Jim Reilly had only been in charge of the US Geological Survey for seven months, and already things were getting hot. It was December 13, 2018, and he was about to give a keynote at the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference, billed as the largest gathering of earth and space scientists in the world. Reilly is a petroleum geologist and former astronaut who has logged more than 850 hours in space, 22 days in deep-sea research submarines, and four months on the glaciers of West Antarctica. But among the more than 8,000 government employees who now served under him—many of whom were in attendance at the conference—the affable, lanky Texan was something of a stranger. So when he approached the ballroom lectern on that Thursday afternoon, he knew just where to start: “I wanted to talk very briefly,” he said, “about ‘who the heck am I?’”
For those in the earth science community, there was a far more pressing question to be answered. Just a few weeks earlier, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Trump administration had released—dumped, really—a landmark, 1,500-page federal review of the risks of global warming, the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Two of Reilly’s top scientists had helped to oversee the project, which drew heavily on research done at USGS and other federal agencies. But the White House had gone out of its way to discredit the report: “It’s not based on facts,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters a few days after its lackadaisical release. “It’s based on modeling, which is extremely hard to do when you’re talking about the climate.” As the new director of the agency, Reilly hadn’t made any public statement on the matter, and it wasn’t clear exactly where he stood.
This article was reported in collaboration with the nonprofit newsroom Type Investigations.
Forty-five minutes later, as Reilly finished up his conference presentation, that mystery remained. “The most important thing about flying in space is changing your perspective,” he told the audience of scientists. A final slide went up: Earth, as seen from orbit. “All those things that you and I see as differences here on the ground disappear in space,” he said. “You don’t see some of the differences that you might see politically in space. It’s really all about the planet, and that’s what we do at USGS.”
It was not until the Q&A that AGU’s then president, Eric Davidson, gently put the new director on the spot: “I think many of us found it a little—maybe more than a little—discouraging,” he said, referring to Huckabee Sanders’ attack on climate modeling. “So what’s your advice to your scientists, to the rest of us in AGU who are working on providing datastreams to help constrain models, about trying to communicate that basis for the science of climate change?”
Behind the scenes, that very issue—how to constrain models, and then communicate them—had already inspired one of Reilly’s most ambitious and divisive efforts at the agency. At its heart was a plan to reorient USGS research away from long-term thinking, to shrink its perspective. The idea, laid out in a memo Reilly drafted for Ryan Zinke, then the secretary of the interior, in December 2018 and obtained by WIRED, would be to develop department-wide “climate change decision-making” guidelines that focused only on the next 10 years, so predictions could be made—and acted upon—with maximal confidence. That meant the policy process would disregard the distant future, where climate impacts could be cataclysmic.
Reilly had hinted at this plan during his conference presentation, showing what he called the “spaghetti chart” of climate model pathways, extending from 1950 to 2100. In the middle of the chart, from the present day up until around 2040, the spaghetti strands are sheathed together—the models well-aligned because, over the next few decades, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are already accounted for; and the other, most important variables, such as El Niño weather patterns, are beyond the control of humans. But off to the right, the same strands splay out like noodles plopped into a pasta pot: a bath of boiling unknowns, a tangle of “emissions scenarios” that follow from whatever choices we make in years to come. Reilly warned the audience that it’s risky to set policy based on these far-out reaches of the modeled climate curve—there’s far too much uncertainty. So instead, he said, he’d like the agency to take a narrower view: “What’s gonna happen over the next 20, 30, 40 years? How far out can we push that and still stay within a statistically relevant trajectory?”