Have things changed? What reforms are needed? Remarks at Whistleblower Week in Washington


Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz spoke at a Whistleblower Week in Washington event May 12, on a panel on “Scientific Freedom and the Public Good.” In addition to comments in response to questions about his own experience, he talked about the current situation with the Bush administration and the future direction of the federal climate research program and its relationship to society. See Details for full text.

This panel, co-sponsored by the Government Accountability Project and the Union of Concerned Scientists, addressed the effects of scientific censorship across a range of issues, including prescription drug safety and climate change. Panelists included:

Celia Wexler (Facilitator), Washington Representative, Union of Concerned Scientists

Rick Piltz, Former Senior Associate, U.S. Climate Change Science Program and Director of GAP’s Climate Science Watch Program

David Ross, FDA drug safety whistleblower

Tim Donaghy, Researcher/Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists

[The following text has been edited a bit from the oral presentation for posting here, without significant change in meaning. Each of the questions opened up areas that could generate lengthy discussion. The answers here, given the time constraint of the panel, touch only on a few key points. They are by no means comprehensive.]

Opening remarks — My experience

Q from Facilitator: What was your experience working in the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and why did you leave?

RP: I had been in the coordination office of the federal Climate Change Science Program for about six years when the Bush-Cheney regime change came in.  The difference was apparent from the beginning. I stayed on as part of a group of people in that office who were trying to buffer the science program from White House political interference. Ultimately I had to give up on that effort. When Bush’s second term started it looked like it was going to get worse rather than better.

The problem started very early, in 2001, when we were told to delete from the program’s annual report to Congress all references to the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts — a major multi-volume study that our offfice had coordinated, and which is to this day the most substantial effort to understand the implications of global warming for the United States.

We were not a White House office, and we weren’t part of any single agency. Our office had been put in place during the 1990s by senior science executives to support coordination of the federal multiagency research effort as a whole. One of the things I was working on was climate science program reports to Congress, everyone worked on putting together the program’s strategic plan for research, people were staffing interagency science working groups, doing web sites, and so forth.

Starting in 2002, when the administration had its political team fully in place, we started getting direct intervention from an oil industry lobbyist who had been made the chief of staff at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Before anything could be communicated from that program, beyond publication in the science journals, it had to be vetted in great detail by the federal career global change science technocracy, people who were wired to the science research community around the country. And once we were ready to roll with a publication, this oil industry guy, Phil Cooney, would step in and start doctoring these reports in such a way as to, long story short, systematically play down the global warming problem, by introducing a manufactured sense of fundamental scientific uncertainty about the problem. And also he was the White House agent who directed the climate change program and the federal agencies to suppress the use of the National Assessment.

It was impossible for me to successfully push back on the inside, either on the National Assessment or on the political interference with the text of particular reports. To the extent that I did — and I did come to be seen in the program office and among some of the leadership as an internal critic — my concerns were either ignored or, basically, the response was like, we have a business to run and we have to deal with these people, so that’s the way it is.

And you couldn’t push back directly on the White House and still hope to be able to hold onto your position. So I finally just got fed up. I realized that there was a story that was not being covered. People were still discussing global warming and the Bush administration as though this was just a legitimate policy disagreement. People were not understanding the extent to which these guys were ready to misrepresent the scientific intelligence, and thus lead us toward this failure of national preparedness to deal with climate change — which is the track we’re on now.

It’s their modus operandi, clearly — they were protecting certain economic and political interests, and they have an ideology that has an animus toward proactive government preparedness. I just happened to be stuck in the global warming chapter of how this administration has operated.

They were undermining the credibility and integrity of the program. And there was no serious pushback from the senior career people on the political appointees. I started to feel like people were administering and keeping silent under an occupation, and nobody was in the resistance. So I just resigned my position.

I had talked with Andy Revkin at the New York Times on background a few times. I gave him some documents and he wrote a story that made the front page —  a story that got a lot of subsequent play in the media — outing this oil industry lobbyist, who had been a very behind the scenes operative. Who then resigned his White House position two days later.

That surprised me, because usually they appear so impervious. But then a few days later it was announced that he had taken a job with ExxonMobil. And I thought, well, that’s more like it. That made a very nice fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop narrative. You didn’t have to know anything about polar bears and trace gases, invasive species and supercomputer models, to understand what was going on. So I think we — along with the efforts of others to document and report on this problem — did make some progress at busting the administration’s reputation, as far as having any integrity on the global warming science issues.

Since then they have rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic without really changing their policy. And they continued to engage in interference with climate science communication, albeit in subtler and trickier ways. It’s one of the things I work on now with the Climate Science Watch project. We need to keep an eye on this administration until the last one of them is out the door. And then we need to keep an eye on whoever comes in after them, and try to fix some of the damage that’s been done.

Have things changed?

Q from moderator: Do you see things getting at all better since you left?  It seems like maybe President Bush has acknowledged that global warming exists.

RP: It’s really no longer possible to gain any significant political traction by denying the reality of human-driven global warming. The system has sort of moved on. The scientific statements have been so strong. Corporate America is not interested in what what I’ve called the global warming denial machine is trying to put out.

However, there still is a very active what I would call global warming disinformation campaign, that has shifted its terrain. Now they will mostly say they acknowledge global warming, but they will play down the likely harmful consequences of it. And that’s to delay and blow smoke and steer people away from any sense of urgency about a strong strategy for dealing with it. And the Bush administration has been in collusion with the global warming disinformation campaign, with reference to climate change impacts.

We’ve been able to bring out several stories, and there are others. Each case involves federal scientists and other experts who believe they need to remain confidential — and there’s a whole discussion we should have about that.

For example, there’s a big multiagency planning and development program for the next generation of aviation — to enable doubling or tripling U.S. aviation traffic, what is needed in terms of technology, infrastructure, management. We learned that internal discussion of the relationship between aviation and greenhouse gases and global warming appeared to be suppressed. And from looking at this NextGen’s program’s reports and other documents, you could see that any connection with global warming was nonexistent.

Another example: The Interior Department, in violation of federal law, is months overdue on a decision on whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species because global warming is melting the sea ice habitat on which they depend for their survival, in spite of the clear findings of their own scientists about the projected consequences. At every step, from an initial petition by nongovernmental organizations that the government assess the projected future of the polar bear, through multiple rounds of litigation, the administration first attempted to avoid even considering this issue, then dragged its feet on complying with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

[UPDATE: On May 14, Interior Secretary Kempthorne announced that the polar bear would be listed as threatened. This is a very rare high-profile case in which the administration has had to acknowledge the projected harm from climate change impacts. But he made clear in his remarks that this was done reluctantly, but was unavoidable because of the overwhelming scientific evidence and the requirements of the statute. But he also made it clear that the law would be interpreted in such a way as to preclude addressing the problem of federal activity vis-a-vis greenhouse gases. There is little doubt that this interpretation of the law will be challenged in court.] 

Another case: The Director of the federal Centers for Disease Control had her testimony before the Senate Environment Committee last fall censored by the White House. All the pages of her draft testimony that actually described the likely impacts of climate change on public health were deleted.

This goes on and on. One last one that we brought out recently: The program I used to work for released through the Transportation Department a major, multiyear study of the likely consequences of climate change for the Gulf Coast transportation infrastructure — pipelines, ports, roads, rail lines. It’s powerful stuff, it clearly shows the need for the whole planning effort in this country to be thinking about this stuff right now. The administration sat on this report for three months or more, reporters were at first blocked from talking with the lead author in the lead agency, they released it without a press briefing, without Hill briefings — it was like a stealth release. Instead of trumpeting this, with some sort of leadership, they tried to bury it. They didn’t censor it outright, they just didn’t want people to look at it.

So, on things that have to do with an honest discussion of the impacts of climate change, they will still interfere with the science communication, basically.

What reforms are needed, what future direction?

Q from Facilitator: Your organization is developing proposals for the next administration that look at the need for reforms. What do you think is necessary to ensure that scientists would feel free to speak out, to come forward, and would be able to do their work and tell the truth?

RP: In addition to watchdogging the day-to-day abuses, we are trying to look ahead, to the question of what do we need from the next President and Congress? I undetstand there’s probably a hundred books and reports being written with advice for the next administration. One thing that we’re particularly concerned with is, how do you connect this tremendous federal scientific research resource with policymakers and society, with integrity, in a solutions-oriented way? Today we have a disconnect. It has been built in by the administration.

But it also arises partly from the culture of science — the science community not doing everything it needs to be doing to engage with civil society and the policy process. We need to bring that together. It needs to have safeguards all along the line of the sort that the Union of Concerned Scientists and others have been talking about.

We need the next President to direct the federal climate science program to move to make the best scientific expertise available to public officials at the federal, state, and local levels, and civil society, to talk about: What are the implications of climate change for the United States. What are the likely impacts on ecosystems, on public health, on infrastructure? What are the options for adapting to it? What are the implementation issues for putting emisssions-reduction steps out there, to slow down the rate of change, the rate of damage. So basically, dealing with climate change as a problem of intelligence, risk assesment, risk management, and preparedness.

There are a lot of difficult questions about how to do this. Not just how to take a one-inch step forward from where we are now, but if you could really get it the way it needs to be, what would it look like? Do we need a new federal agency — say, a climate intelligence agency (only more transparent than the other CIA!), to focus on key issues, assessments, and communication? What are the modalities for the communication we need and how do you protect the integrity of the science communication?

How do you push the scientists to come forward more strongly in their role as citizens? I’m so frustrated that you can’t get any of the 889 EPA people who reported political interference with scientists’ work to come forward. I know the feds, I see what pressures they’re under. It’s very complicated and I respect their position. But there has to be some change in that culture. Before people are faced with the decision about whether to become whistleblowers — which very few will do — they have to not fear, but they also have to be willing to push back, and speak truth to power, and take some risks.

So we’re trying to work through these questions, so that we’ll have something coherent to say during the general election campaign, to the transition team after the election, and after the inauguration — to try to push through a reform of how the science program connects with the rest of society.

Concluding remarks — My experience

Q from Facilitator: What you did was brave. You left a job. It can’t have been easy. I wonder, was there one moment when you just came home and slammed the door and said, that’s it, I just can’t take this any more?

RP: Well, my decision came on over a period of time. The whole situation was having an increasingly corrosive effect on me psychologically. I had sort of had one foot out the door, but was encouraged to stay — continuity in the office and so forth. There was finally one moment, early in 2005. I had just been to a symposium of climate scientists in Palo Alto. There was frustration among scientists there at the difficulty of getting what they were concluding through the political and media gauntlet. Their air of freedom of expression, and then coming back to inside the Beltway, to the aridity of what was happening inside the federal program — the silence of the feds. I knew that I wasn’t doing what needed to be done and that I needed to make a change.

And one thing happened soon after I got back — in and of itself it wouldn’t have been a showstopper but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I found myself saying, that’s it, you want to finish the project that way, you finish it that way. And I just got up and walked out into the street and that was it. And I thought, oh my god, I think I just quit my job. [laughter] I hadn’t really gone in to work that morning with the intention of resigning that day.

I didn’t do another piece of work there. I was asked to meet with the director of the program, who was an Assistant Secretary of Commerce, the administration political official over the program. We talked for an hour and it was clear that nothing was going to change, so I submitted my resignation.

I don’t really think of myself as being brave, particularly. I proceed in very deliberative kinds of ways. I got just too unhappy to be “reasonable” any more. I just got fed up and climbed the wall and got out. It cost me quite a bit. But it bought my morale back and my freedom to speak. There’s no question it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Q from audience:  Is it the right thing to do just to resign quietly if you have a problem, or should you make a big….

RP: Well, I resigned with an intention of going public. I knew I couldn’t do it if I stayed there. So I resigned first, so I wouldn’t have to get into a whole legal thing. I was ready to go, to get out. I didn’t know where to go or exactly what to do. Fortunately I found GAP. GAP saved me in a number of ways. They helped show me a way forward.

I didn’t want a new boss, I didn’t want a new job, I just wanted to be a free public voice. It’s not that easy to do in Washington. And GAP has really enabled that in a way that I don’t think any other organization would have done.

Comment from audience: I’ve heard it said that the real solution is to put GAP in charge of the government. Government accountability — that would do it. [laughter]

RP: No, I think it’s more like, don’t get too cozy with any of these people, you’ve got to be ready to watchdog and be critical, don’t get too buddy buddy with any administration. 

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