Foreign Relations & International Law

The White House’s Climate Committee Red-Teams Reality

Michelle Melton
Tuesday, February 26, 2019, 10:24 AM

On Feb. 22, deputies from a variety of government agencies convened a meeting to discuss the White House proposal to establish a Presidential Committee on Climate Security.

President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tour a Florida community affected by Hurricane Michael in October 2018. (Source: The White House)

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On Feb. 22, deputies from a variety of government agencies convened a meeting to discuss the White House proposal to establish a Presidential Committee on Climate Security. The committee was to have been led by William Happer, the National Security Council’s senior director for emerging technologies, and was slated to “advise the President on scientific understanding of today’s climate, how the climate might change in the future under natural and human influences, and how a changing climate could affect the security of the United States.” But just two days later, the Washington Post reported that the formal advisory committee had been nixed in favor of a less formal, less transparent and still-to-be-defined working group composed primarily of scientists. While the original plan has modified the structure and profile of the committee, the underlying objective of discrediting climate science in order to delay action appears unchanged.

In a normal administration, a presidential committee on climate change and national security would be welcome news. It would mean that the administration was taking seriously the enormous body of government analysis suggesting that climate change is poised to have serious national security consequences—the extent of which I highlighted recently in a three-part series on Lawfare on exactly this subject. If anything, the problem with the government’s analysis is not its alarmism but its conservatism; in relying on the official scientific reports compiled by the international community, the national security establishment may be consistently, systematically underestimating how fast the planet will warm. The problem may well be far worse, especially in the long term, than the many government reports on the subject acknowledge. To be sure, the intersection of climate change and security is a complicated set of issues, and there is considerable uncertainty about the precise impacts of food insecurity, megastorms, rising seas, increased drought and other climatic changes on political stability in the long term. The issue merits both rigorous analysis and high-level attention.

But a blue-ribbon commission that will subject the government’s work product to a rigorous, independent analysis along these lines—what's known as "red-teaming"—is not what the White House seems to have envisioned. The panel—even in its latest incarnation—appears designed to challenge the claim that climate change is something the government should be worried about at all. Don’t take my word for it; there is plenty of evidence. The president, after all, has called climate change a “hoax” and frequently tweets his disbelief that the climate is changing when the temperature drops below freezing. After the release of a November 2018 report outlining the potentially devastating consequences of climate change for the United States—a report compiled by 13 U.S. government agencies—Trump simply told the media, “I don’t believe it.” Climate change is an area—like North Korea’s missile program, the role of Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the role of Russia in interfering in U.S. politics—where the president simply doesn’t believe his own intelligence community and national security establishment. Apparently, the president’s anger at the November report was a catalyst for the climate committee.

Likewise, the original discussion document circulated regarding the White House’s proposal for a committee was dismissive of the existing government reports and “national security judgments” that describe climate change as a threat (the latest of which were issued as recently as January). As quoted in media coverage, the original proposal questioned these reports because they “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.”

And then there is the appointment of Happer himself. Happer is not a climate scientist but nonetheless suggested in 2014 that carbon dioxide is a good thing for the planet, and has compared believers in climate change to Nazis, claiming that demonization of CO2 “really differs little from the Nazi persecution of the Jews, the Soviet extermination of class enemies or [the Islamic State’s] slaughter of infidels.” (The Nazi comparison is not an isolated reference; Happer allegedly referred to his climate science work as a “CO2 anti-defamation league.”) Happer has also publicly said that he believes “climate change has been tremendously exaggerated,” that he doesn’t think “people have very much to do with [causing climate change],” and that “the government should not be pushing technical information that they’re not absolutely certain about.”

Within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a similar red-team exercise to discredit climate science, driven by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, was quietly killed in 2018. The similarities between that effort and this one are not coincidental; Happer was also intimately involved in promoting the EPA’s exercise before it was nixed. Both efforts were framed as red-team exercises to subject climate science to an adversarial review process, both were formed to undermine the science of climate change and both were supported by the same band of characters (including Happer as well as former Department of Energy official Steven Koonin). These similarities raise the question of the extent to which the White House effort is a revival of the earlier EPA effort and the extent to which it has different objectives.

The EPA-led effort was designed to undermine the science of climate change, in general, in order to attack the agency’s legal authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions at all. Because the EPA’s climate science findings are required by the Clean Air Act, any attempt to revisit the agency’s prior findings would have been subject to judicial review—and, given the science, such actions presumably would have had a hard time withstanding judicial scrutiny.

While the EPA is statutorily constrained in its ability to declare by fiat that climate change is nonthreatening, the president is not so constrained. This is especially true if the latest panel retains its focus on national security, given the president’s wide latitude in that area; it is his prerogative to focus on the threats he deems most dire.

More critically, the issue for debate in the original iteration of the Committee on Climate Security was not only the science but also whether the environmental changes unfolding translate into a tangible security threat. While the until-now unchallenged view of the security community has been that climate change is a threat, threat definition is always as much of a normative judgment as a descriptive one. As I explained in Part II of my previous series, the urgency of the climate threat in the next few decades will depend, to a large degree, on whether and how much the U.S. government perceives increased costs due to climate change impacts on vulnerable military installations and widening global inequities as a threat to U.S. national security.

As reported by the Post and by E&E news, however, it is not clear whether the pared-down version of the panel will have a national security dimension or will focus solely on contesting the science. While the effort is still being led by the National Security Council, the Post writes that the panel will not be reviewing any intelligence community reports; E&E reports, however, that the group plans to question the claim that climate is a threat to national security. If the focus is indeed whittled down to the science of climate change, it is not entirely clear what purpose the committee will serve. Whereas the EPA’s effort had legal implications—and a national security-focused effort could at least theoretically translate into changed priorities at the Pentagon—a National Security Council-led, science-focused working group would likely exist merely to sow doubt about the scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet.

The now-diminished working group is not the first high-profile White House advisory commission convened to attempt to refashion factual reality. The first, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, was abruptly disbanded a year ago, having found no evidence of the rampant voter fraud it set out to detect. As with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, this committee-turned-working group also seems likely to stumble right out of the gate. Arguing against reality has turned out to be hard.

That climate change is real and poses serious security challenges has been consistently acknowledged by nearly every high-ranking current government official in a national security position. That’s probably why former military and national security leaders already criticized the earlier iteration of the proposal. But this is not only the considered judgment of current and former military officials, the last decade of national security community reports, the Government Accountability Office, federal security agencies and the scientific community. In the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2018, Congress itself expressed its sense that “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and is impacting stability in areas of the world both where the United States Armed Forces are operating today, and where strategic implications for future conflict exist.” A panel that wants to argue that climate change doesn’t rank among the major threats to the country—or, more gallingly, is a net benefit—will be swimming against a very strong current.

Michelle Melton is an attorney who works on environmental issues. The views expressed in this post are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

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