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Inside Trump’s War on Climate Science

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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.

In July, he resigned his government position and published an article explaining why.

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.

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