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White House’s plans to counter climate science reports ‘will erode our national security,’ 58 former officials warn

Generals, admirals and other national security officials sent a letter to President Trump.

Then secretary of state John Kerry and secretary of defense Chuck Hagel testify together during a congressional hearing in 2013. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

More than four dozen former military and intelligence officials are rebuking President Trump for planning to counter the government’s own findings that climate change poses a threat to national security — warning that it’s “dangerous to have national security analysis conform to politics.”

The 58 former generals, admirals and other national security officials sent a letter to Trump on Tuesday objecting to the idea of a White House panel to “dispute and undermine military and intelligence judgments on the threat posed by climate change.”

“Imposing a political test on reports issued by the science agencies, and forcing a blind spot onto the national security assessments that depend on them, will erode our national security,” the letter states. “It is dangerous to have national security analysis conform to politics.”

The missive comes a week and a half after top administration officials met in the White House Situation Room to discuss plans to impanel an ad hoc group of select federal scientists to scrutinize and potentially dispute the conclusions of recent federal climate reports.

White House officials are still determining what sort of group they will assemble to assess the government’s scientific findings and whether they will eventually establish an independent federal advisory committee to scrutinize climate science.

Yet the letter writers, which include heavyweights from Barack Obama’s administration such as former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel and former secretary of state John F. Kerry, already worry the panel will end up unduly “second-guessing the scientific sources” that underpin the grave conclusions from most military leaders that climate change is a menace to the nation’s security.

“If this was being done in good faith, it would be okay,” said Andrew Holland, chief operating officer of the American Security Project. His group, along with the Center for Climate and Security, another policy and research nonprofit focused on security issues, organized the letter.

In various military and intelligence reports, military leaders predict that the impact of climate change will directly endanger U.S. facilities — for example, a rise in sea level is expected to increase the risk of flooding at naval bases. They also project that climate change will exacerbate conditions, such as drought, that lead to conflict.

“Fundamentally, this is about letting the military and intelligence community do its job,” said John Conger, director of the Center for Climate and Security and former acting assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and the environment.

Until recently, the Trump administration has been hands-off when military officials have spoken about climate change. While Trump has been president, at least 21 senior defense officials have called climate change a security threat during college speeches, congressional hearings and other public events. Even the GOP-led Congress last year passed a defense bill with language calling climate change a “direct threat to the national security of the United States.”

But those who put together the letter worry the new panel would represent a new phase of attack on climate science. “Up until now, the national security and intelligence agencies have been allowed to conduct analysis on climate change and have determined that it is a national security risk,” said Francesco Femia, a co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security.

But this latest White House effort, he added, is “extraordinary, and that’s why you’re seeing such a significant reaction.”

The letter’s signatories also include rear admirals, major generals and other high-ranking officers who worked under presidents stretching all the way to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Others served extensively in Republican administrations. Geoffrey Kemp, for instance, worked as a special national security assistant to Ronald Reagan. And retired Adm. Paul Zukunft, another signer, just recently left his post in the Trump administration as the Coast Guard’s top officer.

The ad hoc panel plans to scrutinize the National Climate Assessment published in November, produced by scientists from 13 federal agencies, that concluded that “the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country.”

At the Situation Room meeting, deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman said Trump, who has long questioned the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that human activity is responsible for global warming, was upset that his administration had issued the National Climate Assessment, as The Washington Post reported last week.

In interviews, the signatories worried in particular about the potential involvement of William Happer, a physicist who works as a senior director at the National Security Council and who has argued that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is good for the world.

Retired Rear Adm. David Titley, a former oceanographer of the Navy and chief operating officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who signed the letter, said Happer is “a fringe figure even within the climate denial community.”

He added, “This science has been peer-reviewed by more people and more organizations than probably anything else.”