A look at EPA’s new climate change Web site, unveiled after 4 years of suppression

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On October 19, EPA announced the activation of the agency’s revamped climate change Web site, which (although the EPA news release doesn’t mention this) had been essentially moribund for the past four years.  Political pressure silenced the EPA Web site in 2002.  A look at the new site reveals limitations that point to continuing political interference with climate change communication at EPA.

On June 28 we posted an entry on EPA’s censored global warming and global change research Web sites.  We said:

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….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.

As of today, the EPA Global Change Research Program Web site appears to remain unchanged in its moribund condition.  But the main EPA Climate Change web site, which can be linked to from the agency’s home page, now has a body of new content. 

To start with a few positive comments:  It is certainly better to have this active EPA site than a dead one.  The site has some appropriate science-based content, drawing heavily on the authoritative scientific assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and it has (a limited number of) worthwhile links to additional information.  We appreciate the work of EPA climate change program staff in pulling this site together in a situation so problematic that the ability of EPA to operate a climate change Web site at all was in question. 

From our experience with the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and our understanding of current administration procedure, we assume that, before being activated, the site had to be politically cleared both by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and at a high level at EPA. And, in fact, we can see some recognizable administration political handiwork in some notable features of the new site.   

The site has five primary sections: Science, U.S. Climate Policy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Environmental Effects, and What You Can Do. The policy-related aspects of the site predictably promote the administration’s approach of relying on voluntary measures.  We’ll focus here on the Science and Environmental Effects sections.

Cherry-picking the Academy

On the first page of the Science section we note what has been a favorite device of administration politicals for the past 5 years: cherry-picking quotes from a 2001 National Research Council report (Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions) that was commissioned by the White House. The NRC report essentially endorsed the core IPCC conclusions about observed and projected human-induced global climate change with a number of clear summary statements.  The report also endorsed and relied on the first U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts.  But administration officials typically ignore the main thrust of the NRC report and choose instead to extract certain pieces of text from the report that can be used to create an enhanced sense of scientific uncertainty. 

IPCC—2001 and 2007

The site relies very heavily on the IPCC Third Assessment Report (2001).  On the one hand, the IPCC provides a solid grounding in mainstream climate science.  We have always argued that policymakers should use the well-vetted major assessments.  However, doing this on the EPA Web site does result in much of the site being based on somewhat dated material.  There is little updating with the very large body of research from the past 5-6 years on the climate system and climate change impacts—much of it supported by the U.S. Climate Change Research Program.  We expect that hewing closely to summarizing the IPCC was probably a necessary strategy for avoiding hopeless political pressure over what to select to put on the site.

A crucial test will take place when the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report is issued a few months from now in 2007.  It is essential that EPA move expeditiously to incorporate the new IPCC conclusions about climate change and its health and environmental impacts into the Web site.  The first sentence of the EPA news release announcing the unveiling of the revamped Web site says that its purpose is “to provide the public with the most up-to-date information on climate change.”  The site cannot really be said to be “up-to-date” in its current configuration, but can be made significantly more so if it draws on the 2007 IPCC assessment without the administration’s usual long delay in releasing climate change-related reports.

The missing U.S. National Assessment and U.S. Climate Action Report

In our October 8 post (The “Vanishing” National Climate Change Assessment, Part 1: The Administration), we talked about what we have termed the “conspiracy of silence” imposed on the federal agencies by the administration on the subject of substantive reference to or use of the first National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts.

The “Health and Environmental Effects” pages of the new EPA site provide more evidence of the conspiracy of silence.  There is no discussion of the findings of the first National Assessment.  There is just one, rather obscure, link to the National Assessment—for some reason it appears on on the “International Impacts” page.  There also are a few links to the National Assessment regional and sectoral Web sites.  However, the text does not include any discussion of the CONTENT of the reports or recognize their importance.  (We should probably note that these few links do point to where attentive readers might find the detailed analysis provided in the National Assessment documents, thus perhaps signaling a potential for what this site could evolve into under less censorious leadership.)

Similarly, the site makes no mention or use of the chapter on “Impacts and Adaptation” from the U.S. Climate Action Report (The United States of America’s Third National Communication Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, U.S. Department of State, May 2002). This 32-page chapter of the core official U.S. Government report under the climate treaty draws substantially on the first National Assessment.  The chapter addresses U.S. vulnerabilities to the adverse consequences of climate change and identifies the most promising adaptation measures being explored.

When the 2002 Climate Action Report was posted on the old, now discontinued, EPA global warming site (although it is still archived via a link), its discussion of climate change impacts was honest enough to provoke media notice that the administration found embarrassing, prompting the President to dismiss it as “a report put out by the bureaucracy.”  It was about that time in 2002 that EPA stopped posting new material on its global warming site—presumably on orders from the White House CEQ. In clearing its political hurdle the new EPA site ditched this report, along with the National Assessment.
To revisit the NRC 2001 Climate Change Science report, here’s a quote (p. 19) from the Academy that officials in the White House, EPA, and the Climate Change Science Program leadership NEVER cherry-pick for use:

Consequences of Increased Climate Change of Various Magnitudes

The U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts, augmented by a recent NRC report on climate and health, provides a basis for summarizing the potential consequences of climate change.  The National Assessment directly addresses the importance of climate change of various magnitudes by considering climate scenarios from two well-regarded models (the Hadley model of the United Kingdom and the Canadian Climate Model)….A key conclusion from the National Assessment is that U.S. ssociety is likely to be able to adapt to most of the climate change impacts on human systems, but these adaptation may come with substantial costs….

Except where noted, this section is based on information provided in the U.S. National Assessment.

 

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