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If You Wanted to Kill Crucial Climate Research, 'You Might Do It Like This'

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put his high school football teammate in charge of approving funding for climate research, which scientists say has been roadblocked this year

Interior Secretary has reportedly tasked his high school football teammate, whose professional background is in business administration, with analyzing climate research proposals. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

Climate scientists who have had their research held up this year are pointing to the Interior Department, which added an additional step in the review process for approving funding grants, as the reason they have been hamstrung in their efforts to study the climate crisis and its effects on the Earth.

The additional review was put in place by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to ensure research "better align[s] with the administration's priorities"—and he appointed an old high school friend with no experience in scientific research or environmental work, to make that call.

Steve Howke was named senior adviser to the Interior Department's policy, management, and budget official last fall, after years of working in credit unions. His highest level of education is a Bachelor's degree in business administration, which he earned after playing with Zinke on Whitefish High School's football team as a teenager.

"If you were going to design a way to bog things down so not much could happen, you might do it like this," a scientist whose work at the Climate Adaptation Science Centers has been delayed due to the lack of funding from the Interior Department—which controls $5.5 billion for research, conservation and land acquisition—told the Guardian.

The Centers conduct research on the climate crisis and how it has been linked to numerous disasters like the destructive wildfires tearing through parts of California and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which caused billions of dollars in damage and killed thousands of people last year, mainly in Puerto Rico.

Howke's ability to oversee and deny funding for climate research funding was called an "unprecedented and pernicious political interference" by David Hayes, a former Interior deputy secretary under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

"It's hard to have any conclusion other than the administration is looking to steer the science in a political direction," Hayes told the Guardian.

The Trump administration's priorities decidedly do not "align" with those of most climate scientists, at least 97 percent of whom agree that human beings—largely through carbon emissions brought on by fossil fuel extraction and other activities—are contributing to the climate crisis.

Zinke has dismissed the role of the climate crisis in California's wildfires in recent days, telling the Sacremento Bee, "It's not 'climate change equals fires,'" and claiming that "environmental terrorists" who have advocated to protect forests from the logging were to blame for the blazes. 

"Whether you're a proponent or an opponent, a believer or a non-believer of climate change, it doesn't relieve you of the responsibility to manage our public lands," said Zinke at a press conference Monday.

"It feels like an effort to create obstacles to success," one scientist told the Guardian of the extra level of review overseen by Howke. "My concern is, are they creating an environment that will prevent us from being successful as an excuse then to not fund us in the future?"

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