The climate change 'resistance' movement inside the Trump administration

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2), AP (2)

WASHINGTON — The weather in Washington was almost springlike on Dec. 22, 2017, with temperatures in the 50s — a pleasant surprise in the middle of winter. That morning, President Trump signed the Republican tax cut and reform bill into law, after which he boarded Marine One, on his way to Palm Beach and his golf club Mar-a-Lago.

The weather in South Florida was glorious, with temperatures climbing into the 80s. The weather in Washington got worse, so by the following Thursday, residents of the district woke to a frozen city that would remain frozen for the next two weeks.

On that Thursday, Dec. 28, the president decided to have a little fun with meteorology. “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record,” he said in a tweet that evening. “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”

This was the 2,436th tweet Trump had sent since placing his left hand on the Lincoln Bible 11 months before. It was the first to explicitly mention climate change. By contrast, he’d tweeted about the kneeling protests of professional football players on more than 20 occasions. Trump’s climate change tweet was a masterstroke of trolling, its glib tone sending liberals into a predictable, understandable rage. Rep. Kathleen Rice, Democrat of New York, compared the president to “a child who hates science class.”

Exactly two weeks before, there had been a climate-related development that received barely any attention at all: no presidential announcement and certainly no presidential tweet. Directors of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or OPIC, a federal agency that invests private funds, approved $150 million for an enormous wind farm in Ukraine, along with $250 million in political risk insurance. Located in eastern Ukraine, on the Sea of Azov, the Zaporizhia Wind Park is expected to eventually power 780,000 households.

It made perfect sense for the Trump administration to downplay its own investment in the Ukrainian wind farm. When he stood in the Rose Garden on June 1, 2017, and announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate accords, Trump explained that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Investing $400 million in an Eastern European green energy project sure seemed like a feint in the direction of France.

There is no question that Trump is more hostile to climate science than any president in modern history. Nor has he evinced much appreciation for pure science. Yet neither climate science nor science in general have suffered much in the Trump administration, at least not if funding levels are an indication.

Though the Trump administration did try to slash the science budget, Congress rejected those cuts in the final spending bill. The White House showed no inclination to fight for its proposed cuts in climate-related programs. So science stayed. Matt Hourihan of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that the budget Trump endorsed with his signature last spring contained $176.8 billion for pure science, a “year-over-year increase” not seen since the early days of the Obama administration.

What the Trump administration can do is downplay and minimize the bureaucracy’s own findings and investments. That’s precisely what it did with the grim National Climate Assessment, a devastating indictment of inaction that the administration tried to make less devastating by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving.

The 1,656-page report was the product of more than a dozen federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which have both continued working on climate science the last two years, thanks to funding from the Trump administration. Last March, Trump threatened to veto a congressional omnibus spending bill but signed it anyway. It included $20.7 billion for NASA, which was more than the agency had received in a decade. NOAA got $6 billion, about $300 million more than it got in Obama’s final budget.

“How the heck did NASA (and science) get such a good 2018 budget?” wondered a blogger for the Planetary Society, an organization headed by Bill “the Science Guy” Nye, a frequent critic of Trump. The NRDC, another Trump nemesis, praised the spending bill for being “largely free of anti-environmental language.”

This difficult-to-ignore discrepancy between what the president says and what his administration does has made for a strange reality. “There’s more energy that could be unleashed to advance our climate resilience capabilities if the rhetoric matched the reality,” says Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow specializing in climate change and security at the Wilson Center.

The more hopeful of Trump’s detractors have even imagined a climate change “resistance” at work, one that will have career federal employees save the planet by subverting Trump’s agenda. Many conservatives fear the very same thing. Yet if such a resistance exists, however, it is taking place in full public view. Sometimes, it is taking place in the Oval Office.

 

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On the morning of Feb. 15, 1961, a letter arrived at the White House from Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, Democrat of New Mexico. Anderson, who’d met with President John F. Kennedy the day before, sent his follow-up letter because he hoped Kennedy would not forget the subject they’d discussed: an article that Manhattan Project scientist John von Neumann had published in Fortune six years before.

Titled “Can we survive technology?” the article warned that the tools of “technological power” could “lend themselves to destruction” if society failed to understand the implications of advancement. The article was about more than just climate change, which von Neumann discussed in the context of weaponized “weather modification.” But he did say that changes in “atmospheric and climatic matters” would “merge each nation’s affairs with those of every other.”

Every single president since Kennedy has had to confront climate change as a potential destructive influence, in increasingly explicit terms. Richard Nixon, vowing to “make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done,” created the Environmental Protection Agency. Under Ronald Reagan, however, the EPA dismissed concerns about widespread emission of chlorofluorocarbons — one of the great culprits of climate change — as an “unsubstantiated scare story.”

Bill Clinton, who was advised on climate change by Todd Stern, the future negotiator of the Paris accord, wanted the U.S. to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gasses, but the Senate frustrated that attempt. His successor, George W. Bush, seemed to acknowledge climate change but ultimately dismissed the gravity of the situation. In 2001, he said that his administration “took the issue of global climate change very seriously” but would not abide by Kyoto because it was “unfair and ineffective.”

While other presidents may have ignored climate change, Trump is the first to expend significant energy in arguing that climate change is not a threat. He no longer says that global warming is a “hoax,” as he once did. Instead, he has adopted the climate skeptic position that temperature is cyclical, and that although the globe is now rapidly warming, it will cool down again. “I think something’s happening,” he told 60 Minutes in October. “Something’s changing, and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax. I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s manmade.”

Where he has been able to act decisively, and without Congress, Trump has acted on this conviction. Two months into his presidency, Trump signed an executive order that directed the Environmental Protection Agency to repeal the Clean Power Plan, an Obama measure to increase reliance on renewable energy sources. Two months after that, he announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accords.

Another Trump executive order asked the Department of Interior to study national monuments, which led to the shrinkage of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two such areas of significant size in Utah. The land can now be used for resource extraction. Trump also used the Congressional Review Act — an obscure tactic that allows a president to cancel existing rules with congressional approval— to nullify the Stream Protection Rule, which kept surface mining operations from polluting waterways.

This is enough, detractors say, to make Trump the most anti-science president in modern American history. There’s no point in downplaying Trump’s preference for open coal plants over the open range. But at least part of Trump’s anti-environmental stance is meant primarily to excite his supporters.

“It’s all performative,” explains Elaine Kamarck, an expert of presidential politics at the Brookings Institution, speaking broadly of Trump’s approach to divisive issues, whether global warming or gun control. “He has never, ever made the transition to governing that most people make.”

Trump did not, for example, leave the Paris accords, but merely indicated his intentions to do so. That is significant, but obscures the fact that the U.S. can’t actually leave the agreement until 2021. For now, the marriage will hold, however uneasily.

Things thus go on much as they would have under a President Hillary Clinton. “Nothing really changed,” says one senior American scientist who works on climate change.

Trump administration officials were heckled U.N. conference in Bonn, Germany, last year, but the American delegation participated as it would under any other president. Natalie M. Mahowald, a Cornell climate scientist who is a member of the American delegation to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, recalls that the governors of Western states showed up to compensate for a lack of leadership from Washington. “These guys did it at the state level,” holding a “really energizing session” with Canadian counterparts that, according to Mahowald, made “America look good.”

Esther Babson, a climate expert at the American Security Project, had a similar recollection of the meetings in Bonn: “There was clear engagement. America is still there. We’re still engaging.” 

The U.S. did send a delegation of scientists and diplomats to the U.N. climate conference currently taking place in Katowice, Poland. The American contingent is helmed by career foreign service officer Judith Garber, who has no record of climate change denial. But at least for some of the time, the American delegation will be promoting coal.

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, came to Poland on his own. From the podium, he called Trump “meshugge” — Yiddish for crazy — and said that the president did not represent the broader American approach to global warming.

Schwarzenegger reiterated that point to Yahoo News the following day, comparing the green revolution to the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, which came to Washington, not from it. “The ideal thing is that everyone works together. But that’s not the case right now,” Schwarzenegger said. “He’s living in the past,” he said of Trump.

Schwarzenegger argues that Trump has no foe greater than the private market. He points to the fact that in the first quarter of 2018, 95 percent of all energy capacity added came from renewables. In the first four months of the year, there was no new capacity at all added from coal-burning sources, despite Trump’s repeated promises that coal will rise again.

Speaking to Yahoo News from Katowice, the former California governor called the shift away from fossil fuels “an unstoppable train.” Trump, he says, “is not slowing it down much.” Like others, he is dismayed by the Trump administration but believes that the green movement will easily outlast this presidency.

The senior American climate scientist — who asked for anonymity so as not to jeopardize professional affiliations — agreed. “This administration will come and this administration will go,” she said, a statement marked by resignation and hope. As long as career staffers and research scientists they partner with remain in league, climate work will continue. And that is exactly what alarms Trump’s supporters.

 

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When the Trump administration published its National Climate Assessment last month, many saw an urgent warning that could no longer be ignored. But for some supporters of the president, the report was nothing but a rehashing of the same themes that liberals have been sounding for decades.

“Obama built up climate in every agency,” says Steve Milloy, a vehement detractor of climate science on his Junk Science website. “I don’t know why people consider it conspiratorial,” Milloy says somewhat defensively, in recognition that suggestions like his are easily grouped with Deep State paranoia. “There is a permanent bureaucracy that is committed to climate hysteria. Until funding is completely cut, these people will continue working on this stuff.”

So why hasn’t Trump cut funding for climate research and preparedness? Because the federal bureaucracy is “a huge thing to get a hold of,” Milloy explains. Plus, the president can’t afford the political fight, especially because Congress is almost certain to eventually have its way (it always seems to, when it comes to budgets). Milloy praises Trump for policy shifts that encourage resource extraction and cap fuel economy standards. The funding shifts, he hopes, will follow.

Still, for some skeptics, any work on climate change at all is evidence, if not exactly of a conspiracy, then of a concerted effort to slow-walk or sabotage Trump’s environmental policies. “I’m told of career employees at agencies including the departments of State, Treasury and Transportation, as high as the office director level, actively working to undermine the administration’s positions that the officials are tasked with advancing,’ says Christopher C. Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank that advocates against environmental regulation.

Horner says he has heard “stories about ‘the Resistance’ taking to encrypted apps and the like to correspond. What is surprising is the level at which these employees feel free to engage in this behavior.” Horner has specifically focused on Peter Wisner, an economist at the Treasury Department. Horner believes that Wisner has worked on climate-related issues that are not within the scope of his responsibilities. Wisner heads Treasury’s Office of Energy and Environment, a department whose stated goal is to “smooth transition to a national and global economy powered by clean energy and to improve the national and global environment.” That does appear to place climate change firmly in Wisner’s portfolio. (Wisner did not respond to a request for comment. A Treasury spokesman did not appear to know of Horner’s investigation into Wisner’s work. He also did not respond with an on-the-record comment.)

In September, Horner also published a report, “Government for Rent” that purports to describe how liberal billionaires like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, formerly a Republican, were trying to negate the Trump administration by supporting climate work in the offices of state attorneys general. The report, however, is less indicative of a vast left-wing conspiracy than of certain states, such as New York and California, electing activist attorneys general willing to sue the administration over its environmental rollbacks.

So why do suspicions about conspiracy persist? They do because something needs to account for the difference between what Trump says and what his administration does. Either the president is using misdirection, or he has been subverted by men and women who work for him but also against him.

As Rep. Clay Higgins, Republican of Louisiana, said last summer at an energy conference for conservatives, “The Deep State is real,” and it is “certainly anti-fossil fuel.”

 

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One reason that environmental work appears to have stalled in the Trump administration is because the EPA, the government’s most visible environmental agency, has been brought to its knees. Long demonized by Republicans, the EPA was co-opted by global warming deniers from virtually the moment Trump was declared the president-elect. The agency’s public diminishment has served as a vivid, if not entirely accurate, symbol of science in the age of Trump.

The EPA transition was headed by Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who helped persuade George W. Bush to spurn the Kyoto agreement. Trump’s decision to nominate Scott Pruitt as the agency’s administrator was the result of influence from Harold Hamm, the Oklahoma oil and gas magnate. Pruitt had sued the EPA 14 times in his previous role as Oklahoma’s attorney general. He ran the agency with little regard for science; after facing more than a dozen investigations, Pruitt resigned last summer — only to be replaced by coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler.

“People feel as though as their work isn’t being taken seriously,” says Loreen Targos, who was speaking in her capacity as a private citizen and a shop steward in the Chicago chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, a public sector union. Targos, who is employed as a physical scientist in that city’s EPA office, says that under Pruitt, “a lot of things had to go through headquarters that didn’t have to go through headquarters before.”

Mentions of climate sciences have been effaced from the EPA’s website. One colleague working on air pollution was constantly brushed back with invocations of “cooperative federalism,” a favorite Pruitt phrase that amounts to nothing more than code for the loosening of environmental regulations.

“We want to just carry out the mission of the EPA, and our leadership doesn’t appreciate that,” Targos says. And so “folks are retiring, and their positions are not refilled.” An estimated 260 scientists have left the agency under Trump. If things are marginally better with Wheeler in charge, it is only because, she said, he is prone to fewer “insane antics” than Pruitt, who infamously dispatched underlings to find him a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel.

Michael Cox retired from EPA last spring with a blistering letter that criticized Pruitt’s leadership. Watching the administration discount the National Climate Assessment late last month reminded Cox why it had been time to go: “I’m leaving; I’m done. I can’t work in a place where science isn’t valued,” he told Yahoo News.

Cox is skeptical about the ability of Congress to hold the line against Trump. The White House will ask for huge cuts, and Congress will comply with smaller ones. “They’ll keep chipping away,” Cox believes, which will only drive committed staffers like him out of the agency by giving them more work of the less meaningful kind. “The road map, as I see it, is to reduce the number of people working at EPA.”

A scientist who works in EPA headquarters in Washington in the climate division seconds that assessment. She works closely with Trump’s political appointees and says their attitudes vacillate between denialism and hopelessness: Climate change probably isn’t real, but if it is, there’s nothing we can do about it. The scientist — who would only speak anonymously because of the sensitive nature of her position at EPA — says there is no “secret plan of attack” by career EPA staffers that will be launched the moment Trump leaves office. Within the agency, she says, there is no “resistance” of the type conservatives like Horner fear.

And it’s not just at the EPA. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is charged with administering public lands, spoke this week at a meeting of the National Petroleum Council in Washington, D.C. Zinke, who appears to have fallen out of favor with Trump and is widely rumored to be looking for a job in the private sector, made overtures uncommon for a public official.

“We’ve gotten a lot better as industry. You’ve gotten a lot better. People are making money,” he said, while suggesting that “millennials” had gotten needlessly worked up about the National Climate Assessment. He was followed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who offered similar praise to the extractive industries.

Even so, Perry’s own department has allotted $15 million for 27 projects on “atmospheric and terrestrial ecosystem studies.” And there are dozens of climate-related research projects that have been funded in recent months by the National Science Foundation, most of them on not exactly Trumpian subjects like “Data-driven Koopman Operator Techniques for Chaotic and Non-Autonomous Dynamical Systems” ($300,000) and “A Modeling Study of Easterly Waves and Their Intraseasonal Variability in the East Pacific” ($343,501).

Still, the sector of the government that has been most supportive of climate science is the one that Trump venerates the most as a reserve of traditional American values: the national security establishment.

 

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In August, Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which directed the Pentagon to prepare for “changing environmental conditions.” The bill also called for “energy resilience” at military bases. That resilience has a decidedly green tint. A  2017 study of energy resilience by the Pentagon called for “renewable options” that would “help offset fuel related costs and vulnerabilities.” That means Trump, the coal-loving president, is almost certainly funding windmills and solar arrays on military bases. That earned Trump and Congress rare praise from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has had few good things to say about the current administration.

The national security community’s concerns about climate change go back decades. In 1989, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft convened a meeting on climate change that was attended by representatives of more than a dozen federal agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the EPA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In 2010, for the first time, the Department of Defense included climate change in its Quadrennial Defense Review. Retired Vice Admiral Lee Gunn explained to NPR that “vast majority of military leaders” had become convinced that “climate change is a real threat and that the military plays an important role in confronting it.”

That was under another president. The 2018 National Defense Strategy, as the defense review is now known, does not mention climate change for the first time since 2010. But the omission should not be taken to mean that the military has come to discount the dangers of global warming, cautions John Conger, a former deputy undersecretary of Defense Department who now heads the Center for Climate and Security.

For the military, global warming poses a potential threat to American forces. He points out that the “great power competition” stressed by the most recent defense review will be informed by global warming: Melting ice in the Arctic has already attracted attention from Russia and China, two of the main adversaries described in the defense review.

“There is no denialism” on the part of the military, Conger says.

Heather Babb, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, said that the Pentagon “continues to prudently plan and design facilities to address local weather and environmental conditions,” and that “environmental vulnerabilities” remain part of its consideration. Those vulnerabilities were on display in October, when Hurricane Michael devastated Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla. Several F-22 stealth fighter jets, which cost $143 million each, may have been damaged in the storm.

And though the Pentagon review no longer makes mention of climate change, the Worldwide Threat Assessment issued by director of national intelligence Daniel R. Coats bluntly warned that “impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent — and possibly upheaval — through 2018.”

The Central Intelligence Agency would not discuss the particulars of its work on climate change, but a senior intelligence official who would only speak on condition of anonymity told Yahoo News, “CIA assess countries’ decision making on climate and energy related issues as it pertains to U.S. economic and national security interests.”

Defusing the threat of climate change abroad can be a kind of goodwill measure for a nation whose international reputation has fallen in recent years, a kind of environmental Marshall Plan. In that context, OPIC’s investment in the Ukrainian wind farm makes geopolitical, not just environmental sense. The same goes for its $135 million investment in a geothermal plant in Honduras, a $13 million loan for a solar power facility in Zambia, $223 million to finance a wind farm in Kenya and $25 million for other solar projects in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

All of these were funded under Trump. (Asked about the agency’s green investments, a spokesperson said that “OPIC supports investments in sectors such as infrastructure, clean water and energy to advance development.”)

The State Department has continued to engage in what it calls eco-diplomacy efforts, with a summit on green initiatives held at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., last year. The effort, begun by President Barack Obama, seeks to transform American embassies into models of energy efficiency and resource conservation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Singapore last summer, where he reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), a multipronged modernization project in Southeast Asia that includes climate change readiness. LMI was a creation of Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. That should have marked it for certain death within the Trump administration. Instead, it lives on.

Yet Pompeo has been reluctant to say that human activity causes climate change. And though the State Department used to have a special envoy for climate change, the position was eliminated by Pompeo’s predecessor, former oil executive Rex Tillerson. When the U.N .report on climate change was published in October, the State Department questioned its findings, with a spokesman insisting that, when it came to environmental policy, the U.S. was “doing good.”

 

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Not everyone agrees the Trump administration is “doing good” on climate science. “There is no leadership,” laments Bob Perciasepe, a former EPA official who now serves as the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “There is nobody who is a visible leader in the administration out there saying, ‘Climate change is really happening.’”

In fact, one of the most pernicious tactics of the Trump administration has been to downplay any reports about climate change. Romany Webb, a scholar at Columbia University, runs the Silencing Science Tracker, in which she records federal and state actions that have “the effect of restricting or prohibiting scientific research, education, or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information.” Webb says that she has found 190 instances in which the Trump administration has tried to minimize findings related to global warming.

Webb calls this “government censorship of science.” She explains that even if the Trump administration can’t stop research that has been funded by Congress, it can bury the findings, as it did with the National Climate Assessment. And she credits Congress, not Trump, with continuing to fund climate science. The work is happening despite the president, she says, not because of him.

“Some is still happening, but a lot is not,” Webb says of science research by the federal government. She fears that scientists will flee government work if they feel that their work is maligned or marginalized. Hundreds have already left the EPA.

And what is happening may not be enough. The National Climate Assessment found that, unless action is taken, by the end of the century, the temperature could increase at the rate of 9 degrees Fahrenheit per year. “Climate-related risks will continue to grow without additional action,” the report warns. “Decisions made today determine risk exposure for current and future generations and will either broaden or limit options to reduce the negative consequences of climate change.”

The report was published as devastating wildfires burned through parts of California, killing dozens. Trump visited the state and declared that the fires were the result of poor forest management. Scientists believe that the intensity and frequency of wildfires in the West have been made worse by climate change.

Back in Washington, Trump was asked about the new climate report on a Monday in late November. The day before, it had been warm enough to wear shorts. Standing on the South Lawn, Trump brushed away the concerns contained in the climate report, concerns scientists believe must be addressed promptly to prevent global catastrophe.

“I don’t believe it,” the president said.

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