EPA’s global warming communication problem – 1. Censored expertise


The New York Times reported on June 20 that EPA’s leading expert on the implications of sea level rise for U.S. coastal areas was prohibited from responding on the record to questions for an article on global warming and beaches.  We know of two other reporters with major news publications who also recently encountered the same problem at EPA.  The agency’s political watchdogs should be told to back off.

The Times article followed by a few comments:
The article, “Next Victim Of Warming: The Beaches,” by Cornelia Dean (archived, copyright 2006, New York Times), begins:

When scientists consider the possible effects of global warming, there is a lot they don’t know. But they can say one thing for sure: sea levels will rise.

This rising water will be felt along the artificially maintained beaches of New Jersey, in the vanishing marshes of Louisiana, even on the ocean bluffs of California. According to a 2000 report by the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, at least a quarter of the houses within 500 feet of the United States coast may be lost to rising seas by 2060. There were 350,000 of these houses when the report was written, but today there are far more.

Though most of the country’s ocean beaches are eroding, few coastal jurisdictions consider sea level rise in their coastal planning, and still fewer incorporate the fact that the rise is accelerating. Instead, they are sticking with policies that geologists say may help them in the short term but will be untenable or even destructive in the future.

Toward the end of the article, Dean reports that her request to interview James Titus on this topic was denied by the EPA press office:

Does the Government Know?

James Titus, an Environmental Protection Agency project manager for sea level rise who is leading an agency mapping effort, wrote an essay for a law review a few years ago in which he argued that the nation needed to make decisions on whether or how wetlands and beaches should be allowed to migrate inland. Otherwise, he wrote, government policy is saying, in effect, that “wetlands and beaches are important resources that must be preserved for the duration of this generation, but whether they survive for the next 50 to 100 years is not our problem.”

Mr. Titus titled his essay, published in the Golden Gate Law Review in 2000, “Does the U.S. Government Realize That the Sea Is Rising?” It was accompanied by a disclaimer noting that it did not represent the views of the E.P.A.

Reached by telephone, Mr. Titus said he was no longer allowed to discuss such issues publicly and referred questions to the agency’s press office, which would not allow him to speak about it on the record. Instead, requests for on-the-record information were referred to Bill Wehrum, the agency’s acting assistant administrator for air and radiation.

“The administration’s strategy for dealing with climate change is to continue to put significant resources into understanding climate change,” Mr. Wehrum said. “The goal is to develop information that will be useful for local planners. This is about looking at coastal areas and assessing how those areas are used and then helping people with the question of how much protection they might want to provide for those areas if sea level continues to rise.”

In general, Mr. Wehrum said, it seemed quite likely that people would want to protect developed areas and might be willing to let undeveloped areas like wildlife refuges or coastal farms migrate.

A few comments:

During our years with the U.S. Global Change Research Program / Climate Change Science Program, we got to know Jim Titus as a knowledgeable, dedicated professional who has developed an in-depth understanding of the issues pertaining to U.S. coastal zone management and projected sea-level rise (generally understood to be one of the most certain and potentially most damaging consequences of global warming).  He has always been willing and able to communicate information and analysis to reporters, “decisionmakers,” and the public. 

We know, independently of Cory Dean of the Times, of two other journalists who in recent weeks have been told that Jim Titus could not respond directly to press questions and were referred to the EPA press office.  One of the reporters ended up publishing a story without inclusion of what could have been very relevant comments from EPA on the potential impacts of sea level rise and related response strategies.  The other told us this was the first instance in years of reportorial Q&A with Titus that this restriction had appeared. 

The administration is selective in how it attempts to restrict public access to federal experts on climate-related issues by impeding communication with the news media.  Their political sensitivites come into play particularly when the expert communication addresses issues of potential impacts of climate change on society and the environment.  We believe someone like Jim Titus was singled out for internal policing at EPA because he talks about work that is relevant to a discussion of the global warming problem that the administration does not want the public to be having. 

With all due respect to EPA Associate Administrator Bill Wehrum, he is not an expert on climate change and sea level rise.  If he interposes himself to speak on the record on these issues to a New York Times reporter, as appears to be the case from a reading of the Dean article, then we see it as a case of political censorship of a taxpayer-funded professional expert whom the public should be hearing from directly. 

Jim Titus doesn’t have the prominence of someone like Jim Hansen at NASA, who was able to draw attention to his case by pushing back very visibly, and thereby succeeding in getting the political watchdogs at NASA to more or less back off.  EPA’s political officials and press office should be given a similar message about restricting subject matter experts from speaking and answering questions about their work: back off.   


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