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White House officials barred a State Department intelligence agency from submitting written testimony this week to the House Intelligence Committee warning that human-caused climate change is “possibly catastrophic.” The move came after State officials refused to excise the document’s references to federal scientific findings on climate change.
The effort to edit, and ultimately suppress, the prepared testimony by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research comes as the Trump administration is debating how best to challenge the fact that burning fossil fuels is warming the planet and could pose serious risks unless the world makes deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. Senior military and intelligence officials have continued to warn that climate change could undermine the United States’ national security — a position President Trump rejects.
Officials from the White House’s Office of Legislative Affairs, Office of Management and Budget and National Security Council all raised objections to parts of the testimony that Rod Schoonover, who works in the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, prepared to present on the bureau’s behalf for a hearing Wednesday.
The document lays out in stark detail the implications of what the administration faces in light of rising carbon emissions that the world has not curbed.
“Absent extensive mitigating factors or events, we see few plausible future scenarios where significant — possibly catastrophic — harm does not arise from the compounded effects of climate change,” the document said.
White House officials took aim at the document’s scientific citations, which refer to work conducted by federal agencies including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
According to several senior administration officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about internal deliberations, Trump administration officials sought to cut several pages of the document on the grounds that its description of climate science did not mesh with the administration’s official stance. Critics of the testimony included William Happer, a National Security Council senior director who has touted the benefits of carbon dioxide and sought to establish a federal task force to challenge the scientific consensus that human activity is driving the planet’s rising temperatures.
Schoonover’s draft testimony was peppered with comments from the National Security Council, criticizing his characterization of the threats posed by climate change.
“This is not objective testimony at all,” read one comment, according to an individual familiar with the document. “It includes lots of climate alarm propaganda that is not science at all. I am embarrassed to have this go out on behalf of the executive branch of the Federal Government.”
In another passage, Happer objected to the phrase “tipping point” when describing how a certain level of warming could trigger devastating climate-related impacts, the individual said.
“ ‘Tipping points’ is a propaganda slogan for the scientifically illiterate,” Happer wrote. “They were a favorite of Al Gore’s science adviser, James Hansen.”
Administration officials said the Office of Legislative Affairs ultimately decided that Schoonover could appear before the House panel but could not submit his office’s statement for the record because it did not, in the words of one official, “jibe” with what the administration is seeking to do on climate change. The official added that legislative affairs and staffers at the Office of Management and Budget routinely review agency officials’ prepared congressional testimony before they submit it.
A House Intelligence Committee aide confirmed that the panel received the written testimony of the two other intelligence officials who testified at Wednesday’s public hearing, but not Schoonover’s.
Francesco Femia, chief executive of the Council on Strategic Risks and co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, questioned why the White House would not have allowed an intelligence official to offer a written statement that would be entered into the permanent record.
“This is an intentional failure of the White House to perform a core duty: inform the American public of the threats we face. It’s dangerous and unacceptable,” Femia said in an email Friday. “Any attempt to suppress information on the security risks of climate change threatens to leave the American public vulnerable and unsafe.”
Schoonover, who served as a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, could not be reached for comment Friday, and the State Department referred questions to the White House. A White House spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said in an email, “The administration does not comment on its internal policy review.”
The Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s 12-page prepared testimony, obtained by The Washington Post on Friday, includes a detailed description of how rising greenhouse gas emissions are raising global temperatures and acidifying the world’s oceans. It warns that these changes are contributing to the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
“Climate-linked events are disruptive to humans and societies when they harm people directly or substantially weaken the social, political, economic, environmental, or infrastructure systems that support people,” the statement reads. Noting that while some populations may benefit from climate change, it said “the balance of documented evidence to date suggests that net negative effects will overwhelm the positive benefits from climate change for most of the world.”
The document sounds the alarms on several fronts, outlining two dozen ways that “climate-linked stresses” could affect human society. It identifies nine tipping points that could transform the Earth’s system, including “rapid melting in West Antarctic or Greenland ice masses” along with “rapid die-offs of many critically important species, such as coral or insects” and a “massive release of carbon” from methane that is now frozen in the Earth. It warns that because scientists have not been able to calculate the likelihood of these thresholds being reached, “crossing them is possible over any future time frame.”
The prepared testimony also notes that 18 of the past 20 years have ranked as the warmest on record, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “and the last five years have been the warmest five.”
The White House proposed eliminating all of these scientific references.
Trump has been steadfast in shrugging off warnings from scientists about the potential impacts of climate change, reiterating in an interview with Piers Morgan on “Good Morning Britain” this week that he does not regret pulling the United States out of a 2015 global climate accord aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
“I believe that there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways,” he said. “Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming. That wasn’t working. Then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather because, with extreme weather, you can’t miss.”
During the interview, he blamed China, India and Russia for polluting the environment and insisted the United States has “among the cleanest climates,” noting that the United States had suffered extreme weather in the past. “Forty years ago, we had the worst tornado binge we’ve ever had. In the 1890s, we had our worst hurricanes.”
The United States remains the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind China.
What the president meant by “worst hurricanes” is unclear. According to the NOAA, the six most costly hurricanes on record have all occurred since 2005, and three — Maria, Harvey and Irma — have hit the United States during Trump’s tenure. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, in which at least 6,000 people perished, remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
As for tornadoes, they have tended to follow boom-and-bust cycles over the decades. The nation saw a relatively low number of tornadoes last year, although this year already nearly 1,000 have been reported. In general, scientists have warned that climate change will make a variety of extreme weather events more likely, namely droughts, hurricanes and wildfires.
Camilo Mora, a geographer and environmental professor at the University of Hawaii, said in an email that the president is rejecting the conclusions made by scientists in his own government.
“The evidence on this issue is overwhelming,” Mora said. “The president questions our change in jargon from warming to climate change to extremes as uncertainty on our side, but in reality we have come to learn that the impacts of greenhouse gases are much broader than we originally thought. By increasing atmospheric temperature, greenhouse gases can also cause drought and heat waves, ripening conditions for wildfires. In humid places, heat causes constant soil water evaporation leading to extreme precipitation, which falls on saturated soils and thus you commonly also get floods.”
Despite the internal controversy over the testimony prepared for Wednesday’s hearing, all three witnesses detailed ways in which climate-related impacts could exacerbate existing national security risks. Peter Kiemel, counselor at the National Intelligence Council, and Jeffrey Ringhausen, a senior analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence, talked about issues ranging from how terrorist cells could capitalize on water shortages to disputes with other nations over shifting fishing grounds.
Schoonover, for his part, said in his opening statement that the planet was warming and that it could pose a major risk to the United States and other nations.
“The Earth’s climate is unequivocally undergoing a long-term warming trend, as established by decades of scientific measurements and multiple, independent lines of evidence,” he said, adding later: “Climate change effects could undermine important international systems on which the U.S. is critically dependent, such as trade routes, food and energy supplies, the global economy and domestic stability abroad.”
Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's senior national affairs correspondent, covering the transformation of federal environmental policy. She's authored two books, "Demon Fish: Travels Through The Hidden World of Sharks" and "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives." and has worked for The Post since 1998. Follow
Josh Dawsey is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. He joined the paper in 2017. He previously covered the White House for Politico, and New York City Hall and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Wall Street Journal. Follow
Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health issues. He previously spent years covering the nation’s economy. Dennis was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for a series of explanatory stories about the global financial crisis. Follow