The U.S. government’s main climate change website, climate.gov, features a detailed explanation of how the science has evolved in recent years, including how federal researchers have contributed to the field.
"Scientists are increasingly able to distinguish evidence of human-induced climate change from natural variability," according to the government explainer.
But the research into extreme event attribution is hardly limited to the government. Since 2011, the American Meteorological Society has compiled an annual assessment of how human-caused climate change probably affected the strength and frequency of extreme events such as record heat waves, droughts and wildfires.
The group has said that of the more than 130 peer-reviewed studies published as part of the annual reviews, about 65% have identified the fingerprints of climate change in extreme weather events, while about 35% found no clear connection.
"The science has really developed in the last decade, in particular, around the influence of global warming on extreme events," said Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor and senior fellow at Stanford University who studies the climate system.
For starters, he said, researchers are constantly gathering more data and studying more weather events, so that the observational record has grown over time. Computing power and modeling capabilities have improved. And there also has been an "explosion of research" on the topic, as scientists have developed frameworks for better evaluating the role of climate change in specific events.
The result, he said, is a growing body of research that details how human-caused climate change is contributing to record heat, more-intense storms, more-severe flooding and other events.
"It's very clear from multiple lines of evidence that we are already being impacted by the global warming that's already happened," Diffenbaugh said.
During Wheeler's confirmation hearing early this year, Democrats repeatedly tried to pin down Wheeler, who has lobbied in the past for the fossil fuel industry, about exactly where he stands on climate change and the risks it poses.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pressed Wheeler about whether he agreed with Trump's comment that climate change amounted to a Chinese "hoax." After being pressed, the acting administrator replied, "I have not used the 'hoax' word myself."
Sanders then asked Wheeler whether he accepts the consensus of most scientists that climate change is one of the most serious problems facing the nation. “I would not call it the greatest crisis, no, sir,” he replied. “I would call it a huge issue that needs to be addressed globally.”