WASHINGTON - White House officials barred a State Department intelligence staffer from submitting written testimony this week to the House Intelligence Committee warning that human-caused climate change could be "possibly catastrophic" after State officials refused to excise the document's references to the scientific consensus on climate change.
The effort to edit, and ultimately suppress, the written testimony of a senior analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research comes as the Trump administration is debating how best to challenge the idea that the burning of 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 climate change could undermine America's national security, a position President Donald 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 geography and global affairs, prepared for a hearing Wednesday.
According to several senior administration officials, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk about internal deliberations, Trump 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 recent climate change.
Administration officials said the White House Office of Legislative Affairs ultimately decided that Schoonover could appear before the House panel, but could not submit his 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. This aide added that legislative affairs and OMB staffers 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, CEO 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 could not be reached for comment Friday, and the State Department referred questions to the White House. A White House spokesman, who asked for anonymity in order to discuss private deliberations, said in an email, "The administration does not comment on its internal policy review."
Schoonover's 12-page prepared testimony, obtained by The Washington Post, 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, "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, however."
White House officials took aim at not only some of the document's scientific citations but some of the statements that Schoonover, who served as a full professor of chemistry and biochemistry at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, made about the national security implications of climate change.
The following statement, for example, attracted White House scrutiny: "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."
President Trump has been steadfast in shrugging off the 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," and noted 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.
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.”