A No-Go For White House Climate Panel

11:28 minutes

an older white man in a black suit talking to another man in glasses
William Happer speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Americans for Liberty New York City Spring Summit at the Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe in Teaneck, New Jersey. Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

a stylized version of the earth with cloudsThis story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

The White House has proposed creating the “Presidential Committee on Climate Security,” a controversial committee that would have been created by executive order. The committee was being touted by National Security Council advisor William Happer, a climate change skeptic

Journalist Scott Waldman from E&E News/Climatewire talks about the breakdown of the committee, President Trump’s recent speech on the environment and updates on the recent tropical storm in the Gulf that could hit New Orleans. 

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Segment Guests

Scott Waldman

Scott Waldman is the White House reporter for E&E News/Climatewire, based in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript



IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The climate is changing. And because we need to deal with it now, we open the fourth chapter of our series, “Degrees of Change,” where we are exploring the challenges of a changing climate, and how we as a planet and a people are adapting. 

And this week, we’re talking about how a changing climate affects what’s on your plate, and how what you eat affects the climate. We’ve been taking your questions and comments all week on Twitter and Facebook and through our new– very new app called SciFri VoxPop. 

You can join in the conversation for a searching for a SciFri VoxPop. That’s V as in Victor, O-X-P-O-P, wherever you get your apps. 

Let’s begin with a comment we got from David Church in Jacksonville, Florida, who was wondering how beef stacks up to plant-based patties. 

DAVID CHURCH: What about plant-based meat alternatives? They’re highly processed. I think that would take up a lot of resources. 

IRA FLATOW: Very good question, and we will have an answer for that. But first up this week, residents all along the southern coast have been keeping their eye on tropical storm Barry. This storm is predicted to hit Louisiana on Saturday. And the governor just said today that he expects it to be hurricane force when it does. 

New Orleans has been keeping a close watch. Governor Edwards has declared a state of emergency for the entire state. How will the levees hold up? And how has climate change played a part in this storm? 

Scott Waldman is here to fill us in on this story and to check in on the gatekeepers, the decision-makers, the controllers of the purse strings. 

He’s a White House reporter with Energy & Environment News and Climatewire based in Washington. Welcome back. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: So the governor is really getting the state ready? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right. I think this is going to be potentially a pretty serious storm. And it’s really– they’ve certainly dealt with worse storms down there. But this is going to be a hurricane one. So they’ve been hit by hurricane five, of course. 

But the problem is going to be the flooding. They’re already experiencing pretty high levels of flooding right now in the Mississippi River. And this storm is certainly going to drive quite a bit of water on shore through its storm surge. 

But also the heavy rains could basically overtop some of the levees that surround the city and lead to pretty serious flooding in parts of New Orleans and elsewhere. 

IRA FLATOW: So this is like a triple whammy, really a perfect storm coming in. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: It is. And it’s also worth noting that this is exactly what scientists say is going to be part of our climate future. You have an excessive rainfall this past spring that has caused the Mississippi River to swell to its current levels. 

And then, of course, you have rising sea levels, which makes the whole area more vulnerable to any sort of storm surge. So it’s going to be sort of a perfect storm in the worst sense. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Are they expecting the levees to top over on this? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Well, it’s going to be really close. I think it’s really a matter of inches. Right now, the predicted levels of the Mississippi River tomorrow are going to be around 20 feet, and that is the level of the lowest levees. 

So it’s going to be very close. And if it overtops some of those levees, that is going to lead to flooding. It doesn’t even mean that the levees themselves fail. They’re not expecting that. But if it floods over the top, there’s very little they can do to stop it. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll be watching it with you. Thank you. Let’s move on to our next story, again about the climate. President Trump made a speech addressing the environment. What were his key points? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Well, this came across really as more of a campaign speech. There was no new environmental policy ideas that he proposed. And he really focused on air and water pollution and claims that the US has improved in both of those categories. 

He sort of puts forward the political argument that if we have these improved air and water pollution levels, then we can continue to increase our fracking and our reliance on natural gas, which is what his administration has been pushing all along. 

There’s a lot of people that question the numbers that the administration used, whether air pollution truly has gotten better under his term. And there’s evidence, including from within the administration, that it’s actually gotten worse. Carbon levels increased last year in 2018. 

IRA FLATOW: You know, it’s a really interesting. I bring this up often because I’m so astonished about how much the environment, and specifically climate change, has become a political issue in just two years. Two years ago, no one talked about it. And now it’s rising among people’s concerns. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right. And it’s worth noting that in this 45-minute speech by Trump and the heads of the interior, and EPA, and others, there was no mention of climate change even once. 

So what we’ve seen– there was recent polling that showed that it ranked Trump on about eight issues, health care, and the economy, and other aspects of his policy. 

And climate change was the one where he did the worst. Only 29% of the country approves of what he’s doing when it comes to climate change. 

And there’s a growing number of Republicans that are worried about what he’s doing, a growing number of Independents. These are votes that he needs to lock in in 2020. 

So clearly this speech was a nod to that, a recognition that the perception of his climate policy and environmental policy at large is that it’s gone backwards. He’s trying to rewrite the narrative. 

IRA FLATOW: And speaking of going backwards, we reported on a few weeks ago about a supposed review panel called the Presidential Committee on Climate Security. Whatever happened to that? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Well, I reported this week that it’s, for now, dead. Again, this goes to concerns within the administration, as well as with the campaign, that this is not an issue they really want to go really far afield from the science on. 

Obviously, the president’s point of view has been pretty clear. He does not believe– he does not accept, I should say, climate science. 

But the death of this panel indicates that they’re not willing to go to the extremes, at least right now before the election. We’ll see if it gets revived after the election. But there’s plenty of people within the Trump administration, within the White House that do not want to see this panel revived. 

And basically what it would have done is just conduct what they called an adversarial review of climate science, where they’d try to knock holes in the tremendous level of certainty that we have around climate science, and try to create the impression that there’s more doubt than there really is. Scientists have been in agreement for this for a very long time that humans are the primary drivers of climate change. 

IRA FLATOW: And the administration has been scrubbing climate change from the US Geological Survey studies, right? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right. I reported this week that the Interior Department in the USGS has been basically removing mentions of climate change from the press releases that it puts out about its own work. 

And in Obama Administration, for example, in 2016, I think they had 13 press releases just around climate change. There have been zero that explicitly mentioned climate change in the headline for their releases since Trump took office. 

And I reported on one study in particular from just a few months ago that looked at the California coastline and potential environment– or excuse me, economic impacts of sea level rise. And it’s going to be potentially a $100 billion a year by the end of the century. 

All the information was removed related to that study from the press release. So that if you looked at it, the press release just described the methodology behind this study, which is not what press releases ever do. You’re supposed to put out the top-line findings. 

And this is, of course, not political at all. This is something that coastal planners need in California. This is something that politicians need to make good policy. And it’s basically being quietly buried on the USGS website. 

IRA FLATOW: Now on the Democratic side, the Democrats have declared a climate emergency. What does that mean for them? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Well, this is basically just a resolution. And it should be noted that this is expected to go nowhere in the Senate with Mitch McConnell at the helm. But in the House, it could certainly pass. 

And this would put us on par with Canada, and with the UK, and with Ireland in terms of recognizing climate change as an emergency. 

What it does would sort of force the federal government to recognize in more policy that climate change is a dire threat and needs to be addressed across a wide sector of policy areas, including, of course, the economy, the environment, public health, just a broad-based approach to it. 

Bernie Sanders said he basically wants– he’s one of the sponsors of the resolution. He wants it to look like the way the country prepared for World War II. He wants to do a similar thing for climate. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, he said he was going to come out with a new– because the candidates are slowly– right? The democratic candidates at least are slowly coming out with their own environmental– their own climate plans, aren’t they? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right. And he actually– it’s kind of notable that he has not. Most of them have come out with fairly strong climate policies. 

He in, the last election, had a far stronger policy than Hillary Clinton. He actually called for a ban on fracking, which was seen as pretty radical at the time. 

So it’s going to be interesting to see how he’s actually going to try to stand out in this field where people have gone way beyond what he’s done in the past. 

I’m not even sure how much further he can go if he wants to top climate policy, which was an issue he’s sort of owned here in Washington and certainly on the campaign trail this time around. 

IRA FLATOW: Do you think we’re going to see a climate change debate among the Democrats at all? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: I think the chances are certainly higher than ever. That’s the question. I think a couple of months ago we weren’t going to. 

But activists have really pushed this. They’ve protested at the headquarters of the DNC, Sunshine Movement in Extinction Rebellion. And most of the candidates in the debate have called for it. 

So next month, they’re going to have a vote at the DNC to see if they’re going to bring this up as a policy– excuse me, as a debate topic just on its own, which would be fairly unprecedented to have an entire debate around one issue. 

So I think anybody that does political predictions in this era walks a difficult line. But I do think that we’ll see certainly something that will be a climate debate. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m very happy to invite all the candidates that come on Science Friday. We’ll give them all an hour. They can all debate [LAUGHS] if they want to. 

And we had Governor Inslee on before. He was the first one to come on. But so far, no one else has really wanted to come on and talk about it. But here’s an open invitation. 

SCOTT WALDMAN: And I’d love to ask them all the questions about it. 


IRA FLATOW: Well, OK. You can sit on. You can sit on and be one of the moderators. I do know that I saw a news release that Gizmodo and The New Republic are trying to put something together this fall when the UN meets in New York? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Yes, Emily Atkin from The New Republic and Brian Kahn over at Gizmodo wanted to– or they’ve actually planned their own debate, where they would be the moderators or other folks would. And they would ask just the climate-related questions. 

So they’re sort of trying to move the ball forward. They’ve invited the candidates. I think that’s just another level of pressure for the DNC to step up and do it themselves. 

Because certainly I think a lot of candidates, especially Inslee, will participate in something like that. And it seems like we’re going to have a debate one way or the other. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, we’ll try to get it going as much as we can. Thank you very much. We’ll have you back, Scott, also to talk about it. OK? 

SCOTT WALDMAN: Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: It’s a date. Scott Waldman, White House reporter with E&E News and Climatewire.

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