Editor’s Note: Alice Hill is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She was formerly a federal prosecutor, judge, special assistant to the president and senior director for the National Security Council during the Obama administration. At the White House, she led the development of policy regarding national security and climate change, including the national flood risk management standard. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Imagine an ordinary courtroom scene. The judge sits above the crowd wearing a black robe while one of the lawyers questions a witness. The witness gives an answer, but it’s not the one the lawyer was looking for. So, the lawyer asks the question again, but the witness gives the same answer. When the lawyer asks a third time, the attorney for the other side rises to her feet and exclaims, “Objection! Asked and answered!” The judge agrees and, in a voice dripping with irritation, tells the first lawyer to move on to another question.
Judges don’t take kindly to repeated attempts to ask the same question in the hopes of getting a different answer. Nor should the court of American public opinion – at least not when it comes to questioning whether climate change is occurring and why.
According to The Washington Post, the Trump administration has decided to do just that by assembling a group of federal scientists to re-examine the government’s scientific conclusions regarding climate change and the role humans play in contributing to it.
This latest White House proposal builds off an earlier plan championed by William Happer, a senior director on the National Security Council and physicist who claims that more carbon in the atmosphere is helpful, not harmful to the planet. The details regarding the proposed group have evolved in recent days, but the idea is the same: Establish a committee to question government climate reports concluding that fossil fuel emissions harm the planet.
Congress established the US Global Change Research Program in 1990 to coordinate climate research across 13 federal agencies with a mandate to produce a national climate assessment every few years. Last fall, the program released its latest assessment, which runs more than 1,500 pages. The report reflects the consensus statement of a team of 300 federal and non-federal experts who received input from stakeholders across the country during a two-year period of study. The assessment, which was subjected to review by experts, the general public and the federal government, underwent external peer review as well.
The report found that human-caused emissions of greenhouse gasses were negatively affecting everything from our infrastructure to our health. It didn’t take long for President Donald Trump to announce, “I don’t believe it.” And now, because the President and his advisers don’t like the answer the rest of the federal government and climate science keep giving them, the White House wants to ask the question again – despite the assessment’s clear and resounding conclusions.
The question the White House wants to raise – whether fossil fuels are harming the planet – has been asked and answered. Decisively. Asking the question again won’t change the answer or the science. Many Americans already know that climate change is happening, and the percentage of those who are worried about its impact has risen sharply in five years, according to a national survey by Yale and George Mason universities.
More than two-thirds of Americans say that climate change is happening and they are “worried about it,” while 62% understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities. Given that the United States is witnessing weather and climate-related extreme events that cause more and more damage, the public’s conclusions should come as no surprise.
Re-examining the climate science is a waste of everyone’s time and taxpayer money. More dangerously, the Trump administration’s effort to push for a different answer reduces the government’s focus on answering the urgent question of what to do about climate change and its impact. At this moment, those answers are lacking.
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For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency – responsible for helping the nation prepare for extreme weather – didn’t even bother to mention climate change in its strategic plan for 2018-2022. And within months of taking office, Trump killed the federal agency planning requirements for climate change as well as efforts to address the national security risks. Just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston, Trump revoked the federal building standard designed to address increased flooding from climate change.
All of this has left the government and the American people desperately ill-prepared for the accelerating impact of climate change. Instead of rehashing questions that have been asked and answered, our government should be giving Americans the answers they need to prepare.