A State Department intelligence official who was blocked by the White House from submitting written congressional testimony on climate change last month is resigning from his post.
Rod Schoonover — who worked in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Office of the Geographer and Global Issues — spoke before the House Intelligence Committee on June 5 about the security risks the United States faces because of climate change. But White House officials would not let him submit the bureau’s written statement that climate impacts could be “possibly catastrophic,” after the State Department refused to cut references to federal scientific findings on climate change.
Individuals familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly, said Schoonover is leaving voluntarily. But the incident that led to his departure underscores the extent to which climate science has become contested terrain under the current administration.
Andrew Rosenberg, who directs the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a phone interview Wednesday that federal experts should be free to provide their expertise with policymakers, even if it is at odds with the views of whoever occupies the Oval Office.
“This isn’t carrying forward your political opinions,” Rosenberg said. “This is bringing the work you’re hired to do in a policy setting.”
President Trump has repeatedly questioned the scientific consensus that human activity is driving recent climate change and that the planet’s warming poses a major security risk to the United States.
Asked about the matter Wednesday, a State Department official confirmed that Schoonover would step down Friday.
Schoonover, who has served in the federal government for roughly a decade, could not be reached for comment. Before working at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, he had served as director of environment and natural resources at the National Intelligence Council and as a full professor of chemistry and biochemistry at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.
Three divisions of the White House, the Office of Legislative Affairs, the Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council, all raised objections to parts of the State Department intelligence bureau’s testimony, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. Ultimately, the Office of Legislative Affairs made the decision not to submit the document to the House Intelligence Committee.
One of the statements White House officials objected to was this observation: “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."
Last month, after The Post reported that the testimony had been suppressed, the Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), demanded that the heads of two federal intelligence agencies provide documents about the incident. Neither the Bureau of Intelligence and Research nor the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have complied yet with the panel’s request, according to a committee aide.
“The role of the intelligence community is to speak truth to power — that’s why we are investigating reports that the White House sought to muzzle science-based testimony on the national security impacts of climate change, including testimony by Dr. Schoonover to our Committee last month,” Schiff said in a statement. “We will be inviting Dr. Schoonover to return to our committee to shed light on alleged efforts to censor his written testimony, and are continuing to press for documents from the intelligence community related to the committee’s hearing, to ensure that this doesn’t ever happen again.”
Rosenberg said that even though Schoonover may have left on his own, the controversy surrounding his testimony could intimidate other experts within the federal government’s ranks.
“That’s just a terrible signal to federal professionals broadly, to people in the State Department who don’t know what they can say in their relations with other countries and the Hill,” he said.
Even as the fallout over last month’s climate hearing continues, the White House has decided to shelve one controversial idea — establishing a group to question the federal government’s own findings on climate change. The task force, championed by NSC Senior Director William Happer, has been under discussion for months but ran into opposition from members of the intelligence and defense community, as well as some of Trump’s own scientific appointees.
E&E News first reported Tuesday that the climate science panel had been indefinitely postponed. Two individuals briefed on the matter, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, confirmed the delay.
Myron Ebell, who directs the Center for Energy and Environment at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, attributed the decision to a political calculation by Trump’s reelection campaign consultants, saying they effectively told him: “We have polling showing that you need to stress your environmental accomplishments and not start controversial things that will get you bad press, like going after climate science.”
Officials at the NSC declined to comment on the status of the aborted climate panel.
Francesco Femia, chief executive of the Council on Strategic Risks and co-founder of the Center for Climate and Security, welcomed the decision to nix the task force.
“The very lowest baseline is that the White House should never politicize science or intelligence analysis, so this isn’t anything to celebrate under normal circumstances,” Femia said in an email. “But it is still good to see this politically-motivated effort fail. The national security, military, intelligence and science communities came out strongly against it, and the result affirms that standing up for the integrity of our democratic system matters, especially since too many of our political leaders won’t.”