‘Red team’ revived under physicist who sees ‘CO2 drought’

By Scott Waldman | 02/21/2019 06:56 AM EST

The Trump administration finally found a way to formally question climate science. William Happer, a prominent climate skeptic in the Trump administration, is heading a new White House effort to downplay national security risks created by rising temperatures.

National security official William Happer is involved in an effort to create a White House panel on climate change and security.

National security official William Happer is involved in an effort to create a White House panel on climate change and security. Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Trump administration found a way to formally question climate science after almost two years of false starts.

William Happer, a prominent opponent of climate science in the Trump administration, is heading a new White House effort to downplay the national security risks posed by climate change. It resembles the "red team" approach promoted by scandal-plagued former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Named the Presidential Committee on Climate Security, the group is scheduled to meet tomorrow in the Situation Room at the White House, The Washington Post first reported. Its goal is to provide an "adversarial" review of climate science to determine if a series of recent reports have overstated the risks posed by global warming, according to a memo circulated within the White House obtained by E&E News.


"These 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 memo says.

The meeting will be run by Happer, an emeritus physics professor at Princeton University who serves on the National Security Council as senior director for emerging technologies. Happer, who is not a climate scientist, has rejected mainstream climate science for years. He routinely says that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant and that the world could burn more fossil fuels without harm. Happer heads a group called the CO2 Coalition, which advocates for a rejection of climate science, and he has said the world is in a "CO2 drought." His work has been funded by the conservative Mercer family, a major donor to the Trump campaign.

The memo’s recipients included Kelvin Droegemeier, the president’s science adviser and an expert on extreme weather, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who rejected climate science as a congressman from Oklahoma but later said he "evolved" to accept it. The meeting tomorrow follows several instances in which President Trump has confused climate and weather by implying that low temperatures disprove global warming.

"Red team" exercises are typically used to review military operations. When Pruitt sought to apply it to climate science, it caused divisions among White House advisers before being scuttled by former Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general.

Happer was an integral part of the initial "red team" effort. He has been in contact with other prominent skeptics of climate change as he formulated the current review plan, according to those involved in the discussions.

The memo lays out a goal of bringing in a variety of experts who can examine climate science and the risks of rising temperatures to national security.

"The membership should include experts in national security and the science of climate and related fields, including statistics, data reliability, fluid motions of the atmosphere and oceans, radiation transfer, and geophysics," the memo says.

Experts in those fields have determined that climate change poses security risks throughout the world, from rising sea levels and the displacement of millions of people to deadly heat waves and floods. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Climate Assessment both found that civilizations face sharpening threats from a warming planet.

Longtime opponents of climate science hailed the move, praising a critical review of climate science because it leads to government policies with cost implications.

"Other scientific or engineering issues that involve large consequences is tested and scrutinized to death from every possible angle, and every possible criticism is taken and evaluated," said Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment. "Any process that does a critical review is welcome."

Climate scientists are rigorously scrutinized through the peer-review process, and their assessments are tested by real-world conditions. As scientists predicted decades ago, the world has continued to warm at a rapid pace. The past five years have been the warmest in recorded history. In addition, prominent U.S. science agencies have found that humans are warming the planet at an unprecedented pace through the burning of fossil fuels.

The move comes weeks after the Pentagon released a report that showed how global warming is affecting military installations across the country. In Alaska, bases built on thawing permafrost are suffering cracking building foundations, and rising sea levels are putting a number of coastal installations at risk. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a Senate committee last month that climate change poses security risks to the country.

"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," he said.

The nation’s intelligence community has studied the risk posed by climate change for decades. During the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, the CIA examined the negative effects of climate change on grain crop yields in the Soviet Union. Declassified CIA memos show that John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, participated in at least one climate change briefing as far back as 1989, when he was assistant secretary for international organization affairs at the Department of State under President George H.W. Bush.

The Trump administration’s partisan attacks on science could harm preparation for climate change across a number of agencies, said Francesco Femia, co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security. Top officials might decide to drop it from their analyses to avoid picking a fight with the president, he said.

"Frankly, it’s insulting to those in the intelligence community and those who are in our science agencies," Femia said. "Within the Pentagon and within the intelligence community, there are a lot of people who are evidence-driven, fact-driven, science-driven patriots, and they see a risk and they begin to put that into their analysis because they know if you don’t do so, you’re going to have a blind spot on security. And that’s never a good thing."