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Congressional Report reveals "Systematic Effort" to Manipulate Climate Science PDF Print E-mail
By Andy Mannle and Alison Loomis | Friday, 14 December 2007

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A year-long Congressional investigation reveals a "systematic effort to manipulate climate change science" by the White House. The report released this week details what happened when oil industry lawyer Philip Cooney was given the reigns at the White House's Council on Environmental Quality.

As the United States drags its heels on climate change negotiations, and continues to allow industry spokespeople to pollute its policies, the need for a separation of science and state becomes clear.

"For the past 16 months, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been investigating allegations of political interference with government climate change science under the Bush Administration." So begins a 37-page congressional report released this week as government officials from around the world meet at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia.

The report's Executive Summary states: "The evidence before the Committee leads to one inescapable conclusion: the Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming."

The Committee's investigation has uncovered a pattern by the Bush Administration of manipulating scientific information for political purposes. By revising documents, editing official testimony, and blocking scientists from speaking to reporters about climate change, the White House sought to "inject unwarranted uncertainty into discussions of climate change and to minimize the threat to the environment and the economy," the report states.

The investigation sifted through 27,000 pages of documents obtained from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the U.S. Commerce Department, held two investigative hearings, and conducted interviews with key officials. The resulting report contains much information that has never been publicly disclosed.

Political Interference No Suprise for Scientists
The conveniently publicized report, however, is no new news for scientists, many of who signed a declaration last Thursday urging politicians in Bali to agree on strong greenhouse gas emission reductions. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a survey in February revealing at least 435 specific incidents of political interference with the work of government climate scientists, including “150 federal climate scientists from eight federal agencies [who] personally experienced at least one incident of political interference during the past five years.”

Numerous allegations of interference have taken place since 2002, including an order from the U.S. Commerce Department for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ) scientists to obtain permission before speaking about scientific matters of  “official importance.”  In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Salon.com obtained emails revealing White House efforts to limit media access to scientists for fear they would expose the links between global warming and increasing hurricane intensity.

"Unfortunately," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., at the time, "it is no longer surprising to receive reports of the Bush administration interfering with public access to government scientists. These documents, if confirmed, suggest the lengths the Bush administration will go to control the message rather than let the facts speak for themselves."

Why would the administration go to such lengths to muzzle its own scientists?

Because promoting uncertainty about climate change was an agenda dear to the oil industry, the report concludes, quoting a 1998 “Communications Action Plan” developed by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the primary trade association of the oil industry. The ‘Action Plan’ states:  “Victory will be achieved when ... average citizens ‘understand’ uncertainties in climate science ... [and] recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’”

Adopting an Oil-Industry Agenda
The man charged with carrying out that mission was Philip Cooney . Cooney was a lawyer who worked for API for fifteen years before Bush appointed him Chief of Staff at the Council on Environmental Quality in 2001. He told the committee in March that "his last position at API was as team leader of the climate team where it was his job to ensure that any governmental actions taken relating to climate change were consistent with the goals of the petroleum industry."

Under Cooney's tenure at API the organization crafted an internal memo in 1999 making their position strikingly clear:  “Climate is at the center of industry’s business interests. Policies limiting carbon emissions reduce petroleum product use. That is why it is API’s highest priority issue."

Transferring Cooney from industry lobbyist to environmental watchdog allowed him to do the same job from the inside, removing troubling science at the source.

As proof the CEQ adopted the oil-industry 'uncertainty' strategy as high priority of their own, the committee's report details evidence that the White House council has:

~ Controlled which scientists from NASA and NOAA could speak with the media.
~ Extensively edited congressional testimony regarding climate science.
~ Engaged in widespread censorship of climate scientists.
~ Engaged in a  systematic effort to minimize the significance of climate change by making hundreds of edits to climate change reports. (294 edits in one case.)
~ Edited the EPA's Report on the Environment.
~ Vetoed the entire Climate Change Section of the EPA's Air Trends Report.
~ Played a major role in crafting the August 2003 EPA legal opinion disavowing authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

The Bush administration denied the allegations of interfering with scientific research, calling the report’s findings "grossly exaggerated,” even though Cooney resigned his position to accept a job with ExxonMobil two days after New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin revealed he had edited climate reports to cast doubt on the links between greenhouse gases and global warming. Calling the Committee's report 'recyled rhetoric,' White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said it was "an attempt to distract attention from the administration's efforts ... at the Bali summit."

“The report ignores the legitimate role of policymakers, instead of scientists, in making administration policy," said Republican Tom Davis of Virginia.  The GOP rebuttal claims that the requests to the media about science were referred to scientists.

However, according to the report’s findings, these requests were routinely routed through the CEQ, which often sought to make available scientists whose views were more aligned with administration policy.  Email messages from 2005 showed that political appointees at NOAA declined a request by CNBC for an interview with NOAA scientist Tom Knutson because he had published research linking global warming to hurricane intensity. NASA climate science expert James Hansen, was prevented by political appointees at NASA from speaking to the media after he gave a lecture about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming. In 2006, the Washington Post published an article quoting NOAA scientists who said government officials had removed references to global warming from their reports, news releases, and Web sites.

The Importance of Honest Science
Critics fear such orders hamper a hallmark of the scientific process and the free flow of ideas. Citing the critical need for scientific awareness in today's political environment, physics professor Lawrence Krauss and Chris Mooney, author of "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming" have organized ScienceDebate2008 calling on presidential candidates to participate in a debate dedicated to issues in science and technology. In a recent editorial, they sum up the situation thus:

"As advances in science and technology continually transform our world, policymaking will inevitably depend more and more on accurate scientific and technical information. Which means that in order to be a successful world leader today, a politician must have an effective means of accessing and applying the latest science."

As the United States drags its heels on climate change negotiations, and continues to allow industry spokespeople to pollute its policies, the need for a separation of science and state becomes clear.

"Science requires a willingness to reject conclusions once they're shown to be in error, and it demands that all the data be considered, not just that which agrees with a priori opinions. A president capable of assessing scientific issues by weighing competing positions, and evaluating the evidence supporting them, could be expected to carry the same mode of reasoning over into other policy arenas where it's equally crucial," write Krauss and Mooney.

Unfortunately, by the same token, a president and his appointees can now also be expected to carry their a priori opinions into other policy arenas where it's especially catastrophic.

For the sake of future generations facing intensified human-driven natural disasters, we can only hope our country's leaders - in government as well as industry - will have the courage to look science squarely in the eye and make brave choices, instead of re-writing the evidence to fit their agenda.

 


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