On Tuesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, under the leadership of Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.), held a hearing on “Political Interference with Science: Global Warming.” Three of the four witnesses contended that the Bush administration is muzzling federal scientists and suppressing or distorting their research on climate change. This was music to the ears of Chairman Waxman and committee Democrats.
One witness, Francesca Griffo of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), released the results
of a questionnaire sent to 1,600 climate scientists at seven federal agencies. Some 150 scientists — 58 percent of those responding — reported at least one incident of political interference with their work during the past five years. But, as Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) pointed out, only 19 percent of the 1,600 scientists responded to the questionnaire, which means the report draws inferences from a self-selected minority rather than from an unbiased sample.
Another witness, Drew Shindell of NASA, recounted what happened when he published a paper forecasting a warming trend in Antarctica. The Bush White House did not try to stop him from publishing the paper, nor did it try to stop NASA from putting out a press release on it. So what dastardly deed did Bush operatives commit? White House officials twice rejected the titles he and the NASA press corps proposed for the press release, and eventually told them what title to use. This was, in the apt words of another witness, Roger Pielke Jr., “ham-handed communications management,” but it hardly qualifies as censorship or persecution.
Much ado about nothing
Waxman’s key witness was self-styled whistleblower Rick Piltz, who resigned in a huff from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) in March 2005. Piltz claimed the Bush team politicized the CCSP’s work, citing in particular their decision to “bury” the Clinton administration’s flagship climate report, the U.S. National Assessment (about which more below).
Piltz also finds it galling — as does Waxman — that White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chief of Staff Phil Cooney, a lawyer and former oil industry lobbyist rather than a scientist, edited CCSP publications such as its annual report, Our Changing Planet, and the CCSP Strategic Plan. Yet, as Piltz acknowledged at the hearing, he is himself not a climatologist but a political scientist, and his job at the CCSP was to produce reports by editing the contributions of agency scientists. So Waxman and Piltz’s indignation that a non-scientist edited scientific reports is a tad selective.
Piltz’s plaint is old news. New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin broke the story in June 2005. The Times published excerpts from some of the documents that Cooney edited. In March 2005, when Piltz resigned, he detailed his grievances in a 14-page memorandum to colleagues. Piltz’s testimony at yesterday’s hearing contained no new information about Cooney’s allegedly nefarious attempts to exaggerate the uncertainties of climate science and downplay the perils of climate change.
Shortly after the Revkin column appeared, Cooney resigned from CEQ and took a job with ExxonMobil. From a p.r. standpoint, this timing was not felicitous. It also didn’t help that CEQ never responded to Cooney’s detractors.
Despite the flimsiness of this testimony, a response must be made, because otherwise Waxman will milk this phony scandal to build support for unscientific alarm and energy rationing. I find myself in the position of the Groucho Marx character in Duck Soup. When asked by Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) what on earth he was doing, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) replied: “I’m defending your honor — which is more than you’ve ever done.”
Piltz claims that Cooney proposed 200 textual changes to the CCSP Strategic Plan and about 100 changes to the FY 2003 edition of Our Changing Planet (not all of Cooney’s proposed revisions were adopted — Cooney was not the final decision-maker). I am not in possession of Piltz’s drafts with Cooney’s marginalia, but Piltz presumably furnished the New York Times with the most incriminating examples. The real issue — to the extent there is one — is whether Cooney’s edits were reasonable on the merits.
Before examining Cooney’s changes, as published by the Times, it is worth noting that the two CCSP reports were not strictly speaking science studies but policy documents. For example, the latest edition of Our Changing Planet, says as part of its subtitle, “A Supplement to the President’s Fiscal Year 2004 and 2005 Budgets.” One would think that is exactly the sort of document the White House has a legitimate interest in reviewing before publishing and sending to the Hill.
In the Strategic Plan draft, Cooney crossed out several lines predicting “reductions” in mountain glaciers and snow pack in “polar regions” and “serious impacts on native populations that rely on fishing and hunting.” His marginal note says the deleted material was “straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings.” True or false?
A team of researchers led by Curt Davis of the University of Missouri-Columbia found that Antarctica’s snow pack is thickening. Similarly, a team led by Ola Johannessen of the University of Bergen found that the interior of Greenland’s ice sheet is thickening. So in the case of these polar areas, the draft report’s prediction appears to be not only speculative but wrong. As for impacts on native peoples, there is evidence that Inuit culture flourished during previous periods when the Arctic was as warm as or warmer than it is today.
In short, Cooney’s description of the deleted material as “speculative findings/musings” is correct.
Cooney also inserted in a draft of Our Changing Planet the word “extremely” before the word “difficult,” in this sentence: “The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability is extremely difficult.” Again, is the sentence as edited true or false?
Biological and ecological changes occur at regional and even local scales. Global climate models cannot reliably forecast climate change on regional scales, according to the Third Assessment Report (p. 623) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). So in many cases it is bound to be “extremely” difficult to attribute changes in biological and ecological systems to global climate change. For example, Virginia State Climatologist Patrick Michaels points out that in Arctic areas where it is warming, polar bear populations are increasing, and in areas where it is cooling, bear populations are declining.
Also in Our Changing Planet, Cooney inserted, as a goal of the CCSP, to “reduce the significant remaining uncertainties associated with human-induced climate change.” How can any reasonable person object to that? In 1992, the IPCC forecast a 21st century warming of 1.5-4.5°C from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. That’s a rather wide range, and it hasn’t changed much after 15 years of additional research.
Straining at gnats, swallowing camels
Upon reviewing Cooney’s changes, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. Even if Piltz or Waxman would have edited the same passages differently or not at all, Cooney did not alter a single data point or bottom-line scientific finding or conclusion. Piltz and Waxman strain at gnats.
Yet they and other Bush-bashers are happy to swallow camels. Take Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), for instance. Outraged by Cooney’s editing, Lautenberg proposed an amendment to the 2005 energy bill to require publication of agency climate report drafts before the White House edits them. But, as anyone familiar with how bureaucratic sausage is made knows, government reports often go through several iterations before they reach the White House for clearance. Moreover, the most important editorial decisions may come early in the process.
A case in point was the Clinton administration’s mega-climate report, the U.S. National Assessment. Piltz is very proud of this report, and much of the Sturm und Drang in both his memo and testimony is directed at CEQ for sending the Assessment “into a black hole.” This happened, according to Piltz, after my organization, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and others, including Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R., Mich.), and Rep. Joe Ann Emerson (R., Mo.) petitioned the White House to cease disseminating the document.
The National Assessment team made a huge editorial decision up front — to use, out of some 26 climate models available, a model forecasting dramatic temperature increases (Canadian Climate Center) and a model forecasting dramatic precipitation increases (U.K. Hadley Center) to serve as the basis of the report.
Patrick Michaels discovered that the two underlying models could not reproduce historic U.S. temperature trends regardless of the averaging period used (5-year, 10-year, 25-year). Worse, he found that the Canadian model over-estimated U.S. warming in the 20th century by 300 percent. Michaels brought these results to the attention of the Assessment team, and NOAA scientist Tom Karl confirmed their accuracy. Yet rather than start over, the Assessment team built their forecasts on those two models, one of which was clearly a worst-case calculator.
Why didn’t Rep. Waxman, Sen. Lautenberg, or Rick Piltz cry foul when that camel was foisted on the public?
The Bush administration inherited the National Assessment, and naively incorporated the Assessment’s scary impact scenarios in their Climate Action Report 2002 (CAR). Green groups instantly pounced on the administration for saying one thing — the world is coming to an end — and doing another — calling for more research and voluntary programs. The state attorneys general, for their part, repeatedly cited the CAR in their lawsuit to compel Bush’s EPA to regulate carbon dioxide. But it wasn’t really the Bush administration that was prophesying climate doom. The scary scenarios came from Clinton-era “research” that Bush officials recycled without thinking through the repercussions.
All of this happened on Cooney’s watch, and it most likely sensitized him to the reality that massive editorial biases can be built into agency-produced documents long before they crossed his desk. If Waxman succeeds in stigmatizing White House review, agencies like EPA will be free to engage in such front-loaded editorial manipulation of climate science.
What’s it all about, Henry?
What then is the point of this exercise? Separating politics from science is clearly not the goal. Indeed, as Pielke Jr. points out in his testimony, Chairman Waxman’s briefing memorandum to the Committee cherry-picks the science it cites, referencing studies that assert a link between global warming and stronger hurricanes but not those that question such a link. Thus, the memorandum exemplifies the very politicizing of science that Mr. Waxman professes to oppose.
I can only conclude that this hearing is another attempt to find scapegoats to blame for Kyoto crowd’s failure to sell carbon taxes and energy rationing to the American people. Bush opposes Kyoto, yes, but what sank the treaty on Capitol Hill was not Phil Cooney’s editing but Kyoto’s abysmal cost-benefit ratio.
The Kyoto Protocol might avert 0.07°C of global warming by the year 2050 — too small an amount for scientists to detect. Yet the treaty could easily cost the United States $100 billion or more annually in reduced economic growth, lost jobs, and higher energy prices. Kyoto is all cost for no benefit. No president worth his salt would have asked the Senate to ratify this treaty.
Even the Clinton-Gore administration, which negotiated the treaty, declined to present it to the Senate for a debate and vote on ratification. President Clinton mothballed Kyoto before Bush had anything to say about it.
To suggest that we’d all be singing Kumbaya with French President Jacques Chirac and saluting Kyoto as a “genuine instrument of global governance,” if only Bush hadn’t “interfered” with climate science, is sheer fantasy.
Alas, in the perception-is-reality world of politics, fantasies can come true if enough people believe in them. Evidently, Waxman thinks he can revive Kyoto’s flagging fortunes by identifying his policy agenda with science and Bush’s opposition to Kyoto with censorship and deception.
– Marlo Lewis is a senior fellow in environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.