This story was updated at 1:41 p.m. EST.
The next National Climate Assessment is beginning to take shape at a time when President Trump warned world leaders to reject "alarmists" and as his conservative allies make plans to intervene in the report’s preparation to question the findings of mainstream scientists.
The Fifth National Climate Assessment is scheduled for release in 2022, about halfway through Trump’s potential second term. Planning for the report is already underway, with requests to researchers to submit their work and a project leader expected to be chosen within a few months, according to Donald Wuebbles, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois who oversaw the last assessment.
The White House stands to have an influential role in the report’s construction through the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is overseen by Trump’s science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier. Wuebbles said Droegemeier, an extreme-weather expert whom he has known for years, will work to produce an accurate assessment that’s free of Trump’s erroneous assertions about climate change.
"Kelvin would fight that," Wuebbles said.
But critics of climate science close to the White House believe the effort could take a more adversarial approach compared with earlier versions. Steve Koonin, a physics professor at New York University, said he has pitched Droegemeier on the idea of incorporating a red-team review into the National Climate Assessment. The exercise could allow science critics to use discredited theories to challenge consensus research on rising temperatures, scientists have said.
Koonin was part of the aborted White House effort to conduct an adversarial review of the last National Climate Assessment. Though that effort failed, Koonin is confident that it "chastened" White House officials against releasing the 2022 report without challenging alarming new climate findings.
"I’d like to see a good, hard scrub of the thing, done in an open way," Koonin said in an interview. "I hope we have other ways of getting an honest portrayal of the science out there. I haven’t given up."
Officials in the White House science office did not respond to a request for comment.
William Happer, a former director on the National Security Council who led the failed attempt last year to formally dispute mainstream science through a red-team process, told McClatchy last week that he hopes to be a contributing author of the next National Climate Assessment.
Happer previously revealed that the Trump administration obstructed the timing of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which was started during the Obama administration, by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving. He also said the president was angry that it had been released at all.
The fourth assessment went through two reviews involving multiple federal agencies with expertise in climate science as well as additional rounds of scrutiny from experts assembled at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. It also went through a public review that generated more than 3,400 comments.
Scientists involved in drafting the last assessment are concerned that the process could be politicized. The notion of having two teams — one red and one blue — argue over the science is inherently political, said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and a lead author of the fourth assessment.
"There is no blue team, the entire premise is based on a straw man, and the straw man is that a thermometer gives you a different answer depending on how you vote," she said. "The whole argument is based on an absolute fallacy that somehow science is different when you look at it through different lenses and it gives you different answers."
Hayhoe acknowledged, however, that the process of writing the National Climate Assessment is due for an update. She said more than half of its revelations are foundational and haven’t changed since the last assessment was written.
Instead, she said, there’s plenty of room to reveal noteworthy scientific discoveries as incremental and ongoing updates. Hayhoe said the next version of the report should continue to address climate attribution for individual events, such as the Australian wildfires or a particular hurricane.
The previous assessment devoted a chapter to areas in climate science where more research is needed to reduce uncertainty, such as how climate change affects national security and how changing conditions in other countries could shape the U.S. economy.
Bob Kopp, a lead author on the fourth assessment and a sea-level rise expert at Rutgers University, agreed that the next iteration doesn’t need a comprehensive summation of the latest research. Instead it should focus on what policymakers and the general public need to know about climate change.
He said the last few years have revealed startling new information about the instability of the Antarctic ice sheet, which has global repercussions for sea-level rise. In addition, changes to the Arctic and their implications for the release of more carbon dioxide as permafrost thaws is another area of concern, he said.
Kopp expressed concern about political tampering related to the upcoming assessment.
"If the fifth NCA is coming out in 2022 under a Trump administration, who knows what all sorts of things are going to look like," he said.
If anything, Wuebbles said the next climate assessment should be less cautious in the way it expresses observed changes. The speed at which the planet is heating up and changing is happening at a pace that has shocked scientists who have worked in the field for decades, he said.
"We may be underestimating the amount of changes, we already knew that we were underestimating the amount of extreme precipitation," Wuebbles said. "Overall, we’re just underestimating what’s really going on, and it’s not just temperature change. Our tendency is to be too conservative."