Remarks by Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz on accepting the Ron Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on April 4, 2006.
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The Ron Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling is awarded to a citizen, corporate or government whistleblower, investigative journalist or organization for bringing a specific issue of social importance to public attention. The following is a copyedited transcript.
Remarks on Accepting The Ridenhour Prize
by Rick Piltz
National Press Club, Washington, DC, April 4, 2006
This is such an extraordinary honor to be in this position today, to share this occasion with Gloria Steinem and Anthony Shadid—I so admire the work they’ve done. Thank you to the Nation Institute, the Fertel Foundation, and the other sponsors of this event—the Government Accountability Project, the Fund for Constitutional Government, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Project on Government Oversight. I really appreciate this recognition for the information we’ve been trying to communicate, and the growing recognition of the importance for the country of the issues we’re talking about.
The Climate Science Watch watchdog project that I’ve initiated owes a great deal to a network of supporters, to sources of information and documentation both inside and outside of the government, to development assistants and technical assistants, to colleagues and advisors. Most of that stays under the radar—for good reasons—but I have found that I have many excellent allies in what we’re trying to do, and they know who they are.
I’ve been focused primarily on the global warming problem in one way or another since I first moved to Washington in 1988. It was actually one week before the legendary Senate hearing at which Jim Hansen of NASA became the first federal scientist to testify that, in his judgment, an observable global warming was already underway, and would accelerate. He was ahead of the curve on that, as he has been on other things since.
During that summer everybody on the Hill who had some construable jurisdiction had to have a global warming hearing and I went to as many of them as I could. I was compelled by what seemed evident to be the momentous implications of this challenge, as many others have been.
This is a rare public issue that really has been driven to a great extent by scientists and their findings, and their assessments of the implications of their findings communicated to the public. And over the years I think people in the science community have made a heroic effort to communicate beyond the technical literature to a broader public.
But we have a dysfunctional relationship between the world of science and the world of politics—certainly in this country. I think a lot of scientists have become increasingly frustrated at the difficulty of running the gauntlet of politics and media and public inattention.
Only part of this is due to the difficulty scientists sometimes have with communicating in plain English. I’ve come to see that, by far, the greater share of the problem is on the receiving end of the information—in particular in the political world.
I spent a lot of time inside the federal climate science program, in an office that sat in the nexus of what was coming out of the research world and what was coming from the other direction, from the politicals in the administration—and their willingness to spin the administration’s politics on global warming right back into the science program, in a way that undermined its integrity and credibility. Not in terms of what scientists were publishing in the journals, but whenever there were attempts to bring science forward into the public discourse, into the media, or in any way becoming an expression of the government’s perspective, the gatekeepers would step in.
They had many mechanisms for impeding a free, honest flow of scientific communication into the policy process. The example of an oil industry lobbyist in the White House marking up climate science program reports to Congress in a way that systematically played down the global warming problem is, I think, a graphically—literally and figuratively—illustrative case study of a much broader pattern of activity.
Some of it is more subtle—it’s sort of ‘inside baseball’ to explain—but they have many ways of impeding honest communication between science and policymaking. The attempt to muzzle Jim Hansen more recently is another dramatic example of that. But even with Jim Hansen free to speak, there are still systematic problems throughout federal agencies of suppression of public communication by federal scientists.
So I just finally decided that I could do more good for the public interest, and ultimately for the federal climate science program, if I were to step out. Washington is not that much of a free speech town. So many people here know so much more than they can or will ever say, and unless you walk away from it you can’t tell your story.
So I decided I had to do that—it was an existential necessity. I think it was a good decision, and I have been very gratified by the support I have received—and by what seems to be now, hopefully, perhaps a critical mass of serious public attention to the problem. Global warming is going to be a major challenge for this society to deal with. Even if everybody was on the same page, being intelligent, being public-spirited and pragmatic, and trying to move ahead and deal with it, we would have our hands full. But when we have a national political leadership that will not even engage in honest conversation about the nature of the problem, we cant get there.
If you look at the blog I started, climatesciencewatch.org, you will see that these days it is focused a lot on efforts to lift the hand of overt censorship of federal climate scientists. But say we can do that and they’re free to speak—we still have to have the leadership listen to what they are saying, and embrace it, and accept it, and promote it, and act on it.
And this last week, again, the President—it wasn’t a global warming event but once again it came up—during the Q&A someone from Australia said “what about global warming?” and the President said, “well, okay, the globe is warming, but the fundamental debate—is it manmade or natural?” Well, that is not a fundamental debate. I mean IPCC III, five years ago, the most comprehensive and authoritative international scientific assessment of climate change, said the majority of the observed warming over the last 50 years is due to human activity. And projected greater climate change in the future and likely adverse impacts, and so forth.
You have to accept at least that much. You shouldn’t go way beyond it, but you have to accept at least that much, or else you are misrepresenting the intelligence on the issue. And the President said well, we are supporting all kinds of new technologies that are good. And that’s fine. I’m for all the scientific research, there are many questions, and our alternative energy R&D. But you can’t use it as an excuse to evade the fundamental communication from the science community, to justify a policy of not doing anything now with the tools that we have at hand.
To do that is to evade and misrepresent. It’s like blinding the national intelligence capability on yet another issue. It makes it impossible to develop a strong national preparedness. There seems to be an animus toward strong, proactive problem-solving in government, and we have all seen the arenas in which that can get us into terrible trouble.
We can’t expect scientists to become full-time political activists. Their day jobs are very consuming. We do need citizen-scientists who will use their expertise and step into the public arena at least enough to keep this discussion honest, and to call the leadership down when they misrepresent widely-shared conclusions in the scientific community. Scientists have to perform an integrity watchdog function.
But it’s really for the rest of the citizens to take responsibility to hold public officials accountable for how they use or fail to use climate science and related research, in order to enable society to take get the global warming problem dealt with effectively.
I will leave you with that thought. Once again, thank you so much for being here. I take it as honoring the efforts of a lot of people who are trying to move forward on this problem.