The “Vanishing” National Climate Change Assessment, Part 1: The Administration


An October 3 story in Greenwire on the continuing controversy over the administration’s actions to bury the first National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change quotes Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute as saying: “To the extent that it has vanished, we have succeeded.”  Here we clarify a few points about the actions of the administration to make the National Assessment “vanish”. 

See our October 4 post for an annotated version of some key parts of the October 3 Greenwire article, “Finger-pointing persists over White House’s handling of 2000 report.”  The Greenwire story left a few points calling for clarification and further explanation.  In this post we will comment on the actions of Bush administration political officials in burying the National Assessment.  In a companion post we will comment on the role in this affair of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, acting on behalf of the global warming denial machine. 

The context, briefly:

The National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change was developed in the 1998-2000 timeframe by a distinguished synthesis team made up of leading scientists and other experts, as well as hundreds of other scientists and experts who produced a large set of regional and sectoral reports, drawing on comunication with stakeholders and policymakers around the country. The National Assessment, supported by the federal government but scientifically independent, remains the most comprehensive and authoritative scientifically based assessment to date of the potential consequences of climate change for the United States. The reports looked at projected climate change resulting from human activities and identified a range of likely adverse societal and environmental consequences.

The Bush administration has essentially buried this study by refusing to discuss it and has directed federal climate science program leaders in the agencies to refrain from any substantive reference to or use of the National Assessment in public statements, reports to Congress, and research planning.  In addition to this conspiracy of silence, the administration disbanded the developing networks of scientists and stakeholders that were identifying key issues and producing reports as part of a national preparedness effort and has refused to initiate a follow-on second National Assessment of climate change impacts.

There is a great deal more to be said about the National Assessment process, particularly about what this country is losing as a result of going six years now without high-level support for the kind of interaction between scientists, public officials, and civil society that the first National Assessment initiated.  This is not just a story about the past.  It is about our present and future in dealing with global warming and we will be focusing on this issue regularly in forthcoming posts.

A few things we can add to the October 3 article in Greenwire:

How the National Assessment vanished from the Strategic Plan for the Climate Change Science Program

Greenwire says the CCSP Strategic Plan “contained barely any references to the assessment.”  To put a finer point on that:  By the time the CCSP Strategic Plan had gone through multiple review drafts and was finally published in July 2003, all but one of various early-stage references to the National Assessment had been stripped out.  All that remained was a passing reference in a single sentence (on p. 111) in 200 pages of double-column fine print.  No citation of the relevant documents or information on their availability.  No discussion of what the “National Assessment” (not even the full title is given) was about.  No discussion of its principal findings and conclusions.  No discussion of the “Research Pathways” agenda identified in the National Assessment Overview and Foundation reports—and this in what purported to be a “strategic plan” for climate change research!  The largest climate change impacts assessment ever initiated and sponsored by the U.S. Government was “disappeared” from further discussion.

There was no on-the-record statement by the administration justifying the disappearance of the National Assessment from official discussion.  No critique, no expressed rationale, no intellectual basis, no legal requirement, no principled accounting for the abrupt and cavalier dismissal of the work of a large number of leading scientists. It is generally understood in the program and in the scientific community that the reasons for this are essentially politically driven, not scientific. The message was transmitted secretively, behind the scenes, without appearing to leave a paper trail (that we have yet been able to unearth and publish as a public service). 

The CEQ connection

The White House “liaison” to the Climate Change Science Program who was the agent for enforcing this disappearance was Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chief of Staff Phil Cooney.  (Let’s be clear that we don’t over-ascribe independent power here—he was a political operative, an agent of CEQ Chairman Jim Connaughton, who in turn must answer to others in the White House.)  This message was transmitted to the representatives of the participating agencies in the research program by Climate Change Science Program Director Jim Mahoney of the Department of Commerce.  From that point onward, administration political officials like Cooney and Mahoney and career science program managers alike were party to the action, willingly or unwillingly (history has yet to make some judgments about this).

One historical footnote to this episode:  In the “Final Technical Review” of the draft CCSP Strategic Plan in June 2003, the month before it was published, CEQ called for about 450 new changes in the text. Many, if not most, of the proposed edits fell into some systematic patterns.  These patterns included attempts to change science statements, generally either to downgrade the significance of certain issues of concern or to downgrade accomplishments of previous scientific work by creating an enhanced sense of scientific uncertainty. The CEQ comments tended to take out such things as references to potential public health impacts, the potential for major changes (e.g., in the Arctic), and the value and significance of current modeling. The overall effect of the comments was a cumulative one, which would have the overall effect of weakening and degrading the document in how it discussed the scientific issues and presented the current state of science.

This intervention by CEQ led to some rare pushback (in which the now-Climate Science Watch director participated) against being called on to accept so many 11th hour changes in a text that had been developed painstakingly and vetted by career science professionals.  As a result, it was negotiated at the political level that many, even most, of these edits would not be incorporated in the Strategic Plan document. (This was at a time when CCSP Director Jim Mahoney still held a relatively strong position.)  But, while CEQ decided not to go to the mat on micromanaging text, one political bottom line remained:  the virtual disappearance of the National Assessment. It was clear at that point that burying the National Assessment was more important than manipulating any particular text in a climate change report, though keeping political pressure on the program by doing that was also clearly a big priority.

The lone sentence referring to the existence of the National Assessment stayed in. But the damage had been done—the CCSP has a Strategic Plan for climate change science research that fails to seriously acknowledge, discuss, and build on the most signficant project the federal program has undertaken in its 17 years of existence to synthesize research findings in terms of their relevance to society. This vanishing act remains a part of the Cooney legacy.

The National Research Council praised the National Assessment and criticized the administration for burying it

The current leadership is still in cover-up mode and will not engage in an honest discussion of the problem. The National Academy of Sciences discovered this stonewalling when reviewing the Strategic Plan in 2003-2004. 

Greenwire notes that the NRC (the operational arm of the Academy) says the National Assessment overview and foundation reports “are important contributions to understanding the possible consequences of climate variability and change.”  It should be added that the NRC review of the CCSP Strategic Plan explicitly criticizes the unexplained failure of the administration and the CCSP leadership to acknowledge the National Assessment. Let’s revisit what the NRC committee to review the CCSP Strategic Plan said in their report issued February 18, 2004:

p 3: “Involving high-level political leaders in CCSP management helps to provide the program with the resources that it requires, but also allows the possibility that the program’s priorities or scientific results could be influenced by political considerations. Either the reality of perception of such influences could serve to discredit the program unless independent evaluations of the program and its products are conducted on a regular basis…”

p 13 [after listing the Strategic Plan’s guidelines for producing “synthesis and assessment” products]: “The only previous centralized assessment effort by the CCSP agencies, the U.S. National Assessment on the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (NAST, 2001), followed these credibility assurance guidelines. 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 were exemplary (see Box 2-2).”

Box 2-2: “The revised plan still generally overlooks the insights into the assessment process and the networks of researchers and stakeholders that were developed during the U.S. National Assessment.”

p 14: “The current plan should more effectively build upon a growing capability within the U.S. climate global change [sic] community to interact with potential users of climate and global change science, as was demonstrated in the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (NAST, 2001). The revised plan generally overlooks the insights and relationships that were developed by the National Assessment. For example, the experience developed in assembling and maintaining networks of university researchers and stakeholders in different regions of the country is extraordinarily valuable, as are the networks themselves. These relationships should be supported if the CCSP is going to maintain strong stakeholder involvement. The plan also does not include areas of research relevant to regional-scale assessments identified as a result of the National Assessment. The committee reiterates the recommendation from its first report that the CCSP should `build upon the lessons learned in applied climate studies and stakeholder interaction from prior environmental and climate assessment activities.’ This deficiency needs to be remedied quickly so that the program’s decision support activities reflect what the scientific community now knows, what t can accomplish, and what users would like to know.”

pp 29-30: “For the most part, the CCSP’s revisions to the strategic plan are quite responsive to comments expressed at the workshop, in written input, and by this committee. One notable exception is the fact that the revised plan does not acknowledge the substantive and procedural contributions of the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change (NAST, 2001) a major focus of the Global Change Research Program (GCRP) in the late 1990s. Many participants at the December workshop criticized how the draft strategic plan treated the National Assessment, as did this committee in its first report (NRC, 2003b).  The revised plan does not reflect an attempt to address these concerns, and no rationale for this decision has been provided.”  [emphasis added]

Fact-check clarification

Greenwire reports from an interview with the Climate Science Watch director:  “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.”

We need to clarify a point of fact here.  This is a complex history and apparently we didn’t succeed in getting this particular piece explained clearly enough for it to be nailed in the article. Here is the correct sequence of events being referred to:

First: The process of suppressing references to the National Assessment publications began in June 2001. At about the same time that the President gave a speech to the effect that the potential impacts of climate change are a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and announced a Climate Change Research Initiative purportedly intended to accelerate the development of scientific information to support decisionmaking, the chief of staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (who is now the OSTP Associate Director for Technology), via a phone call from a staff intermediary, directed the editor of the FY 2002 edition of Our Changing Planet, the first annual report to Congress of the program under this administration, to delete the material on the recently-published National Assessment from the draft then undergoing high-level review. This was even before the administration had its new political team in place for directing and overseeing the climate change research program.

Later: From 2002 onward, Phil Cooney of CEQ, giving direction through CCSP Director Jim Mahoney, took the lead on making sure that discussion of, or even mention of the existence of, the National Assessment essentially disappeared from program documents including annual reports to Congress and strategic planning documents (also submitted to Congress).

Previous posts

Some earlier Climate Science Watch posts discussing the National Assessment include those of August 28 (Sen. Kerry calls for new National Climate Change Assessment), January 4 (Toward a Second U.S. National Climate Change Assessment), June 8, 2005 (Censorship and Secrecy: Politicizing the Climate Change Science Program), and June 2, 2005 (On Issues of Concern About the Governance and Direction of the Climate Change Science Program).

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