Inside Trump’s War on Climate Science
In Pete’s Candy Store, one of Williamsburg’s most comfortable and least pretentious watering holes, I meet an acquaintance from my college days for drinks. This happens all the time when you live in Brooklyn; at some point, almost everyone from your past passes through New York. But this encounter is unusual: My companion was, until this summer, a senior intelligence analyst for the Trump administration.
As soon as he arrived, he let me know he hasn’t agreed to any other interviews. Other reporters are asking, because he’s been in the news. In June, Rod Schoonover, a physicist, testified before Congress on the national security implications of climate change—“I’m one if not the expert on the topic,” he told me. The Trump administration struck his entire testimony from the congressional record. He had detailed the national security risks posed by climate change: the diseases, resource wars, increased migration, floods, droughts, and other threats that will occur as our planet warms.
We certainly had some catching up to do. I ordered an IPA for myself, cider for Schoonover, and we headed to the backyard.
Schoonover, who grew up in Kansas City, became a physicist out of a fascination with complex systems. He’s also a musician and figured it would be better to do science professionally and music on the side than the other way around. “Probably I could get arrested for doing science ‘on the side,’” he laughed. His brown hair is shoulder-length, longer than that of your stereotypical government operative, and he wears a necklace with a pewter thunderbird around his neck.
“Wow, you have horrible handwriting!” he told me, accurately if not politely, peering over the table as I took notes. I’m remembering that Schoonover is brutally honest, and it occurs to me that this is why he’s been in the news: for telling the truth.
As a professor at Cal State–San Luis Obispo, reading scientific journals and teaching undergraduates about the Arrhenius equation, he became frightened by the rising hostility toward science, and the increasing role of climate denialism in politics.
Barack Obama, when he ran for president in 2008, gave a speech calling on scientists to join his government. As Schoonover watched, among friends in a San Luis Obispo bar, he said he thought, “Oh shit, he’s talking about me.”
Schoonover seems to regret this anecdote almost immediately after telling it. “I think I could easily be painted as an Obama person who couldn’t hack [the change in administration].” In fact, Schoonover said, he admired his colleagues in intelligence who had worked in the Bush administration and then found a way to thrive under Obama. He was hoping to do the same, to continue to do his job under Trump.
That dream fell apart this summer. First, before he testified to Congress, the White House tried to get Schoonover’s agency to make changes to the written version of his testimony. A leaked document (Schoonover still does not know who leaked it) shows that someone at the National Security Council—The New York Times reports it was William Happer, a White House adviser who says he does not believe in global warming—made derisive comments throughout the document, labeling Schoonover’s assessments “junk science” and “advocacy for the climate-alarm establishment.” Schoonover’s agency, the Bureau for Intelligence Research (which sounds like the generic stuff of Cold War pulp fiction, but in fact has a shrewd track record, having warned against the Vietnam War and expressed skepticism about WMDs in Iraq), refused to make the changes to the testimony that the administration requested. Although Schoonover did deliver it before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the White House barred its entry into the congressional record, a move Schoonover said was highly unusual.
After that, he felt he had to resign, not as a protest against the administration’s politics but because in intelligence, “you have one job. That’s to provide information. When that function has been undermined or eliminated…,” he trailed off. Also, by the nature of their jobs, Schoonover noted, intelligence officers are supposed to remain behind the scenes. What happened was “so public,” he said, “I just didn’t think I could be effective anymore.”
Schoonover still seemed shaken by everything that’s happened, not only because he had to quit a job he loved, but also because the chain of events violated principles he took seriously. He said he thinks it’s “horrible” that the document was leaked with Happer’s editorial comments. Although of course he disagrees with his former colleague’s climate-denial politics, he described the leak as “not fair”; people within the intelligence community should be able to exchange opinions without the conversations becoming public, he said.
He was disappointed not to be able to stay in the Trump administration, he emphasized. Schoonover said he still believes consistency in civil service is important to a well-working government: “It’s important, you know, that the intelligence community does not have a policy stance.” He paused, wanting to make sure I got it. “It’s really, really important.”
He didn’t even know the political leanings of most of his colleagues, he explained: “It would have been anathema, it would have been considered distasteful, to talk about politics there.” That’s one reason he was so shocked that the White House would try to exert influence over his testimony. “Why would you run intelligence by the policy side?”
Despite his recent experience, Schoonover isn’t fatalistic about climate change. There is so much we can do, he said, both to reduce emissions and to increase our societies’ resilience to climate disasters: “When you adopt this notion that civilization is going to collapse, you get in the way of actually doing some reasonable policy solutions.” Of these worst-case scenarios, he explained, using the risk-assessment language of his field, “there’s a non-zero chance that we’re headed that way. But I don’t think that’s the most probable. Humans do find a way, if sometimes late in the game, to react in their own interests.”
Since we’d just exchanged kid pictures, I said something about our kids’ having to cope with the climate problem. He bristled at that, although he admitted he had a picture of his daughter in front of him as he gave his testimony before Congress. Later in the evening he told me, “I kind of pushed back on your comment about my child, because I think it’s really important to not cast climate change as a future problem.” On the contrary, he insisted, it’s our generation’s job to fix this.
He has a point, I think. “So the apocalypticism of, ‘Oh, it’s going to be so bad for our kids,’ is a form of denialism,” I wondered, “Denial of what’s happening now and the problems we have to solve right now?”
“Right,” Schoonover said. “This is something I brought to the intelligence community perspective. I never talked about it just in terms of the future.” He said it’s important to use words like “ongoing” to describe the climate problem.
Schoonover is now writing a book, weighing his career options, and may return to government someday. He smiled ruefully about his “self-imposed exile,” observing that he’s been “decompressing from a pretty awful experience.”