President Trump wants to bring back “rationality” to federal climate policies, but many of his White House advisers are “nervous” about the political and media fallout, according to a former Trump official.
Princeton physicist Will Happer, who recently returned to academia after serving for a year in the National Security Council, said that the push within the administration to create a “red team/blue team” adversarial review board for government climate science has been thwarted by reelection concerns.
“[Mr. Trump] is very sympathetic to trying to get some more rationality into climate policies. Personally, he feels very strongly that way,” Mr. Happer said at a conference hosted Tuesday by the free-market Heartland Institute. “Many of the people in the White House who advise him are nervous about the political implications of that, which I can understand, too.”
Mr. Happer, former deputy assistant to the president and NSC senior director of emerging technologies, said those seeking to lay low on climate change were not trying to undermine Mr. Trump but “doing their best to be loyal advisers to the president.”
“They wanted him to be reelected. They were worried that if he picked up on the climate issue that he would lose more votes than he would win,” said Mr. Happer. “I’m not an expert at any of this sort of stuff — I’ve never won a single election in my life, I’m happy to talk about instruments or differential equations, but this is not my expertise — so they may have been right.”
At the same time, he said, “I told them as a non-expert I thought they were wrong, but of course that didn’t carry very much weight.”
His comments were delivered at Heartland’s Climate Reality Forum, a one-day event held in Madrid to coincide with the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP25.
“We are here to present a dose of reality and sound science as opposed to much of what we hear from the United Nations,” said Heartland senior fellow James Taylor.
Mr. Happer, who left the administration in September, gave the impression of a White House staff worried about raising the hackles of the federal bureaucracy and media on climate change.
One problem is that “first of all, almost none of them have a scientific background, so they’re easily swayed by this perception that 97% of scientists believe that this is a crisis,” he said.
“And so even if you’re a Republican, if you’ve heard that for 20 years and you don’t know any science and you’re used to politics where you sort of count votes to make decisions, it’s quite natural that they would be nervous to go up against this,” he said.
He added, “I don’t blame them. What I blame is this barrage of propaganda and the failure of the media, the news media, to do their job of showing both sides. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. They have become advocates, not reporters.”
‘Constant siege from outside’
He also said he was impressed with Mr. Trump’s scientific knowledge, noting that the president’s uncle, John G. Trump, was a physics professor at MIT known for his work on Van de Graaff particle accelerators.
“And he must have come for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas at young Donald’s house, because Mr. Trump remembered that on a high-energy accelerator, you had to be careful with radiuses of curvature or you would get sparks,” Mr. Happer said. “It was things I didn’t expect the President of the United States to know about, but he somehow remembered them.”
He disagreed with reports of a chaotic Trump White House, saying that “I didn’t sense any chaos inside the White House,” even though it was “certainly under constant siege from the outside.”
“There were the inevitable interpersonal conflicts, which any big organization has,” Mr. Happer said. “I’m sure you have it at Heartland, we certainly have it at Princeton University.”
“By far the most important thing” Mr. Trump has done on climate was to exit the 2015 Paris agreement, he said.
“And that was not an easy decision because a good fraction of his own supporters, his own party, were begging him to remain in, as you know, so that they would, quote, have a seat at the table,” Mr. Happer said. “It was not a seat worth having, in my view, and I think the president called it right.”
The Fourth National Climate Assessment created headaches for the White House. Rather than try to revise its climate-woke claims, the administration released it last year on Black Friday, hoping to avoid media attention, but “of course the other side was ready.”
“They knew when it would be released. They orchestrated it, really. They had close ties to the people who had created the report,” Mr. Happer said. “So it went out. Mr. Trump was caught unawares. He and a number of high-level people in the White House were very unhappy when this happened. It was something that they didn’t know was coming and it blindsided them.”
While Mr. Happer wanted to review the report, which was “put together by the Obama administration,” Trump officials were “afraid they would be demonized.”
“It was ready to be issued when Trump won the election,” Mr. Happer said. “What they should have done at that point was to review it carefully — there are parts of it that are actually pretty good science — but much of it, especially the executive summaries, are just complete propaganda. They’re not based on real science at all. But they were afraid to do that.”
The Trump administration sent representatives to the U.N. conference, but no senior officials. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought a 15-member bicameral Democratic delegation to the Dec. 2-13 summit in Madrid.
Mr. Happer said he agreed to join the administration to work technical issues such as hardening the grid against electromagnetic pulses, with the understanding that he would be able to “freelance on trying to get some sense into climate policies.”
“They agreed, and kept their word,” Mr. Happer said. “I did the best I could. I said I would spend a year with them. I spent the year, and they asked me to stay longer, I said, ‘Thank you, I think I can be more useful as a private citizen.’ So we left, I think, on good terms.”