Week 125: Trump to Climate Scientists: Don’t Write Anything Down!

Plus, the president warns states against protecting their own waterways, and the man Scott Pruitt would call for scientific advice is not a scientist.

June 14, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration for onEarth

Oval office photo: Olivier Douliery/CNP/Alamy. Trump photo: Gage Skidmore

Trump Censors Another Climate Scientist

Last week the Trump administration blocked a scientist in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Geographer and Global Issues from submitting written testimony on the dangers of climate change to the House Intelligence Committee.

When I read this story, my first thought was: The State Department has an official geographer? Fascinating! The fact that the administration tried to censor a climate scientist? Not really news anymore.

The scientist in question was Rod Schoonover, a highly credentialed biochemist who was a professor at Cal Poly before joining the State Department. The basic message in his proposed testimony was that climate change would become an ever-worsening national security threat unless we immediately cut carbon emissions. You could read the same thing in Pentagon reports or in past testimony from many government scientists. The Trump administration, however, with its growing stable of climate change deniers, took exception.

“It includes lots of climate alarm propaganda that is not science at all,” read one Trump official’s comment on the draft testimony, according to the Washington Post.

William Happer, a National Security Council senior director who appears to have been hired for no reason other than his history as a prominent scientist who denies climate change, objected to Schoonover’s use of the phrase “tipping point.”

“ ‘Tipping points’ is a propaganda slogan for the scientifically illiterate,” grumped Happer. “They were a favorite of Al Gore’s science adviser, James Hansen.”

But here’s the thing: James Hansen is a climate scientist. Probably the most important climate scientist of the past half-century. Arguably one of the most important climate scientists ever. Happer’s work was in optical physics—he has no credentials in climate science whatsoever. If one of them is illiterate in this field, it is Happer, not Hansen.

Trump’s band of climate change deniers also objected to Schoonover’s reliance on scientific reports, especially those that came from—I hope you’re sitting down for this—other federal agencies. Relying on government scientists in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee? What a crazy idea.

Schoonover (and other State Department officials, according to the Post) admirably refused to cut the scientific references and other climate change materials from the testimony. The administration seems to have been split over how to proceed, ultimately making the rather confusing decision to allow Schoonover to present his testimony but refusing him the right to enter it into the written record.

While the testimony was not part of the record, the nutty comments of Trump’s coterie of climate deniers now are, courtesy of the Post. And Congress is following up, investigating the administration’s censorship practices. At least this climate story has a happy ending.

Wishy-Washy Reasoning

A reading from the gospel of disgraced former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt: “In just one year, we have made tremendous progress implementing President Trump’s agenda by refocusing the Agency to its core mission, restoring power to the states through cooperative federalism, and adhering to the rule of law. The American people can now trust that states and stakeholders will be treated as partners, and regulations will provide clarity, not confusion.”

And yet, this week the Trump administration made a big play to take power out of state hands. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued guidance to states that warns them against blocking or delaying pipelines and coal terminals—a right given to them under the Clean Water Act.

Here’s the truth: Trump’s environmental agenda has nothing to do with giving power to the states. He simply wants to give his friends and industry sponsors carte blanche to pollute our environment. If states are willing to play ball in his game, Trump happily hands power to them. When states get in the way, he cuts them out.

There’s no other way to view this week’s guidance. States like Washington and New York have infuriated the administration by withholding approval for fossil fuel infrastructure after their state experts determined that the projects would threaten water quality. The Trump administration believes that the states are inappropriately basing these decisions on concerns about climate change, but climate change and water quality are inseparable. Even Trump’s own EPA acknowledges as much.

There is a reasonable discussion to be had concerning the appropriate roles of states and the federal government in protecting our environment. We should have that discussion. But we can’t have it with Trump and his acolytes, for whom “federalism” is just a pretext for doing nothing.

The EPA’s Unscientific Advisory Board

With apologies for a second Scott Pruitt reference, here is a quote he gave a Nevada television station in February 2018: “I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing.”

News emerged this week that after Pruitt made those comments, a FactCheck.org reporter contacted the EPA looking for evidence supporting the claim that climate change could be, on balance, good for humanity. Imagine the alarm bells going off at Pruitt’s EPA: “What’s evidence?” they must have wondered.

The natural thing would have been for the agency to turn to one of its own scientists—after all, it employs a scientific advisory board. But if asked to defend Pruitt’s comments, those scientists probably would have only chuckled and hung up. So instead, an EPA spokesperson reached out to Myron Ebell, a climate change–denying nonscientist who works at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Ebell complied, furnishing the EPA with some books and articles, mostly by other climate change–denying nonscientists. The evidence, unsurprisingly, didn’t sway the fact checker, who ultimately concluded that the EPA had nothing.

Fact checkers must really miss Pruitt—he was the Washington Generals to their Harlem Globetrotters, the Barry Horowitz to their Hulk Hogan. Basically everything that came out of the guy’s mouth was wrong.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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