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As NASA and NOAA warn of climate emergency, they weather last-minute denial by Trump appointees

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The numbers are in. The hottest seven years in recorded history are: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014.

Notice a trend? As 2020 smashed hurricane and wildfire records, doing $90 billion worth of damage in the United States alone, new data shows last year neck-and-neck with 2016 as the hottest year in recorded history.

But at this point, says NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel, rankings are worthless. It’s all about that horrifying trend towards a level of global overheating impossible to control.

“What really matters, and what I think is really significant and really concerning, is that the seven hottest years on record were the past seven years,” Marvel told CNN.

Her work is part of a global consensus among scientists — from the United Kingdom’s Met Office, Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, Berkeley Earth and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — that the planet’s man-made fever shows no sign of breaking and that land, sea and sky may all be getting hotter faster.

The seven-year stretch “almost hints at a bit of an acceleration in the rate of warming we’re seeing globally,” Russ Vose, chief of climate monitoring at NOAA, told CNN. “Each decade has been warmer than the decade that preceded it for the past four or five decades.”

If the trend continues, it means this was also the coldest seven-year stretch for the rest of our lives, if not the rest of recorded human history. And the scientists who authored these latest reports all agree.

Humanity will determine exactly how bad it gets.

“It’s not the sun. It’s not natural climate variability. It’s human actions, specifically human emissions of greenhouse gases, dioxide and methane,” Marvel said emphatically. “I’m a scientist. I hang out with scientists all the time. We don’t agree on anything. Scientists will fight about absolutely everything. So the fact that scientists agree that it is human activities causing the climate changes that we’ve seen, that’s really, really, really significant.”

Trump appointees pushing disinformation on climate

But even as experts were finishing their annual global climate assessments, climate skeptics appointed by President Donald Trump to top scientific positions at NOAA last September, and later temporarily assigned to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), were publishing contrarian pseudoscience online.

“The Office of Science and Technology Policy is pleased to bring you these briefs to further your understanding of climate change by learning from these learned scholars,” reads the introduction written by one of those Trump appointees, David Legates, a professor at the University of Delaware who supports the climate-denying Heartland Institute.

But the essays, now known as the “Climate Change Flyers,” were written by longtime contrarians and filled with theories debunked by the peer-reviewed work of scientists across US agencies, and even the public acknowledgment by major oil companies that the climate crisis is caused by burning fossil fuels.

Without permission, Legates and fellow Trump appointee Ryan Maue posted the flyers on a website affiliated with leading climate skeptic Willie Soon and bore the seal of the Executive Office of the President.

OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier “was outraged to learn of the materials that were not shared with or approved by OSTP leadership,” spokeswoman Kristina Baum said in an email to the Washington Post. “He first became aware of the documents when contacted by the press. As a result, Dr. Droegemeier took swift action and the individuals responsible have been relieved of their duties at OSTP.”

Legates and Maue finished out their term at the White House this week and returned to NOAA, where the incident is under review, according to the Washington Post. CNN reached out to Legates and Maue for comment but received no response.

“I do know David Legates from back in my days in graduate school, but I haven’t seen him in a long time, and I can’t explain the actions that he and others took in this case,” Vose told CNN. “I can’t speak for all of NOAA, but I can tell you that where we are, our morale is high,” he said. “I’ve been through four administrations. I’ve happily served them all. I look forward to serving the next administration.”

Scientist hoping for less politics, more policy

Despite the politicization of science under Trump, Vose likens the role of NOAA scientists to Department of Labor statisticians in charge of job reports: neutral dispensers of accurate numbers.

“We happily do our work independently without interference,” he said. “And please hold us accountable if you ever feel like that’s happened.”

“I’m hoping that the long-term effects will be almost nil,” Marvel said. “I think the fact that this stuff came out and most people said, ‘Well, this is a bit silly’ and then moved on gives me a lot of hope.”

With an incoming Joe Biden administration committed to reversing course on US climate inaction, the conversation around this most difficult topic is bound to change. The question is how soon before debate turns to policy and action.

“My entire goal is to become completely irrelevant to the climate conversation,” Marvel said. “I don’t want scientists to be debating whether or not this is happening or who’s responsible for it. I think we’ve moved beyond that. I think we should be having a much better fight. We should be debating policy. We should be debating solutions. We should be debating the morality of climate change. None of those things are my particular area of expertise. But I think we’re getting there.”

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