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Defense Establishment Blasts Proposal for Trump Climate Review

In a letter released earlier this week, 58 “former national security leaders” urge President Trump not to approve the formation of a panel to review the evidence that climate change is a national security threat.  The signatories include former Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.

Although not mentioned in the letter, National Security Council (NSC) official William Happer is leading the push in the Trump White House for a “climate security committee” to review previous official assessments regarding climate change and national security. Happer, a distinguished physicist and retired Princeton University professor, is also a noted climate contrarian.

Happer has tapped Stevin Koonin, a former undersecretary of energy for science in the Obama administration, to help select committee members and lead the review. Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt asked Koonin to lead a “Red Team” review of climate science, but the White House never signed off on that initiative.

According to the Washington Examiner, which interviewed Koonin in late February, the proposed climate security committee would have two main tasks. First, “investigate the science underlying the National Climate Assessment, completed by U.S. government researchers across 13 federal agencies and released in November 2017.” Second, “use the findings of the science review and apply it to national security policy.” If the committee’s findings are credible and conflict with previous assessments, “we will all have better a sense of what climate science is really about,” Koonin stated.

Claims by four House committee chairs—Adam Smith (D-WA, Armed Services), Frank Pallone (D-NJ, Energy and Commerce), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ, Natural Resources), and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX, Science, Space, and Technology)—that “the National Security Council (NSC) is planning to assemble a secret panel” are rubbish. Happer and Koonin seek to establish a federal advisory committee. As such, all participants’ deliberations and communications would be on the record and subject to federal transparency laws. 

Kerry, Hagel, and the other defense professionals object to the very idea that anyone would “second-guess” the “rigorously peer-reviewed National Climate Assessment” and its application to national security policy. However, the National Climate Assessment is deeply flawed.

The Assessment’s bottom-line conclusion, gleefully reported by The New York Times, is that unchecked global warming “will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.” To get that alarming result, the Assessment ran an implausibly inflated “baseline” emissions scenario through an ensemble of overheated climate models. Even then, only one percent of model realizations projected a warming of 8°C, which supposedly translates into a 10 percent GDP reduction.

Not content to present this wildly improbable result as “science,” the Assessment further misleads the public by hiding the relevant economic context. Specifically, the Assessment neglects to mention that, due to the long-term growth of the U.S. economy, the average U.S. household in the 2090s will be many times wealthier than the average household today even if the GDP is 10 percent smaller than it might otherwise be. For the details, see this blog post.      

On March 7th, E&E News reported that Happer’s proposal “could backfire, according to experts.” It explains: “‘Attempts to erode those findings could flounder, potentially weakening efforts by the administration to roll back rules limiting greenhouse gases at power plants and in cars,’ said George David Banks, a former climate and international energy adviser to President Trump.”

That is a risk for the Trump administration. Strangely, though, it’s a risk Kerry, Hagel, et al. don’t want the National Assessment’s critics—Happer and Koonin—to take. Why not? If the Kerry-Hagel group are truly confident in the National Climate Assessment and its national security implications, they should welcome the opportunity to rebut contrarians on the record. It would seem that their asserted confidence in the Assessment is false bravado, and their real worry is that an independent review would expose methodological flaws and rhetorical trickery. Ironically, their attack on the proposed climate security committee is, thus, an additional reason to undertake it.