Climate threat doubter is leading effort to advise Trump

President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The Trump administration is exploring the idea of a special committee to look at climate change and security risks, with the effort being coordinated by a 79-year-old physicist who rejects mainstream climate science

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is exploring the idea of forming a special committee to look at climate change and security risks, with the effort being coordinated by a 79-year-old physicist who rejects mainstream climate science.

A "discussion paper" obtained by The Associated Press asks federal officials from an array of government agencies to weigh in on a proposed executive order that President Donald Trump would sign establishing the "Presidential Committee on Climate Security."

A memo to those federal officials asks them to direct any questions to William Happer, a member of Trump's National Security Council and a well-known critic of mainstream climate science findings.

"Happer would be a fringe figure even for climate skeptics," said retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, now a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University.

Several climate scientists agreed with Titley, including Georgia Tech's Kim Cobb, who said Happer's "false, unscientific notions about climate change represent a danger to the American people."

Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes, who wrote the book "Merchants of Doubt" on climate denial, pointed to instances when Happer has claimed that carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas from the burning of coal, oil and gas, is good for humans and that carbon emissions have been demonized like "the poor Jews under Hitler."

Happer's bio at Princeton University, where he previously taught, describes him as a pioneer in the field of optically polarized atoms. It notes that he served in the administration of President George H.W. Bush as the director of energy research at the Department of Energy, where he oversaw a basic research budget of roughly $3 billion.

The National Security Council advises the president on security and foreign policy issues. According to the discussion paper, the council would fund and oversee the committee. Among the committee's responsibilities would be to "address existing United States Government reports on climate for scientific accuracy and advise on the national security implications of climate change."

The committee would be composed of 12 members, according to a draft of the executive order. Members would include experts in national security and climate science. The panel would advise the president on how climate "might change in the future under natural and human influences."

A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment.

The Washington Post first reported on the proposed executive order establishing the climate security committee.

Trump once tweeted that climate change was a "Chinese hoax." More recently, he used a cold snap that hit much of the nation last month to again cast doubts. "People can't last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming (sic)? Please come back fast, we need you!" he tweeted.

Both the Pentagon and the president's intelligence team have mentioned climate change as a national security threat, and a 2018 National Climate Assessment detailed drastic effects of global warming.

Over about a dozen years, government scientists, military leaders and intelligence experts have repeatedly highlighted climate change as a major national security risk, said Titley, who founded one such study team in the Navy.

Titley said these studies have come to the same conclusions under three presidents, including two Republicans. He said there are "a surprising number of documents from the Pentagon and intelligence community after January 2017 (when Trump took office) that talk about climate and security risk."

"For the Pentagon, it's about readiness," Titley said. "For the intelligence community, it's about risks. We see the risks are accelerating."

Climate change can "push a marginally stable area into chaos," Titley said, mentioning Syria, which suffered a record drought at the same time as a civil war that triggered a migration of a million people.

Francesco "Frank" Femia, chief executive of a think tank that reviews systemic risk to national and international security, expressed concern that the proposed panel was meant to poke holes in future government reports and studies.

"I would welcome a serious study commissioned by the White House on the security implications on climate change that include climate scientists and national security experts, but this is not that," said Femia, the CEO of The Council on Strategic Risks.

A place like the National Academy of Sciences was set up just for that type of study, said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth, which monitors global temperatures.

"The ice doesn't care what this administration thinks," Titley said. "It's just going to keep melting and obeying the laws of physics, whatever Will Happer wants."

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