Effects of Bush Climate Science Censorship Linger

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 7, 2007 (ENS) - The Bush administration's political interference with climate scientists has done lasting damage to the nation's ability to prepare for the challenges of global warming, a former senior associate with the federal climate research program told a Senate panel today.

"Even if we succeed in lifting this heavy hand of censorship there is still the problem of getting the political leadership to embrace the findings put forward by the scientists," said Rick Piltz, who resigned his position with the Climate Change Science Program, CCSP, in 2005 in protest of White House interference with climate science.

Piltz appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee, which held the hearing to examine new allegations the Bush administration has censored federal climate scientists.


For 10 years until June 2005, Rick Piltz worked for the federal program that coordinates global climate change research for federal agencies, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. (Photo by Nick Sundt courtesy CCSP)
A report released last month by the Union of Concerned Scientists, UCS, and the Government Accountability Project, GAP, found that nearly half the 279 climate scientists who responded to a survey reported being pressured to delete references to "global warming" or "climate change" from scientific papers or reports and many said they were prevented from talking to the media or had their work edited.

The UCS/GAP report added to other allegations the Bush administration has repeatedly interfered with federal scientists who have tried to publish research or speak to the media about the reality and impacts of global warming and have edited climate change documents to downplay scientific consensus on the issue.

Committee Chair Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, said investigating the allegations is critical for lawmakers wrestling with climate change.


Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"To deny federal scientists the right to speak, to change the findings of their work, or to deny the release of their work, basically creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, is a great disservice to the public," Inouye said.

The acting head of the CCSP said the allegations were isolated incidents, adding that the Bush administration "takes the concerns of its scientists very seriously."

"To the best of my knowledge no one has suggested the science or the research findings have been interfered with," said Bill Brennan, deputy assistant administrator for international affairs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, and acting CCSP director.

The concerns that have been reported, he said, center on the "intersection of science policy and science and how that is communicated to the public."

The administration is taking steps to remedy the situation, Brennan added.


Bill Brennan is acting director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. (Photo courtesy CCSP)
"Each department and agency is reviewing, and if necessary modifying, its policies to ensure government scientists do not face censorship on any scientific matter, including climate change issues," he said.

The Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, is readying a new policy that encourages, but does not require, scientists to go through the public affairs office prior to speaking with the media, according to Dr. James Mahoney, the former director of the CCSP.

"This revised policy should resolve most or all of the recent complaints by some NOAA scientists," Mahoney told the panel.

Tom Knutson, a climate scientist with NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, said he and his colleagues are "anxious to see how NOAA will interpret and implement the new policy."

Knutson, who has published studies linking global warming to increased hurricane strength, told the committee he has faced "unreasonable levels of interference with my communication with the media."


Tom Knutson is a research meteorologist with the Climate Dynamics and Prediction Group of NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. (Photo courtesy GFDL)
Neither Mahoney nor Brennan touched on what Piltz called the administration's "central climate science scandal," namely its treatment of a national assessment on climate change impacts.

Completed in 2000, the national assessment was mandated by the 1990 Global Change Research Act. It was intended to be continually updated and to serve as a centerpiece of the government's effort to inform the policymakers and the public in developing a national climate policy.

The administration effectively killed the program and suppressed discussion of it by participating agencies, according to Piltz, who now directs GAP's Climate Science Watch.

That action "has done, and continues to do, the greatest damage in undermining national preparedness in dealing with the challenge of global climate change," Piltz told the committee.

"It is clear that the reasons for this were essentially political, and not based on scientific considerations," Piltz added. "The White House through the Council on Environmental Quality directed this suppression, which was then implemented by the CCSP leadership."


A thickening blanket of greenhouse gases is holding heat from the Sun close to the planet, raising the global temperature. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
The witnesses at the hearing were also asked about edits made to a 2003 Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, report by Phillip Cooley, a petroleum lobbyist who at the time was the chief of staff for the Council on Environmental Quality.

Cooley edited the draft document to eliminate a reference that human activities were causing global temperatures to rise and weakened language on the consequences of climate change - the edits prompted EPA officials to delete the entire climate change section from report.

"They were attempts to create a more moderate picture," Mahoney responded. "No doubt some people did interpret their jobs as to reducing the fear factor."

Piltz said Cooley "clearly had a political agenda" and his actions reflected a "tremendous amount of White House pressure" to suppress scientific concern about global warming.

Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, told colleagues the Bush administration's actions were "almost criminal."

"They take the science and tailor it to reflect their political goals," he said. "The interference is stunning it is George Orwell at its best. It has to stop."

Piltz also urged the committee to examine the state of federal spending on climate science.

"The administration has cut the climate change research budget to its lowest level since 1992 and is presiding over what appears to be a growing crisis in the global climate observing system, thus undermining a critical national intelligence gathering process," Piltz said.

Unless funding is reinstated for the observation system, the number of U.S. satellites monitoring the Earth's climate could drop from 29 today to seven by 2017, warned Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of North American member universities based in Boulder, Colorado.

Anthes told the committee, "We have reached the golden age of Earth observation from space if this trend is not reversed."