On its face, a proposal to create a “presidential committee on climate security” might sound like progress, given President Donald Trump’s well-known penchant for dismantling Obama-era environmental and climate initiatives, withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and tweeting dismissively about global warming any time there’s a cold snap.
But after the proposal was leaked to the Washington Post earlier this week, climate scientists, environmental campaigners, and national security experts were not optimistic. Their concerns center on the description of the proposed committee’s task and the background of the adviser behind the plan.
That adviser is William Happer, an accomplished 79-year-old Princeton University physicist who recently became Trump’s deputy assistant for emerging technologies on the National Security Council.
While Happer has a long list of credentials, he also holds the radical view that carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming, is a boon to the planet, not a threat. As Happer told me in a Skype interview in 2017, when he was in the running to be Trump’s science adviser, “Let me be clear. I don’t think it’s a problem at all, I think it’s a good thing.”
Reminded that carbon dioxide doesn’t dissipate like other pollutants, but instead builds up relentlessly in the atmosphere, he added: “I’m very happy that it’s long-lived. The longer the better."
That long lifetime of carbon dioxide is what guarantees that decisions on heat-trapping emissions in the next few decades—or indecision—will have repercussions for climate and sea levels for millenniums to come.
Happer’s proposal was laid out in a packet of documents circulated this week to a long list of Trump administration officials. The main task of the 12-member committee, if created, would be to take a second look, through “adversarial scientific peer review,” at recent government reports laying out the risks posed by human-caused global warming.
That adversarial approach is the other source of concern.
“Critical review is an essential part of peer review, as it seeks to reveal flaws so as to arrive at truth,” said William Gail, a meteorologist who is a former president of the American Meteorological Society and author of Climate Conundrums – What the Debate Reveals About Us. “Adversarial review seeks primarily to undermine the argument, not arrive at truth.”
Deputies to cabinet leaders were set to meet in the White House Situation Room on February 22 to vet Happer's proposal. Reached by e-mail, Happer declined to comment.
The reports in question
According to the proposal leaked to the Post, which was later obtained by National Geographic, the committee’s prime task would be to evaluate the robustness of the main conclusions of the latest National Climate Assessment and the climate findings in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.
The fourth National Climate Assessment, a report produced for Congress every five years by more than a dozen government agencies, describes an array of damaging impacts of global warming unfolding now around the United States and rising risks and costs ahead. Its findings were repeatedly reviewed by the National Academies and were open for voluminous public comment.
When the final section of the assessment was published in November, and a reporter asked Trump about the report’s high projected cost to the economy from unabated global warming, Trump said “I don’t believe it.” When the annual intelligence report on global threats was unveiled in January by the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, Trump challenged findings on North Korea, Iran, and terrorism in a blitz of tweets.
The president didn’t comment on that report’s sobering section on the environment and global warming, which kicked off with this sentence: “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
But it’s clear from Happer’s proposal that he, at the very least, is deeply skeptical of that conclusion. “[T]hese scientific and national security judgments have not undergone a rigorous independent and adversarial scientific peer review to examine the certainties and uncertainties of climate science, as well as implications for national security,” the document says.
What happens next?
The deputies meeting at the White House today could reject the proposal outright, or they could forward it to the cabinet and Trumps’ top advisers. Eventually it would reach Trump for signature as an executive order creating the climate security committee. A draft order is part of the proposal.
According to two White House officials familiar with the plan, there are deep divisions in the administration over the merits of creating a presidential climate committee, given the White House focus on other priorities. The proposal may also be subject to turf battles, because it would seem to yank authority over science policy away from the Office of Science and Technology Policy and other science agencies with a climate focus.
If created, the panel would be chaired by two scientists outside the government. Happer would be on the panel, but not in charge. (Federal law governing such panels requires one federal official to have a seat.)
The review of the government studies would take two to three months, and the results would be sent for an independent review by the National Academies, the nation’s top independent advisory organization.
One defender of the plan is Steven E. Koonin, a theoretical physicist at New York University who was under secretary for science in the Department of Energy in President Obama’s second term.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed article in early 2017, Koonin, citing concerns about what he saw as over-distilled climate conclusions in many reports, called for an adversarial “red team” exercise to test climate change findings the way military strategists test battlefield options. His idea was pursued by Trump’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, but was scuttled early in 2018 by Trump’s then chief of staff John F. Kelly.
Koonin said the process proposed by Happer, if undertaken with transparency and the follow-up review by the National Academies, could illuminate how climate report summaries tend to torque conclusions toward the dramatic.
“This could show the public how the science process works and maybe change minds on both sides about where reality lies,” he said. That could lead to a wider consensus on climate policies, he added.
A withering criticism of the plan, on the other hand, was issued this week by the Center for Climate and Security, an organization of former military and intelligence officials. It cited the long series of intelligence, defense, and other government reports issued even under the Trump administration, all concluding that climate change was a security threat.
“All have been produced through comprehensive processes with rigorous reviews,” the critique said.
Francesco Femia, chief executive of the center, said there’s plenty of need for careful assessment of the role climate change could play in worsening conflict and dislocation in the world’s danger zones. In some parts of the world, like the warming Arctic or along coasts increasingly damaged by rising seas, the connection is straightforward. In other regions, other factors still tend to dominate, particularly poor governance and deep poverty, according to recent studies.
"I would welcome a rigorous independent panel of credible climate and national security experts to study the broader security implications of climate on a higher level," Femia said in a phone interview. "A real review for security, that would be excellent."
But, he added, "just based on the description of this committee and the interests of Happer, that is not what this is."
Judith Curry, a former Georgia Tech climate scientist who has frequently been invited by Republicans to testify on climate science, because of her outspoken focus on the uncertainties, said the tone among climate skeptics in Washington seems to be shifting away from outright denial. Some anti-regulatory think tanks, she noted, are shutting down their climate-focused programs. Congressional hearings no longer center on yes-no climate debates.
In some ways, Curry said, “the last bastion of hard-core denial seems to be the White House.”
If invited, she said she would happily serve on a presidential climate committee, but only if there were a sense the panelists were there to shed preconceptions and follow the data.
“I’m trying to take a pragmatic approach,” she said. “The world is warming and humans are contributing to that change.”
“We don’t know how the 21st century is going to play out,” she went on. “But I hope we can focus on pragmatic solutions that are politically palatable, don’t jeopardize the economy and make progress instead of fighting this endless war over the science.”