Donald Trump has moved from dismissing coronavirus as similar to the winter flu that would disappear in the spring to declaring a national emergency. But did his administration’s initial response waste valuable time? World affairs editor Julian Borger reports from Washington DC
Donald Trump’s initial response to the coronavirus crisis was to play down its significance and tell the public that the approaching warmer weather was likely to see an end to the virus. But since then his tone has markedly changed and he has declared a national emergency.
The Guardian’s world affairs editor Julian Borger tells Rachel Humphreys that delays and faults with the US coronavirus testing system has set the response back considerably. Now, as the pandemic takes hold, the country is battling to keep its economy afloat with a possible trillion-dollar stimulus as entire industries fight for survival.
A Brazilian official who met and dined with President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend has tested positive for coronavirus, according to media reports.
The official, Fabio Wajngarten, posted an Instagram image of him posing with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House’s coronavirus task force.
“Let’s put it this way, I’m not concerned,” Trump said Thursday.
President Donald Trump makes remarks to the media in the Capitol after attending the Senate Republican Policy luncheon on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call | Getty Images
A Brazilian official who met and dined with President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend has tested positive for coronavirus, according to media reports Thursday — but Trump said he’s “not concerned.”
The official, Fabio Wajngarten, posted an Instagram image of him posing with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House’s coronavirus task force.
“I did hear something about that,” Trump told reporters Thursday, when asked about the matter. “We had dinner together in Florida at Mar-a-Lago with the entire delegation. I don’t know, if the press [said he was there, then] he was there.”
Trump appeared to shift his focus to Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, as he continued his response.
“But we did nothing very unusual. We sat next to each other for a period of time, had a great conversation. He’s doing a terrific job in Brazil, and we’ll find out what happens. I guess they’re being tested right now?” Trump said.
Pressed for comment on the report, Trump added: “Let’s put it this way, I’m not concerned.”
This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.
Presidents always take credit for the positive things that happen on their watch, but Donald Trump has gone to a whole new level. He endlessly touted the “best economy ever,” even though, under his watch, we just saw the continuation of trends from the Barack Obama years.
There was a modest pickup in GDP growth, with the average for the first three years of the Trump administration being 2.5 percent, compared to an average of 2.3 percent in the last three years of the Obama administration. By contrast, the pace of job growth slowed, from 224,000 to 182,000 over the same period.
There was little change in most other macroeconomic variables between the two administrations, as we saw the gradual improvement in the labor market under the Obama years continue into the Trump years. That meant things were getting better on the whole. However, the hundreds of thousands of people who lost health insurance in the Trump years are likely to disagree with his boasts of the best economy ever, as are people facing crushing student loan debt.
But this is all past tense. One problem for those who want to take credit for everything good that happens on their watch is that they also have to take responsibility for the bad things that happen. In that sense, coronavirus completely belongs to Trump, although unlike the path of the economy, he really does bear responsibility.
At the most basic level, the epidemic itself was hardly a surprise. It was first reported in China in December of last year.
A serious president would have been taking the lead in organizing an international response. But Trump was busy doing other things. In addition to his golf games, Trump was holding campaign rallies and fundraisers around the country. When he wasn’t traveling, he was busy on Twitter making boasts about the economy, lying about his poll results and directing schoolyard taunts against his political opponents. With such a busy schedule, how could we expect Trump to have time to worry about a pandemic?
It gets worse. Trump had dismantled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) team to deal with pandemics. The CDC was also coping with Trump budget cuts, and is facing another cut of 16 percent slated for next year.
Trump also attacked those who tried to warn of the risks of the virus. He claimed the whole thing was a Democratic hoax, and said that the United States had 15 cases and that the number would fall quickly.
He then went full Trumpian in his management style, pushing aside the public health experts at the CDC, and putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of protecting the country from the pandemic. Pence’s main credentials for this task are a disbelief in science (he doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming) and a failed effort to stem the spread of AIDS when he was governor of Indiana.
Trump also attempted to clamp down on any accurate, concrete information that would contradict his “no-big-deal” story. He required that Pence clear all statements from the CDC. Using his famed vindictiveness, he also retaliated against a Health and Human Services whistleblower who reported that people exposed to coronavirus on a cruise ship were greeted by health care workers without protective gear or training.
In short, the fact that we are likely facing a serious pandemic, unlike any we have seen in more than a century, is 100 percent Trump’s fault. Because of his vanity and ineptitude, people will die, and many more will get sick. It is very likely that we will face a recession as people cancel travel plans and are reluctant to go out to restaurants, sporting events and other public places.
At this point, we can only speculate how bad things will get. But let us say it loud and clear: “Thank you, President Trump!”
President Trump says that Democrats are using the virulent coronavirus as a “hoax” to damage him and his administration.
“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” he said from a campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina. “This is their new hoax.”
The coronavirus, which began in Wuhan, China, has now killed more than 2,800 people worldwide and infected more than 80,000.
The total number of cases in the U.S. was 63 as of the latest announcements, with most cases being former passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship and evacuees from Wuhan.
US President Donald Trump speaks during a “Keep America Great” campaign rally at Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio, on January 9, 2020.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump said Friday that Democrats are using the virulent coronavirus as a “hoax” to damage him and his administration.
“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” he said from a campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina.
“One of my people came up to me and said ‘Mr. President they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn’t work out too well.’ They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax that was on a perfect conversation,” he continued.
What if the US actually does suffer a major outbreak?
“This is their new hoax,” he said, referring to the coronavirus.
In the U.S., the Santa Clara Public Health Department announced a third case of coronavirus in the county Friday evening. The announcement brings the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in California to 10 and the total number of cases in the U.S. to 63, most of which were passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship and evacuees from Wuhan.
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“We are magnificently organized with the best professionals in the world,” Trump said of the administration’s preparations to help contain the spread of the virus.
“We have to take it very, very seriously … We are preparing for the worst,” he continued. “My administration has taken the most aggressive action in modern history to prevent the spread of this illness in the United States. We are ready. We are ready. Totally ready.”
“We will do everything in our power to keep the infection and those carrying the infection from entering our country. We have no choice,” Trump said. “Whether it’s the virus we’re talking about or many other public health threats, the Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and wellbeing of all Americans.”
Scientists at an Antarctic research station recently recorded a one-day air temperature of just under 70 degrees, a balmy afternoon in a region of the world unaccustomed to them. In fact, as far as researchers can tell, it has never been that warm in Antarctica before. The record was set against an increasingly scary global backdrop of rising temperatures and seas; more powerful storms, droughts and floods; a reduced Arctic ice cap, and accelerated melting and movement of glaciers around the globe — including Antarctica.
The culprit behind this crisis is the nearly 200 years that humans have spent burning fossil fuels — primarily coal and oil — for energy. So it was mildly heartening to see that BP, the London-based oil and gas giant, has promised to achieve “net-zero emissions” for its operations by 2050. That doesn’t mean BP is getting out of the oil-and-gas business. Rather, the corporation pledged to eliminate some emissions from its drilling, processing and business operations, and to compensate for others through investments in green technologies, reforestation projects and similar offset strategies. The announcement followed earlier pledges by such European-based oil companies as Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Equino to reduce emissions from their operations, though the BP pledge goes further.
None, of course, goes far enough. And new BP CEO Bernard Looney acknowledged the corporation had not settled on a strategy to achieve its net-zero emissions goal. Those details will come in September.
But at least the goal was set, which is far more than has been done by American-based oil companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron, which have acknowledged the role of greenhouse gas emissions in propelling climate change but have done little to address their contribution. Both are part of the corporate-driven Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, whose stated purpose is to reduce “our collective methane emissions by more than one-third” by essentially stopping leaks and moving the captured methane to where it could be burned.
Of course, baby steps by a handful of oil and gas companies aren’t going to do much to combat overall emissions. Similarly, the Trillion Trees Initiative, which President Trump touted in his State of the Union address, won’t do an awful lot, either. In fact, it’s one of those fig-leaf solutions that offers a pretense of significant action against global warming while ignoring the most pressing problem — the burning of fossil fuels in the first place.
Which is not to suggest that reforestation is a bad idea; in fact, continued forest clearing in the Amazon is exacerbating global warming and must stop. Because forests store carbon, restoring them could help capture and slow the accretion of carbon in the atmosphere, where it traps heat. One study found that the Earth’s ecosystems could handle an additional 25% of forests above what it holds now (though increased droughts and desertification related to climate change could whittle away at that), compensating for about 20 years of human-produced carbon. So large-scale reforestation falls in the category of “couldn’t hurt.”
Nevertheless, far, far more needs to be done, beginning with converting our global reliance on energy from fossil fuels to renewables as fast as is humanly possible. The best way to reduce carbon in the atmosphere is to not put it there in the first place.
So in that regard, the danger of the Trillion Trees Initiative is that pro-oil business conservatives will wave it around as a solution to global warming. But that’s like someone hoping to lose a lot of weight by taking daily walks while still eating the same calorie-rich foods.
The nation, and the world, need sober and aggressive policy changes if we are to stand any chance of mitigating the worst effects of global warming. Despite heightened awareness and national pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, global carbon emissions continue to rise. It will be expensive to adapt to the new climate reality and to fundamentally change the way humankind produces and uses energy, but it must be done before the supposedly most intelligent of the animal species manages through greed and willful ignorance to propel the collapse of global ecosystems.
In tonight’s State of the Union address, it is likely that President Trump will talk about national security, immigration, job growth, and infrastructure. But there is little chance that he will address other vital issues of our time, including climate change, wildlife conservation, and clean water.
“It’s clear that the Trump administration fundamentally does not value wildlife, wild places, clean air and water and a livable climate,” said Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO, Jamie Rappaport Clark. “Rather than build on America’s extraordinary conservation legacy, this administration has placed the power of the federal government at the disposal of those who seek to exploit and degrade our land, water, air, wildlife and people.”
According to The New York Times, the Trump administration has rolled back more than 95 environmental regulations, often citing them as burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other big businesses. Of the many anti-environmental actions taken by this administration, the following 10 policy changes have been most detrimental to wildlife and the places they live:
1. Imperiled Species: The Trump administration finalized its sweeping rewrite of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations that undermine the conservation of threatened and endangered species in August 2019. The Department of the Interior’s new regulations will eliminate key protections for threatened species, weaken bedrock consultation requirements, open the door to burdensome and inappropriate cost-benefit analyses that risk politicizing the ESA’s science-based listing process, and much more. Learn More.
2. Migratory Birds: The administration proposed formal regulations to cement into law a hotly disputed legal opinion declaring that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) does not need to protect migratory birds from harm caused by industrial activities. This has dramatically undercut the law’s ability to conserve birds. Learn More.
3. National Monuments: In December 2017, President Trump signed proclamations that decimated two national monuments in Utah – Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante. And the president’s threat of downsizing or reducing protections remains for as many as eight other national monuments around the country. Learn More.
J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS
4. Marine Life: The Trump administration has reversed direction and permitted the use of seismic air guns for gas and oil exploration in the Atlantic Ocean. The practice, which can kill marine life and disrupt fisheries, had previously been blocked by the Obama administration. Learn More.
5. Clean Water: The administration revoked a rule recognizing federal responsibility to protect for streams that provide clean drinking water and wetlands that provide sanctuary for wildlife. This reversal was formalized in the Waters of the United States, or “WOTUS” rule in January 2020. Learn more.
6. Public Lands: The Trump administration opened 9 million acres of western public land to oil and gas drilling by weakening habitat protections for the greater sage-grouse, an imperiled bird known for its elaborate mating dance. This move is now only temporarily deterred by an Idaho District Court injunction blocking the administration’s “Energy Dominance” agenda. Learn more.
7. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Responding to a sneaky legislative rider passed in Congress in 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is preparing plans to lease the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil and gas industry. This destructive, illegitimate program is being rushed through, ignoring key scientific evidence and the law. BLM’s actions could jeopardize the survival of an indigenous culture, wildlife and the future of the most imperiled polar bear population in the world. Learn more.
8. Climate Change: In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that cripples our ability to take action on the global threat of climate change. This was quickly followed by an effort to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, among dozens of other climate change policies revised, reversed and dissolved under this administration. In January, the Trump administration proposed rules that would allow federal agencies to ignore climate impacts of their actions in environmental reviews. Learn more.
9. Border Wall: In December 2019, Congress unveiled $1.4 billion in funding to build the border wall. When built, a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico will fragment vital ecosystems and landscapes, threatening wildlife and people. Thousands of scientists from around the world agree that building a border wall will be devastating to North America’s biodiversity. Defenders has requested U.S. Supreme Court review of federal court rulings that have allowed the Trump administration to waive dozens of environmental, health and safety laws to speed construction of border wall. Learn more.
10. Evaluation: The Trump administration targeted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in January 2020 in order to fast track development and infrastructure projects like highways and pipelines. NEPA ensures that federal agencies publicly evaluate the environmental effects of their actions. Rolling it back will only expose the American people and environment to serious harm and dirty our water, clean air and environment. Learn more.
Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Reversing and weakening regulations to fossil fuel development and other damaging impacts has been a hallmark of President Trump’s economic agenda. Defenders and partners are fighting every day against the Trump administration’s actions that imperil wildlife, degrade habitat and threaten communities. We’re in the courts. We’re tracking policy. We’re making sure citizens are aware. But with 10 mon
Lara Trump (L), her husband Eric Trump (2L) and Kimberly Guilfoyle (R) listen to Donald Trump Jr. speak during a “Keep Iowa Great” press conference in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
(CNN)Donald Trump Jr. has been condemned by animal rights organizations for promising to take an auction winner on a seven-day hunting trip to Alaska, in a sale organized by a trophy hunting group.
The yacht-based expedition will see Trump Jr., his son and the auction winner kill black-tailed deer and sea ducks, according to the auction site.
Bidding for the trip had surpassed $10,000 at the time of writing. The auction, hosted by Safari Club International (SCI), also includes trips to kill buffalo in Zimbabwe and to shoot an elephant in Namibia.
The expedition is set to take place in November — the same month that Trump’s father will seek reelection.
“This year we will be featuring Donald Trump Jr., a man who needs no introduction, and who’s [sic] passion for the outdoors makes him the number one ambassador for our way of life,” the listing reads.
Trump has been condemned for those activities in the past by animal welfare groups, and many also criticized the sale by the SCI on Tuesday.
“Advertised as a ‘dream hunt,’ this hunting trip will be nothing but a nightmare for the Sitka black-tailed deer and sea ducks who find themselves in the gun sights of Donald Trump Jr. and whomever purchases this sick thrill,” Jeff Flocken, president of Humane Society International, told CNN.
He added: “Killing for fun is not moral. And it’s not conservation. Period.”
The auction is timed to coincide with SCI’s annual convention which begins on Wednesday in Nevada. Reports have suggested that Trump Jr. will speak at the event. CNN has contacted SCI and the Trump Organization for comment.
SCI campaigns against efforts to ban trophy hunting imports around the world and has argued that trophy hunting “helps wildlife and local economies.”
The decision to allow some imports came after a public backlash to the rollback of Obama-era restrictions on importing trophies of elephants and lions from some African countries by the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service.
On Monday, Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson urged fans to boycott a performance at the group’s conference by his former band, saying he is “emphatically opposed” to trophy hunting.
President Donald Trump’s idea of “Make America Great Again” is making it easier for wealthy American trophy hunters like his sons, who are unfazed by six-digit price tags, to slaughter vulnerable, threatened and endangered wildlife. It is more than time for New York state — the biggest port of entry for wildlife trophies — to take steps towards ending this cruel industry.
Donald Trump Jr.’s latest hunting escapade in Mongolia — where he shot a rare endangered Argali sheep, and only received a permit to do so after the kill, on a trip last August that also included some schmoozing with the Mongolian president — is evidence of the unfair system that leaves vulnerable animal species prey to wealthy Americans, including New Yorkers who hunt African wildlife.
From 2005 to 2014, 159,144 animals were imported into New York as trophies — including 1,541 lions; 1,130 elephants and 83 pairs of tusks; 1,169 leopards, and 110 white rhinos and three pairs of horns.
Last year the state Senate passed the Big 5 African Trophies Act, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-Bronx, and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan. It would ban the importation, possession, sale or transportation of the trophies of African giraffes, leopards, lions, elephants, and black and white rhinos and their body parts throughout New York — all threatened and endangered species.
The thousands of dollars in fees hunters pay to safari companies does little to help protect these animals. Studies show that less than 3 percent of revenue from trophy hunting returns to the communities. Meanwhile, the population of elephants has declined by 90 percent in the past century, with losses attributed to the commodification of elephants for their ivory and skin. This is in addition to the challenges they face from habitat destruction and climate change. There are fewer than 23,000 lions left in Africa, according to a recent study by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford, The number of Argali sheep has plummeted more than 60 percent, with just 18,000 remaining in Mongolia.
And while permits by countries that allow the hunting, and permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency to hunt threatened and endangered species and import the dead body parts of the animals killed overseas, are supposed to regulate the industry to ensure a species’ survival, the truth is obtaining the permits are often a matter of political influence and the only difference between “illegal” poachers and trophy hunters with permits is wealth and political connections.
New York City Councilman Keith Powers has introduced a resolution supporting the state trophy ban legislation. The council should approve it, and the state Assembly should act in its upcoming session to end the imports here. New York should lead the nation in standing up for vulnerable species who belong in the wild, not on walls.
Priscilla Feral is the president of Friends of Animals, an international, nonprofit animal advocacy organization.
The legendary Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS), which tracks issues related to technology and global security, has issued a terrifying warning: We are less than two minutes to midnight on the Doomsday clock. It’s very bad news, representing “the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced.”
What makes this moment so perilous? The scientists’ statement includes warnings over the cyber-weaponization of information, the spread of artificial intelligence (AI) in making military decisions, the destruction of treaties meant to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, the abandonment of global agreements to limit climate chaos, the spread of genetic engineering and synthetic biology technologies, and more. It does not account for the escalated likelihood of atomic reactor disasters, but based on at least one BAS publication, it should.
Since 1947, this prestigious band of elite scientists and global thinkers has been putting out a “clock” meant to time the peril of a global apocalypse. First issued at the dawn of the Cold War, it has mostly focused on the dangers of atomic warfare. Its countdown to Armageddon has been set as far away as 17 minutes from midnight, a hypothetical time of human extinction. That relatively optimistic assessment came in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the definitive end of the Cold War.
In 2018, the BAS set it at two minutes, the closest to catastrophe it had ever been. They repeated that estimate in 2019. But this year’s announcement has taken us inside the two-minute warning with a hair-raising litany of likely lethal catastrophes set to occur within 100 theoretical seconds.
Donald Trump is mentioned only once by name, in conjunction with his decision to trash the Paris Accords on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. The scientists urge “whoever wins the 2020 election” to reinstate the U.S. commitment limiting carbon and other climate-destroying emissions. The BAS also cites Brazilian dictator Jair Bolsonaro for his decision to allow the destruction of the Amazon, with huge impacts on climate.
The BAS strives to maintain a non-partisan image. But Trump’s presence in the White House clearly hangs over any assessment of humankind’s survivability. The specter of his finger on the nuclear, ecological and financial buttons for the next four years hangs over humankind like a pall but goes otherwise unmentioned in this Doomsday assessment.
Also unmentioned is the question of more than 450 atomic power reactors worldwide. A small but vocal outlier coterie has argued that nuclear energy combats global warming by emitting less carbon that coal burners. But the Bulletin recently enshrined a major assessment by the esteemed Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, warning that commercial reactors pose a serious threat to human survival on this planet.
Published in August 2019, “The false promise of nuclear power in an age of climate change” argues that the 450 atomic reactors now deteriorating worldwide pose an existential threat to our survival. Writing with Professor Naomi Oreskes, Lifton warns that atomic energy “is expensive and poses grave dangers to our physical and psychological well-being.” Citing costs of nuclear juice at $100 per megawatt-hour versus $50 for solar and $30-40 for onshore wind, the authors say that the industry suffers from a “negative learning curve,” driving nuke costs constantly higher while those for renewables head consistently down.
Citing the unsolved problem of radioactive waste management, the BAS article warns of the ongoing impacts of major disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl (and potentially more to come), whose fallout kills humans and does untold damage to the global ecology. Lipton and Oreskes say we need to free ourselves “from the false hope that a technology designed for ultimate destruction” can lead to our salvation. They favor making “renewable energies integral to the American way of life.”
By attacking both science and the fabric of international peace accords, some global leaders have created “a situation that will, if unaddressed, lead to catastrophe, sooner rather than later.”
That situation includes AI and hypersonic warfare, both escalating “at a frenzied pace.” Now used in ultra-fast attacks, AI is dangerously vulnerable to “hacking and manipulation” while making “kill decisions without human supervision.” In nuclear command and control systems, the BAS warns, research and experience have demonstrated the vulnerability of these systems to “hacking and manipulation.”
This is an absolutely terrifying brew. The spread of disinformation, the contempt for science and expert opinion, the undermining of global agreements on arms control, and climate change are all deadly. Add in the new world of AI and hyper-sonic warfare, then pile on autocrats like Trump and Bolsonaro, and finish with the certainty of more disasters from 450 crumbling, obsolete atomic reactors.
All in all, it’s small wonder the Bulletin has taken us past the two-minute warning. It will clearly take every ounce of our activist strength to save our species from the final
Political appointees at the interior department have sought to play up climate pollution from California wildfires while downplaying emissions from fossil fuels as a way of promoting more logging in the nation’s forests, internal emails obtained by the Guardian reveal.
The messaging plan was crafted in support of Donald Trump’s pro-industry arguments for harvesting more timber in California, which he says would thin forests and prevent fires – a point experts refute.
The emails show officials seeking to estimate the carbon emissions from devastating 2018 fires in California so they could compare them to the carbon footprint of the state’s electricity sector and then publish statements encouraging cutting down trees.
The records offer a look behind the scenes at how Trump and his appointees have tried to craft a narrative that forest protection efforts are responsible for wildfires, including in California, even as science shows fires are becoming more intense largely because of climate change.
James Reilly, a former petroleum geologist and astronaut who is the director of the US Geological Survey, in a series of emails in 2018 asked scientists to “gin up” emissions figures for him. He also said the numbers would make a “decent sound bite”, and acknowledged that wildfire emissions estimates could vary based on what kind of trees were burning but picked the ones that he said would make “a good story”.
Scientists who reviewed the exchanges said that at best Reilly used unfortunate language and the department cherry-picked data to help achieve their pro-industry policy goals; at worst he and others exploited a disaster and manipulated the data.
The emails add to concerns that the Trump administration is doing industry’s bidding rather than pursuing the public interest. Across agencies, top positions are filled by former lobbyists, and dozens of investigative reports have revealed agencies working closely with major industries to ease pollution, public health and safety regulations.
A USGS spokesperson said Reilly’s emails were “intended to instruct the subject matter expert to do the calculations as quickly as possible based on the best available data at the time and provide results in clear understandable language that the Secretary could use to effectively communicate to a variety of audiences.” The agency added that it “stands by the integrity of its sience”
When forests burn, they do emit greenhouse gases. But one expert said the numbers the interior department put forth are significant overestimates. They say logging wouldn’t necessarily help prevent or lessen wildfires. On the contrary, logging could negate the ability of forests to absorb carbon dioxide humans are emitting at record rates.
Chad Hanson, a California-based forest ecologist who co-founded the John Muir Project and a lawyer who has opposed logging after fires, called the strategizing revealed in the emails a “blatant political manipulation of science”.
Mark Harmon, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, said while it’s normal for the department to want to quantify emissions from fires, it’s unclear whether they began the process with a particular figure in mind.
“Gin-up is an unfortunate phrase to be sure, but it might have been a very imprecise way to ask for an estimate. It certainly does not inspire confidence,” Harmon said.
He said the resulting quotes from top officials and press releases from the department are “about what you would expect from agencies trying to justify actions they already decided to take with minimal analysis”.
Harmon added that “the effect of logging on fires is highly variable,” depending on how it is done and the weather conditions.
Not long after the interior department came up with its carbon emission estimates from the 2018 California wildfires, Trump issued an executive order instructing federal land managers to significantly increase the amount of timber they harvest. This fall, he also proposed allowing logging in Alaska’s Tongass national forest, the largest intact temperate rainforest in North America.
Trump has also tweeted multiple times about wildfires, saying they are caused by bad land management or environmental laws that make water unavailable.
Monica Turner, a fire ecology scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said “it is climate that is responsible for the size and severity of these fires”.
An Interior department spokesperson said the department’s role is to follow the laws and use the best science and that it continues “to work to best understand and address the impacts of an ever-changing climate.”
Agency officials started emphasizing wildfire emissions data as a talking point as early as August 2018.
In an email chain that month, Reilly was asked by interior’s former deputy chief of staff Downey Magallanes to sign off on a statement that fires in 2018 had emitted 95.6m tons of CO2.
“Interesting statistics,” Reilly responded, noting that emissions would vary based on the types of trees on the land. “…We assumed woodlands mix since we don’t currently have details on the overall land cover types involved. Any variance to the fuel type will still leave it in the range to make the comparison, however. I’ll use this one if you don’t object. Makes a good story.”
Reilly, who was confirmed to his position in April 2018, later asked career scientists at the agency for updated numbers, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
“I need to get a number for total CO2 releases for the recent CA fires and a comparison against emissions for all energy in US … Tasker from the boss; back to me ASAP,” he said on 10 October 2018. His boss at the time was the former interior secretary Ryan Zinke.
The job fell to Doug Beard, the director of the National Climate Adaptation Science Center, and Bradley Reed, an associate program coordinator in the Geographic Analysis and Monitoring Program, who responded with numbers from his team that afternoon.
In November 2018, Reilly once again asked for the same estimates of carbon dioxide generated by two devastating fires that fall in California – the Camp and Woolsey fires.
“The Secretary likes to have this kind of information when he speaks with the media,” Reilly said in a 16 November email to David Applegate, the associate director for natural hazards.
Applegate directed Beard to get the numbers, and Reilly chimed in, asking Beard: “Can you have [the scientists] gin up an estimate on the total CO2 equivalent releases are so far for the current 2 fires in CA?” He said he wanted to compare the figures to the carbon pollution caused by transportation in California.
“That would make a decent sound bite the Sec could use to put some perspective on it,” said Reilly.
Just a week earlier, the ferocious Camp fire had destroyed Paradise, California, killing dozens and becoming the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. The scenes detailed were horrific.
Conservatives have insisted that the wildfires are happening because environmentalists have overzealously encouraged the conservation of forests. Trump has battled with California – the face of the American progressive movement he opposes – over a multitude of other issues, including the state’s longstanding climate policy of requiring new cars to go farther on less fuel.
The new emails show communications staffers and political appointees using government scientists as foot soldiers in those battles.
Now, under the leadership of the former lobbyist David Bernhardt, the agency has sought to remove consideration of climate change from many of its decisions, while expanding oil and gas drilling on federal land. Multiple whistleblowers have accused the department of stifling climate science.
Bernhardt in a May 2019 hearing told lawmakers there are no laws obligating him to combat climate change.
After Reilly asked his staff to calculate the wildfire emissions numbers in November, an interior spokeswoman emailed him asking for the same information so she could put out a statement from Zinke. A few days later, the agency published a press release on Zinke’s behalf, with the title “New Analysis Shows 2018 California Wildfires Emitted as Much Carbon Dioxide as an Entire Year’s Worth of Electricity.”
“There’s too much dead and dying timber in the forest, which fuels these catastrophic fires,” Zinke said. “Proper management of our forests, to include small prescribed burns, mechanical thinning, and other techniques, will improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires, while also helping curb the carbon emissions.”
Hanson, the forest and fire ecologist, said that in addition to using the government data for political purposes, the department numbers overstated the carbon emissions from forest fires while downplaying emissions from fossil fuels.
He said that the carbon emissions numbers generated by USGS and released to the public were an “overestimate” that “can’t be squared with empirical data” from field studies of post-wildfire burn sites in California. Other scientists the Guardian spoke with did not dispute the government’s data, but did find fault with the way it was presented to the public.
“The comparison of fire to electrical emissions [in California] was not explained or justified”, said Harmon, the Oregon State University scientist. “Picking other sectors would have left an entirely different image in the reader’s mind…If the comparison had been made nationally it would have been found that fire related emissions of carbon dioxide were equivalent to 1.7% of fossil fuel related emissions. So it is hard to escape the conclusion that some cherry picking was going on.”
Jayson O’Neill, the deputy director of the Western Values Project, said the emails are another example of the administration “trying to find ways to tell a story to achieve industry goals”.
“As wildfire experts have repeatedly explained, you can’t log or even ‘rake’ our way out of this mess,” O’Neill said. “The Trump administration and the interior department are pushing mystical theories that are false in order to justify gutting public land protections to advance their pro-industry and lobbyist dominated agenda.”