The unfinished business of the National Climate Change Assessment scandal


On October 3, the Greenwire daily news report on environmental and energy policy featured in its #1 position a story on the continuing controversy over the administration’s decision to kill the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts process and suppress official use of the first National Assessment reports issued in 2000-2001. The article quotes Climate Science Watch Director Rick Piltz as calling this “the central climate science scandal of the Bush administration.”

(We will put a number of comments and clarifications related to this article in a follow-up post.)

Greenwire article #1 (by subscription) on Tuesday, October 3, 2006, by reporters Andrew Freedman and Lauren Morello, is titled “Finger-pointing persists over White House’s handling of 2000 report.”  The article begins:

The Clinton administration released a landmark report six years ago that painted a stark picture of the potential consequences of global warming.

The 2000 National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change predicted a doubling or tripling of heat-related deaths, increased floods and droughts and the swamping of coastlines by rising seas and more intense storms. “Long-term observations confirm that our climate is now changing at a rapid rate,” the report warned. “The science indicates that the warming in the 21st century will be significantly larger.”

But the Bush administration has decided against writing another sweeping climate impact assessment in favor of 21 staggered, narrowly defined reports, and it has allegedly taken steps to limit the government’s discussion and use of the 2000 assessment.

On August 28, we reported that Senator John Kerry had sent a letter to Bush administration officials calling for the production of the now-overdue second National Climate Change Assessment.  We noted in that post, which included the text of the letter, that the administration politically suppressed official use of the first National Assessment, a seminal major work that was praised by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, and has killed the process that could have produced an updated assessment.  We called for a Congressional investigation of the National Assessment—past, present, and future—as part of oversight of the White House’s role in manipulating the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. Greenwire reports:

The White House’s handling of the report has disappointed many climate scientists. It has also drawn the attention of lawmakers from both parties who suggest the administration’s apparent reluctance to issue a second national assessment constitutes a violation of federal law.

Among lawmakers pressing for a new assessment: Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). They maintain the White House must produce a climate report every four years to comply with the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (GCRA)….

Backing up the lawmakers’ position is a report they requested last year from the Government Accountability Office….

Mike MacCracken, a former director of the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program Office and now senior scientist with the Climate Institute, points out that:

The 2000 assessment included a “score” of reports that formed the basis of a summary intended for use by Congress and the public. What that assessment did do—and the current plan does not—is serve regional needs. That is a key consideration because the effects of warming will be felt first at the local level. “They really have done nothing in terms of focusing intently on particular regions of the U.S.”

…MacCracken’s views have been supported by National Academy of Sciences review panels that have lauded the national assessment for its stakeholder involvement and regional focus.

In addition, MacCracken faulted CCSP for not planning a summary document for policymakers. “Not having an integrated report for national decisionmakers is, it seems to me, a real problem,” he said.

We have believed from the beginning, and have raised the issue continually, that the cut-off of high-level government support for what should be an ongoing national climate change assessment process, which would bring scientists and other experts together with policymakers and civil society to diagnose the implications of climate change for our society and develop response strategies, is doing more to undermine national preparedness than has any particular act of censorship of particular reports (to which we have also called attention).  Greenwire reports: 

[A] longtime federal climate official quit his post in March 2005, accusing the Bush administration of suppressing the 2000 National Assessment for political reasons. Rick Piltz, the official, called it “the central climate science scandal of the Bush administration.”

By painting a striking picture of climate-induced calamities, Piltz said the report helped build the case for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore led the White House—which opposed mandatory emissions caps—to distance itself from the report and avoid preparing a new integrated assessment of climate impacts.

As evidence, Piltz pointed to CCSP’s lengthy strategic plan, the guiding document for federal climate research prepared in 2002. The plan contained barely any references to the assessment, despite strongly worded advice to include it by a National Research Council panel, he said. The NRC panel found the assessment’s overview and foundation reports “are important contributions to understanding the possible consequences of climate variability and change.”

Piltz said the administration’s strategy of de-emphasizing the assessment emerged as he was preparing the climate program’s fiscal 2002 report to Congress. He said former White House Council on Environmental Quality chief of staff Phil Cooney instructed him to delete all references to the assessment. Cooney resigned from his CEQ post last year after press reports revealed his editing of climate science reports to emphasize uncertainties.

Piltz said the message to steer clear of the national assessment was delivered implicitly, and eventually resulted in self-censorship by bureaucrats who wanted to avoid upsetting their politically appointed superiors. “It was systematic, but it’s not like they had to do a lot of heavy-handed overt censorship,” he said.

Greenwire also reports the view of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an arm of the global warming denial machine, which has worked to make the National Assessment “vanish”:

The Competitive Enterprise Institute pounced on the report immediately after publication, calling it “junk science,” and later filed suit questioning the quality of data included in the 2000 analysis….CEI and others maintain the report should have been deep-sixed. They have argued that the report’s reliance on uncertain climate computer models rendered its conclusions useless and argued that it was not subject to certain laws governing the convening and conduct of advisory panels. CEI filed multiple lawsuits between 2000 and 2003.

“We thought it was very important to base public policy on accurate information,” CEI’s Myron Ebell said in an interview.

In 2003, the administration and CEI reached an agreement under which the group dropped their remaining legal challenge in exchange for a disclaimer on the report’s Web site saying the assessment was not subjected to Information Quality Act guidelines. Ebell said his group’s goal was to ensure the report would not be used in future federal policymaking.

“To the degree that it has vanished, we have succeeded,” Ebell said.

Piltz said the administration used the CEI lawsuit as “cover” for its treatment of the report. To which, Ebell countered, the former climate official is “still bitter” over how events unfolded.

More on this to come.

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