EPA’s global warming communication problem – 2. Censored websites

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Selective censorship of media contacts is not the only means by which communication about global warming and climate change has been stifled at the Environmental Protection Agency.  EPA’s main global warming website and its Global Change Research Program site look for the most part like they were frozen in 2002—about the time that the White House Council on Environmental Quality started more aggressively policing federal communications on global warming.

The administration has used a variety of mechanisms to impede communication by the federal government. EPA offers some good examples of the mechanism of cutting off the flow of communication via agency websites.

Starting around mid-2002, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) began to move more aggressively to impose an administration political spin on global warming communication, including communication about the state of scientific understanding. CEQ seemed particularly concerned about communication by the multiagency Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) and by EPA — two sources of information that could potentially convey an understanding and way of talking about the global warming problem that the White House wanted to deflect. In one case widely-reported at the time, CEQ pressured EPA to corrupt the climate change chapter in a report by EPA on the “State of the Environment.”

Starting in the fall of 2002, the CEQ chief of staff began intervening to alter the text of CCSP publications so as to play down the global warming problem. In that same time frame and henceforth, EPA global warming and global change research websites that had, until then, been active and up-to-date, essentially fell silent. With limited exceptions, EPA has not been posting new material to develop those websites for almost four years now. This strikes us as quite an extraordinary state of affairs. It is not entirely clear to us (yet) how much the choking off of the EPA websites is the result of direct pressure from CEQ via high-level EPA political appointees and how much might instead be due to anticipatory self-censorship and self-protective tendencies of career federal managers, but the results are evident.

Looking at the main EPA global warming website we see, to pick a few examples:

  • On the “About the Site” page, there is no mention of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, which since 2002 has been the name of the progam through which EPA and other federal agencies coordinate their climate and global change research.
  • On the “Publications” page, essentially all publications listed are from the 1989-2001 period.
    The sole exception appears to be the May 2002 U.S. Climate Action Report to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. That report, hosted on the EPA site for the State Department, managed to contain enough climate science to make it look as though the administration was actually acknowledging the likelihood of adverse consequences of climate change. The posting of this official U.S. Government document caused such consternation in the global warming denial lobby — with the President following up by cavalierly dismissing it as “a report put out by the bureaucracy” — that we are hard-pressed to find EPA posting any subsequent publications, with perhaps the sole exception of the annual U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory technical reports produced pursuant to climate treaty requirements.
  • On the “News and Events — Speeches” page, the most recent statement by an EPA official is by former administrator Christie Whitman in February 2003.
    On the “News and Events — Inside the Greenhouse” page, billed as “a state and local resource on global warming,” the last entry is dated summer 2002.

And so forth.
This is a sorry state of affairs.

We heard some time ago from our inside EPA network that the agency’s Office of Atmospheric Programs has been working on a significant re-vamping and updating of this global warming website. We look forward with interest to what EPA will be able to do under the current circumstances. We have no doubt that the White House, acting through the Council on Environmental Quality, will scrutinize EPA’s efforts very carefully. We expect they also will make sure that some of their friends in the global warming contrarian world have done some vetting of the revised site as well. You can bet that any revised site will not come to life unless and until it has the CEQ seal of approval — probably after considerable additional delay.

Over at the EPA Office of Research and Development, we haven’t yet seen any signs of revitalization of the EPA Global Change Research Program website, which also has been languishing since the fall of 2002. (Don’t be misled by the “Last updated on —, 2006” marker on each page — it appears to be set to roll over to the current date.) Look at the “News Reel” trailer on the home page — it refers to a report on a workshop on climate change and water quality in the Great Lakes region that is dated August 2003! And that appears to be just about the only noticeable addition to the site since October 2002, e.g., on the Research Projects page, the Publications and Presentations page, and the Newsletters page. Between 1999 and 2001 the EPA program put out 37 issues of Global Change Research News — but none since 2001.

The EPA Global Change Research Progam has a $20 million annual budget to contribute to the overall U.S. Climate Change Science Program with a “primary emphasis on evaluating the potential consequences of global change (particularly climate variability and change) on air quality, water quality, ecosystems, and human health in the United States.” In the CCSP reports to Congress on research activities in 2003 (pp. 113-115) and 2004-2005, EPA listed numerous global change research projects underway and reports to be published on these topics. But on the EPA global change program website we look in vain for publications, or even current project descriptions, since 2002 that would document the progress and results of this research agenda.

Either the career professionals in EPA’s global change program prefer to go years at a time without communicating via the web their program’s investment in studying the potential consequences of climate change — we worked with these people in our days with the Climate Change Science Program and surely that’s not the case — or they are being, in effect, blocked from doing so. By pressure from the political arm of the administration? By pressure from the chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, Sen. Inhofe (R-OK), EPA’s chief overseer in Congress and one of the most aggressive components of the global warming denial machine? Likely both.

So, with EPA as a case study, add stifled websites to the arsenal of political censorship of federal communication about climate change.

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