Last week, as Hurricane Dorian moved toward the Bahamas and the Carolina coast, President Donald Trump sent out a tweet warning that it might also hit Alabama "(much) harder than anticipated." His prediction was wrong, according to forecasts from his own federal agencies and meteorologists in the state. The hurricane would miss Alabama, everyone but Trump agreed — and it did. Faced with a flood of calls from worried Alabamians, the National Weather Service (NWS) in Birmingham issued a tweet affirming that "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian." But Trump then doubled down, issuing statements, doctoring maps, and castigating the media for reporting on his erroneous claim.
And then things got really strange. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency that oversees the NWS, reportedly issued an internal directive to employees telling NWS scientists to "stick to official [National Hurricane Center] forecasts" if reporters called asking about "national level social media posts" (i.e., Trump's tweets) and to "not provide any opinion" about the tweets. Five days after the NWS tweet, NOAA issued a statement that appeared to back Trump. The NWS tweet, it said, "spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time."
NWS employees were reportedly livid. "Shocked, stunned, and irate" was how the president of the union representing the workers described them. "When the NWS issues a hurricane warning or flash flood warning — it's very important [that] everyone is on the same page," Dan Sobien, president of the NWS Employees Organization, told The Daily Beast. "It's hard enough to convince people to evacuate or take cover. If you have confusion, it could be very bad." At a Sept. 9 meeting of the National Weather Association, the head of the NWS defended the Birmingham forecasters, asking them to stand and saying they "did what any office would do to protect the public."
The NWS has historically been one of the most apolitical branches of the federal government. But as the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in a Sept. 7 blog post, the NOAA has been dogged by worries of political interference in scientific activities before — though it's worked to overcome them. A 2007 report and investigation by the UCS and the Government Accountability Project found that while government scientists believed that the quality of their research on climate change was high, "there is broad [political] interference in communicating scientific results." In the years since then, however, UCS notes that the agency's Scientific Integrity Policy, which allows NOAA scientists free rein to communicate with the media and the public, had allayed these concerns.
But recent events indicate that this stance may be changing under the Trump administration.
NOAA has not had a confirmed leader since Trump took office in January 2017. Since February of this year, the agency has been led by Neil Jacobs, the acting undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, the NOAA branch that oversees the NWS. Jacobs grew up surfing the Outer Banks, earned undergraduate degrees in math and physics at the University of South Carolina, and received his master's and doctoral degrees in atmospheric science from North Carolina State. His wife, a biologist, currently works at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Jacobs and NOAA Chief of Staff and Communications Director Julie Kay Roberts were reportedly involved in drafting the statement disputing the NWS tweet.
Before joining NOAA in 2017, Jacobs worked in the private weather forecasting industry as the chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Weather Solutions. He was nominated alongside Barry Myers, the CEO of AccuWeather, whose nomination to oversee the NOAA is still pending because of concerns that his company has tried to undercut the ability of the NWS to do its job. Some critics who were worried about Myers' ties to the private forecasting industry, including Andrew Rosenberg of UCS, had similar concerns about Jacobs serving as NOAA's acting head.
"Do people have a right to accessible weather information that they pay for with their tax dollars? Myers and AccuWeather, as well as Jacobs and Panasonic appear to think not," wrote Rosenberg.
Upon his nomination to NOAA last year, Jacobs told Surfline, a company that provides ocean-related forecasts, that he believes there could be greater collaboration between public agencies and private weather industry, though he said criticism that he was pro-privatization was off the mark. "I would like to see NOAA harness the capabilities in the private industry through public/private partnerships working together in a collaborative versus competitive relationship," he said. "It's different from privatization, which is just replacing the public sector with the private sector."
'Try to keep politics out'
Since assuming his acting position, Jacobs has appeared before several congressional panels on behalf of the agency. In climate-related testimony, he has avoided outright denying climate science as the president does, but he has also avoided using the phrase "climate change." In testimony delivered to a House panel during a February hearing on climate change and research, for example, Jacobs focused not on climate change but on short-term forecasting.
"Because so many factors influence the Earth's climate, and these factors can be highly variable, accurate and long-term observations of the current state of the Earth’s environmental conditions are critical," he said. "To derive meaningful information on trends and interactions from all of these observations, they must be monitored without interruption for many decades or longer." By contrast, NASA's director of Earth Science Research opened his testimony at the same hearing by talking about rising sea levels, rising global temperatures, diminishing sea ice cover, and the increased frequency of severe weather events.
Jacobs was also asked about the dire conclusions of the most recent National Climate Assessment, a behemoth report released by the federal government in November 2018 and signed off on by 10 agencies. When asked whether he agreed with its first sentence, that "Earth's climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities," he seemed to agree. "If you remove natural variation … then the remaining trend is anthropogenic," Jacobs said. That echoed previous comments he made to Surfline that climate change is indisputably real but the science is not settled on "how much influence are humans having on it versus how much is from natural variability and natural signals." Jacobs gave a straight "yes" or "no" answer to just one of the subcommittee chair's questions about whether he agreed with specific findings of the report; he also said it was beyond the scope of his agency to comment on some of its findings.
At a House budget hearing in March, Jacobs defended the Trump administration's proposal to cut 18 percent, or about $1 billion, from the NOAA's budget. The bulk of those cuts would come from the Climate Program Office, slashing climate research programs and funding for competitive climate research grants. At the hearing, Jacobs also said that it wouldn't make a difference if a proposed National Security Council panel to reassess climate science was led by a climate skeptic. "As long as they stick to the peer-reviewed literature, personal views really don't matter," he said. "If you go through the peer review process, it's designed to eliminate personal bias."
Jacobs' efforts to toe the administration's line on climate change is not out of step with the NOAA’s trajectory under Trump. Last summer under then-acting administrator Tim Gallaudet, the agency considered reorienting its mission away from understanding and predicting changes in the climate to observing, understanding, and predicting atmospheric and ocean conditions. After criticism from scientists around the country, including a former NOAA head, Gallaudet quickly walked back the proposed changes. But they fit with a broader shift under the Trump administration to downplay climate science and the effects of global warming. During Gallaudet's tenure, for example, Trump was reportedly not briefed on climate change and stated publicly that he did not "believe" the results of his government's own National Climate Assessment.
In the Surfline interview, Jacobs said everything is political in Washington. "I'm fortunate that NOAA's basically a science agency, and I’m going to do my best to keep politics out of it," he said. "We've got a job to produce the most accurate, robust and defendable science ... We have to make sure that everything is objective and transparent and try to keep politics out of that, which is fine by me."
But Jacobs' partner in drafting the controversial NOAA statement comes from a more explicitly political background.
Roberts served as the deputy director of internal and diplomatic affairs on Trump's inaugural committee and before that worked for the Trump campaign doing advance work for Mike Pence. She previously served in several federal agencies during the George W. Bush administration and worked in emergency management in Florida during Obama's second term. Her Facebook profile includes two photos of her with Vice President Pence.
In late August, as Hurricane Dorian headed toward the U.S. Southeast, Roberts changed her Facebook cover photo to an Aug. 29 White House image showing Jacobs briefing Trump on Hurricane Dorian. On Sept. 5, the same day Business Insider reported that the photo confirmed Trump had been briefed with a map showing Alabama was outside of Dorian's impact cone, Roberts changed her Facebook cover image to one reading "Fearless."
It appears that the controversy over the Dorian misinformation is not over yet. This week, the Washington Post reported that Craig McLean, the NOAA's acting chief scientist, told colleagues he would be investigating the agency's "political" response as a violation of the NOAA's ethics policy, calling it a "danger to public health and safety."