03/01/2019

White House Aims To Counter Climate Science

8:54 minutes

looking across a lake to massive smoke plumes obscuring mountain ranges, taken around dusk
The Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park in August of 2018. Credit: National Park Service

The climate is changing. Globally, of course. But also in Washington, where growing numbers of Republicans are jumping behind policies that would result in meaningful action on climate change.

Here’s how Representative Frank Lucas, a Republican from oil-rich Oklahoma and ranking member on the House Science Committee, introduced a hearing last month called, “The State of Climate Science, and Why it Matters.”

“By investing in research to develop carbon capture, carbon use, advanced nuclear and renewable energy technologies, we can incentivize innovation and growth in these industries. And reduce carbon emissions in the process. Innovation is good for the global environment and the American economy. I take environmental policy very seriously.”

And yet, even as Congress appears ready to at least discuss the issue, and the government’s own scientists and military leaders sound louder alarms about the impending dangers of global climate change, the White House is assembling a group of climate change adversaries to counter those mainstream views, led by the physicist William Happer.

Science Friday spoke with Geoffrey Supran, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard and MIT, about why not all ‘experts’ are created equal, when it comes to climate change.

“You know taking advice from William Happer and these other physicists on climate change would be like getting a car mechanic to fix your airplane. You’re never gonna get on that flight. You know I, sort of similar to William Happer, was trained as a physicist at Cambridge University as an undergrad, and I have a PhD in laser optics from MIT, and that may all sound impressive. And yet I’m here to say, believe me, that does not make me qualified to make controversial pronouncements about atmospheric physics and chemistry. I, like most people, look to the experts, which in this case are the climate scientists, and William Happer is not one of those.”

David Titley, a retired rear admiral who founded the Navy’s task force on climate change, joins Ira to talk about the politics of climate change in the Capitol.

Science Friday reached out to Dr. William Happer for comment but did not receive a response by air time.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on March 4, 2019 to update the name of the representative from Oklahoma from Frank Lewis to Frank Lucas. We regret the error.


Further Reading

Segment Guests

David Titley

David Titley is a retired Rear Admiral in the US Navy. He founded the Navy’s task force on climate change. He’s now director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Geoffrey Supran

Dr. Geoffrey Supran studies the history of climate denial by fossil fuel interests. He is a Climate Change Solutions Fund Postdoctoral Fellow with Prof. Naomi Oreskes in the Department of History of Science at Harvard University, and also a postdoctoral associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. The climate is changing, globally, of course. But also maybe in Washington where growing numbers of Republicans are jumping behind policies that would result in meaningful action on climate change. 

Take Representative Frank Lucas, a Republican from oil rich Oklahoma and ranking member on the House Science Committee. Here’s what he had to say as he introduced a hearing last month called, The State Of Climate Science And Why It Matters. 

FRANK LUCAS: By investing in research to develop carbon capture, carbon use, advanced nuclear, and renewable energy technologies, we can incentivize innovation and growth in these industries. And reduce carbon emissions in the process. Innovation is good for the global environment and the American economy. I take environmental policy very seriously. 

IRA FLATOW: Congressman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma. And yet, even as Congress appears ready to at least discuss the issue and the government’s own scientists and military leaders sound louder alarms about the impending dangers of global climate change, the Pentagon calls it a matter of national security. The Trump White House is assembling a group of climate change adversaries to counter those mainstream views. 

And here to explain is David Titley, a retired Rear Admiral who founded the Navy’s task force on climate change. He’s also director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Titley. 

DR. DAVID TITLEY: Thanks so much, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: Dave, what’s going on here. Why is this panel being assembled? 

DR. DAVID TITLEY: I wish I really knew that. It’s an interesting story. You had John Bolton, the head of the National Security Council, hire Dr. William Happer for Director of Emerging Technologies last Fall. And that’s a great thing to do. We need somebody to look at emerging technologies. 

But Dr. Happer also has some views that I think could only be described as fringe. Even within the climate denial community. He thinks the earth is too cold and we don’t have enough carbon dioxide, and we need more. And in fact, he feels that carbon dioxide is demonized. 

So rather than working on emerging technologies, Dr. Happer is focusing on science that we have all known for about 150 years. And we found out two weeks ago he was trying to form a committee to, basically, roll back the intelligence community and the Department of Defense findings that climate change is a risk to our national security. 

That was exposed to the light of day by the Washington Post. And now what we understand is happening is the National Security Council is not focusing so much on the Pentagon, but really on the basic science. As if we’re going to find, I don’t know, two or three guys after a couple of bears who are somehow going to overturn 150 years and thousands and thousands of peer reviewed papers on very well-known aspects of why our climate is warming right now. 

IRA FLATOW: And just a note, we reached out to Dr. Happer. We have yet to receive a comment back by airtime. You know, I’ve heard about this. I’ve heard this panel being assembled referred to as a red team. Explain that concept. 

DR. DAVID TITLEY: Sure. In the military we use red teams all the time. And the private sector does too. And red teams are really good for examining policy options. 

So give an example. Let’s say NASA, as we all know, they want to go to Mars. But should we build a base on the moon first? Should we go directly to Mars? Those would be some policies. And NASA, I’m sure, is going to convene, or already has convened, a red team of really smart people to go and really, kind of, what we would call scrub those ideas. Find the risks, find the opportunities, find the things nobody’s thought about. 

NASA is not convening a red team to dispute the fact that gravity makes it really hard and really expensive for us to go to Mars. And what the National Security Council and Dr. Happer are doing is, they’re not looking at policies, which is what we all should be doing. What they’re trying to do is really overturn basic physics. Which is not going to happen. 

IRA FLATOW: With scientists who are not climate scientists. Not experts in their field. 

DR. DAVID TITLEY: Well, exactly. I mean, I’m a retired Naval officer, but trust me, Ira, you would not want me in the cockpit landing a Navy fighter jet at night on an aircraft carrier. You don’t want to be anywhere near that. So just because I was in the Navy doesn’t mean I’m qualified to do everything there. And that’s the same with science too. 

IRA FLATOW: And to amplify on that, we spoke this week with Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and MIT, about how not all scientists are qualified to give their opinions on climate change. 

GEOFFREY SUPRAN: Taking advice from William Happer these other physicists on climate change would be like getting a car mechanic to fix your airplane. You’re never going to get on that flight. I, sort of similar to William Happer, was trained as a physicist at Cambridge University in undergrad. And I have a PhD doing laser optics at MIT. 

And that may well sound very impressive. And yet, I’m here to say, believe me, you know, that does not make me qualified to make controversial pronouncements on atmospheric physics and chemistry. I, like most people, look to the experts. Who in this case are the climate scientists. And William Happer is not one of those. 

IRA FLATOW: Your reaction? Of course, you must agree with Dave on that. 

GEOFFREY SUPRAN: Well, yeah. Yeah, yes, I mean, that’s exactly where this is. Just because you have a degree in science doesn’t mean that you can overturn 150 years of what we’ve known. 

IRA FLATOW: But the military– and you’re an old Navy man. And the military, and the Navy in particular, and over the years we’ve been on Science Friday, the Navy has been in the forefront of going green in all its areas. And it knows, because its two biggest Naval bases, what, San Diego and Norfolk, are on the water. And these are national treasures and the oceans are rising. 

DR. DAVID TITLEY: Well, exactly, Ira. I mean, the reason the military pays attention to this is, frankly, this is about making sure we are ready. We are ready as a military. So when operating environments change, like the Arctic is changing, the ice is melting out, we need to be ready. 

We need to be ready to defend our bases and our training ranges from rising seas, from droughts, from floods, from wildfires. We need to be ready to understand where there may be conflicts in the world that are going to arise, in part due to climate change. We have to be ready for these. That’s why the military cares. 

IRA FLATOW: I played a little cut at the beginning about Congress, possibly– Republicans in Congress, possibly breaking with the White House and coming around to the idea that we need some action to be made on climate change. Whether for economic or environmental reasons. Do you see that change happening yourself? 

DR. DAVID TITLEY: I do, Ira. I actually wrote a piece for the Washington Post, to paraphrase or steal from Churchill, and I called it The End Of The Beginning on climate wars there. And to me, it is quite remarkable seeing some of the ranking members of the House committees saying very reasonable things. Just as you played. 

We have Senator Barrasso cosponsoring a bill with Senator Whitehouse, one of the most outspoken climate advocates, for research into negative emissions. We have Governor Kasich saying very reasonable things about climate. That doesn’t mean all the Republicans are there. But things are changing and it just makes the White House and the National Security Council effort with Dr. Happer really look like the dead enders. 

IRA FLATOW: The dead-enders. What about the Senate? Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii tweeted the other day that he and a few other senators want Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to debate Democrats about climate change on the Senate floor. Is that ever going to happen? 

[LAUGHS] 

DR. DAVID TITLEY: I’m not sure, Ira. Of course, you know, we see the politics playing out. But as long as the politics is playing out over what to do, not if we have a problem, but what to do about the problem, that’s OK. That’s what we have a political process for. And we’ve got everyone from AOC and the Green New Deal to different solutions. Let’s have that debate about what we’re going to do, because we need to do something and we need to do it now. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, it will be a focus of what we cover for the rest of the year. And focusing on climate change, the Congress, and the New Green Deal, the Green New Deal, whatever way you’d like to say it. 

Thank you very much for coming on and talking with us, Dr. Titley. 

DR. DAVID TITLEY: Thank you so much, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: David Titley, a retired Rear Admiral in the Navy and director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State. And just a note again, we reached out to Dr. Happer to join us, but did not receive a comment back in time.

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