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As Fires Rage Across the West, Trump Bails Out Big Oil & Picks Climate Denier for Top Role at NOAA

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As climate-fueled wildfires continue to ravage the West, the Trump administration has tapped a well-known climate change denier for a top position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. University of Delaware professor David Legates has written papers calling for more fossil fuel emissions and has had his work supported by the Robert Mercer-funded Heartland Institute and Koch Industries, as well as major gas companies. He was recently hired as NOAA’s deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction. We speak with David Goodrich, a former top climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who says Legates’s appointment goes against the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community. “You have about 97% of the scientists disagreeing with the position of Dr. Legates,” says Goodrich, who served as director of NOAA’s Climate Observations Division from 2009 to 2011. We also speak to David Goodrich about his latest book, “A Voyage Across an Ancient Ocean,” in which he examines the impact of the fossil fuel industry through an epic bicycle journey from the Alberta tar sands to the Bakken oil field of North Dakota.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As Hurricane Sally batters the Gulf Coast and climate-fueled wildfires continue to ravage the West, we turn to look at how a well-known climate change denier has been tapped for a top position at NOAA — that’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

University of Delaware professor David Legates has written papers calling for more fossil fuel emissions, has had his work supported by the Robert Mercer-funded Heartland Institute and Koch Industries, as well as major gas companies. In 2011, he was pushed out of his role as Delaware’s state climatologist for his views on climate change, which go against the scientific consensus. In 2018, the same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned humanity had only a dozen years to mitigate climate change or face global catastrophe, David Legates spoke on at a Heartland Institute conference on a panel called, quote, “Why CO2 Emissions Are Not Creating a Climate Crisis.”

DAVID LEGATES: We’ve all heard that carbon dioxide, of course, is a pollutant. It drives climate. It is the single most important factor that determines what the climate is going to be in the future and what the temperature is going to be and how much precipitation there’s going to be, so much so that we have to put a danger sign on carbon dioxide. But the question I really want to ask is: Is it really a benefit? Not just simply has it gotten a bad rap, but is it really something that we could do with a little bit more? … So, the answer to my question, “Is carbon dioxide a pollutant or a benefit?” it clearly isn’t a pollutant. It is definitely a benefit, and we can do with a little bit more of it.

AMY GOODMAN: David Legates will serve as NOAA’s deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction. Top climate scientist Michael Mann told NPR he could not imagine, quote, “a more misguided decision” than the appointment.

Well, for more, we’re going to New Jersey, where we’re joined by a climate scientist who spent his career at NOAA, David Goodrich. He is the former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Observations Division. Since his retirement, he’s spent his time chronicling the effects of the climate crisis from his bicycle. He’s the author of A Hole in the Wind: A Climate Scientist’s Bicycle Journey across the U.S. and, most recently, just published, A Voyage Across an Ancient Ocean, in which he takes a bike journey from the Alberta tar sands in Canada to the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. David Goodrich. It’s great to have you with us. We want to talk about your book in a minute and your journey, but start with David Legates, what it means to have a top fossil fuel company-funded scientist as the head — one of the top people at NOAA, where you used to work?

DAVID GOODRICH: Well, first of all, thanks very much for having me on, Amy. It’s a pleasure to be here.

I think the appointment of Dr. Legates, you’re basically — if you look at the science community, you have about 97% of the scientists disagreeing with the position of Dr. Legates, that carbon dioxide is a big problem and a big issue in climate. So, it is disappointing, to be sure. I know that the American Geophysical Union, which is sort of the — one of the biggest scientific organizations for geology and geophysics and oceanography in the U.S., has called for this appointment to be pulled back. So, it’s an issue. I’d also point out that it’s certainly not the first time. I mean, once, when I was working with NOAA back in 2002, there was White House interference where our government reports documenting climate change had — were reedited to say there’s significant uncertainties in all of this. And it’s actually been better than 30 years since James Hansen testified before Congress that we have detected a human signal in climate change. It’s kind of time for the fog machine to stop, if you will.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you can talk about the whole issue of climate catastrophe. Right now we’ve got the hurricanes that are battering the Gulf Coast, and we’ve got this massive, unprecedented fires along the West Coast. And talk about how your latest book and your latest bicycle journey, as you followed what you call the “ancient ocean,” illustrates what’s going on.

DAVID GOODRICH: Well, what I tried to do on this bicycle trip — first time, after I retired, I rode across the country, from Oregon to — or, from Delaware to Oregon, and looking at climate change along the way. And I thought maybe I could go ride to a place where climate change is coming from, where the carbon is coming from the ground. So I figured I would start in the tar sands of northern Alberta, which is one of the most carbon-intensive mining operations on the planet, and ride across the Alberta-Saskatchewan-North Dakota prairie to the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, so I could see it sort of from two different sides of the border.

And before I started, from the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, which is where the tar sands mining is centered, I chartered a plane. And you can really only see the extent of this from the air. You’re seeing — you know, from, say, 5,000 feet, which is where the plane was flying, you can see these, what look like small pickup trucks, but they’re actually the biggest dump trucks on the planet, going to and from the face of the tar sands mines. And then, basically, to take — this oil is essentially boiled down with chemicals to where it can flow through pipelines. That takes an enormous amount of energy. Think about how much it takes to melt tar in a 40-below Alberta winter. So, it takes a huge amount of energy just to get this oil out of the ground.

And then I rode through the northern boreal forest and across the plains to the Bakken fields of North Dakota. And that’s a different landscape. I mean, I was riding in on a really hot day. It was pushing 95 degrees. And on the horizon, you’re seeing oil flares, fires. It reminds you of Mordor out of Lord of the Rings. And there is a tremendous amount of fire going — of flaring going on in the Bakken.

So, it’s sort of two different sides of the same coin. In North Dakota, that’s hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, going on, rather than basically digging it out of the ground as you see in Alberta.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in your book, roughly 80% of currently known stocks of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground to keep climate change within somewhat manageable limits, yet fossil fuel industries are still being incentivized to keep producing oil and have received massive bailouts during COVID, even as the oil industry is failing and prices are falling. Can you talk about this?

DAVID GOODRICH: Sure. I mean, we’ve known for quite a while that burning fossil fuels is a major way that climate change is going on. And the idea that a large amount of the fossil fuel resistance — excuse me, the fossil fuel extraction is being supported by the government is amazing to me. What needs to happen is going to more renewable energy. In fact, policies have gone against support for wind and solar over the last couple of years.

So, it’s something that is disappointing, but I liken the changing climate to sort of turning a ship, that there’s a lot of momentum. Nobody is going to turn off fossil fuels tomorrow, but we need to start getting serious about it and stop supporting the — stop subsidizing the production of fossil fuels both here and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we spent time in North Dakota covering the Indigenous struggles to protect the planet. And I was wondering if you can talk about how significant they were, you know, people, for example, leading the charge to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline, which, of course, ultimately was built, along with the Keystone XL, that President Trump greenlighted in both cases.

DAVID GOODRICH: Well, I think the protests actually have been very significant. I mean, Dakota Access was built. There is still legal action going on against the Dakota Access Pipeline. And the Keystone has yet to be built. There is still legal action going on there. And I think what’s happened is that the protests that came about, from Standing Rock and from the environmental community at large, have made building pipelines and moving fossil fuels around a far more difficult and expensive proposition. And I believe that’s a good thing.

You’re basically trying to reduce the flow of carbon into the atmosphere. And pipelines are the way that that happens. So, there is still a lot of push to build pipeline capacity out of the tar sands in Alberta. And that is actually limiting how much — how much activity is going on in the tar sands and in the Bakken, as well. It’s also —

AMY GOODMAN: And, David Goodrich, we just have 30 seconds, but the link to what we’re seeing on the West Coast, the unprecedented fires?

DAVID GOODRICH: Sure. The warming has resulted in the drying out of the forests, basically setting them up to burn. There has been certainly issues with long-term forest management, but even in very well-managed forests, they have burned. And it’s because it’s gotten warmer, it’s gotten drier, and it takes almost nothing to get the fires burning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Goodrich, we want to thank you for being with us, climate scientist, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — that’s NOAA’s Climate Observations Division. His new book, A Voyage Across an Ancient Ocean: A Bicycle Journey Through the Northern Dominion of Oil.

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