Trump’s Shadow War on Climate Science

The resignation of a State Department official is the latest instance of a systematic suppression of evidence, former officials and whistleblowers say.

A strong wind blows embers around a resident hosing his burning property during the Creek Fire in Sunland, California, on Dec. 5, 2017.
A strong wind blows embers around a resident hosing his burning property during the Creek Fire in Sunland, California, on Dec. 5, 2017. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

A State Department intelligence analyst who recently resigned warned that the White House is systematically suppressing science and objective analysis on how large a threat climate change is to national security. 

Rod Schoonover, an analyst with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, resigned in protest this month after the White House blocked his prepared testimony before a congressional intelligence panel on the national security implications of climate change. Schoonover said what he planned to say did not adhere to the Trump administration’s position on climate change. 

Schoonover’s departure is the latest example of how the Trump administration’s seismic shift on environmental policies has played out behind the scenes inside Washington’s policymaking machine, including at the State Department, as environmental studies are quashed, intelligence assessments muzzled, and even public references to climate change quietly scrubbed from U.S. government websites. 

He joins a batch of other civil servants and experts who were either forced out of their government jobs or quit over the Trump administration’s heavy-handed approach to assessments on climate change.

Maria Caffrey, a climate scientist in the National Park Service, wrote in an op-ed last week that she lost her job this year because she “was a climate scientist in a climate-denying administration.” She added: “[M]y story is no longer unique.”

Another former senior official in the Department of the Interior, Joel Clement, described a “culture of fear, censorship, and suppression” within the Trump administration on climate science, in testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology this month. He said studies on the health impacts of coal mining and chemicals in drinking water have been muzzled or delayed and the phrase “climate change” stripped from reports. 

Schoonover, in his first public remarks since resigning, said it pained him to leave the State Department, but he felt it was necessary. “I’m pretty sure I did the right thing by quitting, but leaving the government was excruciating,” he said at an event on Tuesday at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit. 

When asked whether his experience showed the Trump administration suppressing science, Schoonover replied, “Yeah, it felt like it. Is it a pattern? Seems like it.” He later added that he was “not the first” analyst to leave government over the issue. 

Before leaving government, Schoonover testified before the House Intelligence Committee last month on climate change. But the White House heavily edited his proposed assessments and blocked his written testimony from entering into congressional record. 

A draft of his testimony was obtained by the New York Times last month, with tracked comments and edits from White House officials. One comment from the National Security Council on the document suggests striking an entire section of his testimony titled “Scientific Baseline,” with the comment: “A consensus of peer reviewed literature has nothing to do with truth.” 

The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, a group that monitors government environmental data, issued a study this month that found a quarter of all climate change references on U.S. government websites have disappeared since President Donald Trump took office. 

Schoonover’s resignation has renewed criticism from scientists and policy experts on the Trump administration’s approach to climate change and heightened concerns among some of how the administration might politicize or skew unvarnished intelligence assessments on climate change to comport with its political stances. 

This trend of suppressing assessments on climate change is dangerous, Schoonover and other experts have warned, because it leaves policymakers less prepared to deal with threats from the knock-on effects of climate change, including more extreme natural disasters, food insecurity, and increased risks of conflict. 

“If you look at a map of climate vulnerability and you put it over a map of political instability over the world … it’s almost identical,” said Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and former State Department advisor on climate change.

“It’s critical for the intelligence community to understand the evolving threat landscape presented to the United States and its allies, and of course that includes a changing environment. It includes a changing climate,” Schoonover said.

Experts say these practices will ultimately leave the Trump administration, and perhaps future administrations, less prepared for future conflicts or crises around the world. “We’re really getting a strong message from the White House that they don’t even really want to know about conflicts that might be driven in part by climate because they’re just skeptical about the science. That means there’s a critical amount of information that they’re not getting,” Light said. 

Schoonover hopes his resignation can raise more awareness for the issue. “My hope is I become less of a story, and we return to the substantive issues of climate change and national security, because that’s way more important than any individual, including me,” he said. Schoonover, a former professor of chemistry and biochemistry, worked in the intelligence community for more than 10 years before he quit.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Despite criticisms of his approach on climate change, Trump has defended his administration’s record on environmental issues, saying he has prioritized environmental safety while not stifling economic growth. “From day one, my administration has made it a top priority to ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet,” he said in a speech this month.

Trump has framed environmental policies around economic growth for the country. “The previous administration waged a relentless war on American energy. We can’t do that,” he said in his speech. “They sought to punish our workers, our producers, and manufacturers with ineffective global agreements that allowed the world’s worst-polluting countries to continue their practices.”

In practice, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the global Paris climate change pact and weakened regulations on toxic air pollution and other fossil fuel emissions across government agencies. He also dropped climate change from a list of top threats in the administration’s national security strategy. 

Despite the president’s own skepticism about climate change and the muzzling of climate science in other parts of the government, the U.S. intelligence community has continued to issue warnings about its impact on national security in other venues. Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, cautioned this year in the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment on worldwide threats that “[g]lobal environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”

The intelligence assessment warned that climate change could exacerbate natural disasters and that extreme weather could threaten public infrastructure and military installations, degrade food security, and stoke political unrest and migration challenges. Coats will step down from his post next month. Trump’s pick to replace him, Texas Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe, has drawn criticism from Democratic lawmakers and ignited fears among some former intelligence officials that the country’s top intelligence position will become more politicized under Trump.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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