Censorship and Secrecy: Politicizing the Climate Change Science Program


Censorship and Secrecy: Politicizing the Climate Change Science Program. Prepared by Rick Piltz, former Senior Associate with the U.S. Climate Change Science Program Office, to explain his March 2, 2005 resignation.  “This administration has acted to impede honest communication of the state of climate science and the implications for society of global climate change. Politicization by the White House has fed back directly into the science program in such a way as to undermine the credibility and integrity of the program in its relationship to the research community, to program managers, to policymakers, and to the public interest.”

The U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) is the vehicle through which U.S. Government agencies coordinate their support for research on climate change and associated issues of global environmental change. From 1995 until my March 2, 2005 resignation, I served in responsible positions such as Associate Director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program Office (its name until 2002) and Senior Associate in the CCSP Office. Since it was first established as the U.S. Global Change Research Program under the Global Change Research Act of 1990, this program has supported thousands of scientists who have developed an extraordinary body of scientific research, observations, and assessments, dealing with issues of fundamental scientific and societal significance. The program currently has 13 participating federal agencies and an annual budget of about $2 billion.

Global climate change is a problem with great potential consequences for society. This administration has acted to impede honest communication of the state of climate science and the implications for society of global climate change. Politicization by the White House has fed back directly into the science program in such a way as to undermine the credibility and integrity of the program in its relationship to the research community, to program managers, to policymakers, and to the public interest. The White House so successfully politicized the science program that I decided it was necessary to terminate my relationship with it.

I resigned in March 2005, after working for 10 years in the program office. I have drafted a memorandum to the interagency principals committee for the Climate Change Science Program – essentially the board of directors – that discusses in some detail the problems that finally led me to resign, in order to be able to speak more freely about these issues.   I know that others who are less free to speak out share these concerns.   I believe these issues are worthy of more penetrating Congressional oversight and public attention than they have thus far received.

The ability of our society and our elected officials to make good decisions about climate change and numerous other important public issues depends on a free, accurate, honest, and unimpeded flow of communications about the findings of scientific research and scientifically based assessments of relevant issues.   To block, distort, or manipulate this flow of communications in order to further political agendas can be seen as analogous to interference with freedom of the press.   The White House should not be in the business of pre-clearing scientific communications based on political impact, any more than it should be in the business of pre-clearing the reporting of the news. Key questions that should be raised follow.

Why are administration political officials who are not career science program managers, and whose job is essentially to satisfy the administration’s constituencies on climate change politics and policy, participating in governing the Climate Change Science Program?   In particular, why does a former oil industry lobbyist have the authority to edit scientific statements developed by career federal science professionals? The White House Council on Environmental Quality, in particular its Chief of Staff   – a lawyer and former climate team leader with the American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying arm of the oil industry – has played a central role, including having final review and signoff authority on CCSP publications – such as the CCSP Strategic Plan for scientific research, the CCSP annual reports to Congress with highlights of recent scientific research, and the prospective state-of-the-science CCSP Synthesis and Assessment Reports. This CEQ generally under Chairman James Connaughton has been especially notable in the administration’s commingling of politics and science.  

CEQ final reviews of CCSP draft documents have made hundreds of changes in text drafted by career federal science program management professionals, who work closely with the research community, and approved by principal representatives of CCSP participating agencies. Many, if not most, of these changes and proposed changes have included alteration of science-related text, generally either to downgrade the significance of certain issues of concern about climate change and its implications, to downgrade accomplishments of previous scientific work by creating an enhanced sense of scientific uncertainty, or to substitute CEQ’s judgment for that of science program professionals about research priorities. Documentation of these CEQ interventions should be examined.

What is the role of the CCSP Director – the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere – and the CCSP interagency principals group, vis-à-vis CEQ and the rest of the administration’s political operation on climate change?   The administration’s policy commitments on climate change have led it to play down scientific evidence on the extent of observed climate change and its impacts, the projections of substantial change during this century, and a range of potential adverse consequences of 21 st century climate change that are considered likely according to the conclusions of the most authoritative scientific assessments of the problem.   Is CCSP leadership free to express and represent the mainstream scientific perspective, or are CCSP public communications shaped by White House political priorities?  

Why has the administration suppressed the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change – the most substantial scientifically based climate change assessment project sponsored by the program, and a pioneering experiment in modes of stakeholder engagement and societal relevance announced as a “landmark” on the likely and potential impacts for the U.S. from climate change when released is 2000?   The serious process initiated in the assessment for follow through has been abandoned. Apparently, the first National Assessment will be the only one. Why has the White House required the CCSP to systematically delete any substantive reference or use of the multiple volumes of this major work in setting climate change research priorities? It has been stripped from the record for all program planning documents and reports to Congress; such as the CCSP Strategic Plan, the annual editions of Our Changing Planet (the annual program report to Congress), as well as internal planning and budgetary discussion.   These scientific assessments are intended as the underpinning to support policy and management decision making. Why has the CCSP stonewalled repeated criticism from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences for suppressing this report?   The NRC has said: “The National Assessment’s Overview and Foundation reports are important contributions to understanding the possible consequences of climate variability and change.   The processes of stakeholder engagement and transparent review of the National Assessment reports were exemplary.”

Why has the administration been evasive about embracing the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) and communicating and using its findings?   ACIA was a major project, commissioned by the U.S. Government along with the other parties to the Arctic Council, funded by CCSP-participating agencies, and chaired by the long-time former chair of the USGCRP interagency committee, with substantial participation of U.S.-based authors and reviewers. Yet the administration has ducked and shortchanged ACIA in a number of ways.   The ACIA Overview report was published in late 2004, with policy recommendations withheld until after the election.   Why has the CCSP failed to transmit copies of the report that were purchased for distribution to Members of Congress and others? They are still gathering dust in a storeroom, sitting in unopened boxes. What roles have CEQ, the State Department, and the CCSP Director played in what appears to be an administration decision to distance itself from the Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment, which identifies a range of observed and projected adverse impacts of climate change on Arctic ecosystems and communities, with implications for global climate change and potential global consequences, including accelerated sea level rise? The ACIA Chair testifies and gives briefings, but it is on his own. The U.S. government has been sitting out the follow through process, without acknowledging the findings, briefing Congress, or even delivering the report.

A recent GAO report was critical of how the CCSP is carrying out its mandate under the Global Change Research Act of 1990 with regard to providing scientific assessments of global change to Congress.   In particular, the GAO focused on the prospective 21 state of the science “synthesis and assessment (S&A) reports,” which the CCSP is at an early (and much-delayed) stage of developing, in lieu of focusing on the key issues raised by the U.S. National Assessment.    These S&A reports are supposed to replace the scientifically independent National Assessment as the objective science used to support the development of national policy. But they are a piecemeal, governmentally controlled substitute and are not being produced expeditiously. They have become a bureaucratically convoluted way to sit on some two billion dollars annually of vitally-needed climate change research, running out the clock instead of acting on lessons learned that should underpin decision-making to limit adverse impacts by mitigating and adapting to climate change.   Why do the administration’s guidelines for final review and approval of these reports fail to guarantee the scientific independence of the reports and authority for final approval of text to the scientific experts who author them?   Why, instead, are the final review drafts of these reports to be run through a White House, cabinet and sub-cabinet-level clearance process prior to publication, under the jurisdiction of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and with the involvement of CEQ, thus opening an avenue for political interference? Now a murky political clearance process controls the official results of climate change science reports trapped in bureaucratic bottlenecks.

The issue of lead author independence and other critical issues were raised very strongly at a meeting at the National Academy of Sciences and by public review comments in the spring of 2004. Why have the administration and the CCSP agency leadership stonewalled the critics on the issue of lead author independence? The scientific authors do not have the guaranteed right to approve, or even see changes to their work prior to publication.   Leading scientists objected on grounds of credibility for the work, but have been ignored. The science community has a right to be concerned about the integrity of this process.   These actions occur in the context of a widespread distrust of the political leadership of this administration in the scientific community — for exactly the reason that the administration has come to be perceived as not keeping politics out of science.

Under the current administration, the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy from the outset set a tone of speaking evasively about the state of the science on climate change. His testimony has been inconsistent with findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s primary and most authoritative independent scientific report issued every six years, to support decision-making by parties to the Rio climate change treaty, which the U.S. has ratified (and the Kyoto Protocol, which it has not). In response to reports documenting the administration’s politically-driven interference with scientific integrity in a number of areas, he has responded evasively. These actions have contributed to the atmosphere of mistrust.  

Why did the administration choose to require that all of the prospective CCSP synthesis reports be government documents rather than, for at least most of them, following a more straightforward path of asking independent scientists to write them and let the chips fall where they may?  

In defending against a current climate change-related lawsuit [PDF] filed by Friends of the Earth et al. against the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, why did the administration, through the Justice Department, choose to have the U.S. Government’science brief be prepared by a single professor [PDF], not involved in the CCSP, whose main claim to fame appears to be as a global warming “skeptic”, and who writes about his particular personal points of   opposition to the more widely-authored and thoroughly-vetted assessments?   Why did the administration not instead rely on sources with broad credibility and acceptance in the scientific community, in particular the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which are extraordinarily well-vetted and with policymaker summaries signed off line-by-line by government representatives, as well as other major scientifically based assessments supported by the CCSP participating agencies?  

In the case of this administration, it seems clear that high-level policymakers will take up any source on the scientific assessment of climate change that they perceive as congenial to their predetermined political and policy positions and will discount or ignore any source that states implications and draws conclusions that might be taken to imply the need for a reconsideration and strengthening of U.S. climate change policy – regardless of where the material comes from.  

This entry was posted in Assessments of Climate Impacts and Adaptation, Climate Science Censorship, U.S. Global Change Research Program. Bookmark the permalink.