“Beyond the Phony ‘Debate’: Government Science and the Climate Crisis”


“Since the beginning of President Bush’s second term, we have made great progress against the global warming denial machine. Clearly, the position that humans are not changing the climate no longer has any political traction,” said CSW director Rick Piltz at the Center for Science and the Public Interest’s national conference on Rejuvenating Public Sector Science on July 11. But looking forward, the federal government is far from where we need it to be in dealing with the threat of global climatic disruption. See Details for full text.

Text (lightly edited) of remarks by Rick Piltz at

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s
Fourth National
Integrity in Science Conference
July 11, 2008
Ronald Reagan International Center
Washington, DC

Plenary Session: Beyond the Phony “Debate”: Government Science and the Climate Crisis

Thank you. It really is a great pleasure to be here speaking with you this morning, at this most interesting conference.

The global warming disinformation campaign

We have been, for quite some time, up against a corporate-funded, what I have called global warming denial machine, or disinformation campaign, whose fundamental aim has been to create an exaggerated sense of scientific uncertainty about human-driven global warming and its consequences.

Until fairly recently, that campaign was pretty much in the saddle politically. There was a low level of media understanding of the nature of the problem – not only because of the complexity of the science, but because of the deliberate confusion of the issue. There was a low level of public understanding. There was a collapse of appropriate congressional oversight.

I think that, since the beginning of President Bush’s second term, we have made great progress against the global warming denial machine. Clearly, the position that humans are not changing the climate no longer has any political traction.

People are still out there writing that – trying to hijack Andy Revkin’s DotEarth blog comments section in the New York Times, and so forth – but the political system and corporate America have moved on to an acknowledgement of climate change.

But the terrain of the disinformation campaign has shifted somewhat, to focus on evading an honest discussion of, or playing down, the likelihood of severe and harmful consequences of global warming, sea level rise, and global climatic disruption.

On the front page of this morning’s Washington Post there’s a long article, quite a good article – EPA won’t act on emissions this year. There’s a backstory to this, that shows that the White House – which has all along acted in concert with, in collusion with, the global warming disinformation campaign – is still doing that, on the problem of climate change impacts.

The Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA last year—in favor of the states and environmental group plaintiffs and against the Bush administration—that EPA needed to undertake a procedure to determine whether the impacts of carbon dioxide emissions are a threat to public health and welfare and, if so, they need to be regulated until the plain language of the Clean Air Act.

The administration has done everything possible to evade an acknowledgement of the health and public welfare impacts of climate change, because an honest discussion of that evidence would trigger a regulatory process. That is exactly what the energy industry clientele of this administration has sought, so far successfully, to avoid.

They’ve used a variety of modalities for doing that. They censored the Senate testimony of the nation’s leading public health official – something that was driven directly by the Vice President’s office. It came to light that the White House has refused to even look at EPA documents that came to a finding about carbon dioxide as a threat to public welfare. So, although we’ve made progress, we’re still very far from where we need to be.

Citizen science

The science community has an important role to play in continuing to set the record straight about the state of understanding of the implications of global climate disruption. I think that role goes beyond the provision of good science education in the form of IPCC reports, National Academy of Sciences reports, and other essential assessments, to include also intervening directly, in a citizen-scientist capacity, to call down high-level public officials and operatives of the disinformation campaign when they misrepresent the scientific evidence and thus make it more difficult to get the policy action we need in order to deal with the problem.

I think that, to a fair extent, the science community has underperformed in its citizen-scientist role in this respect. When the Bush administration suppressed the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts, as one of the early things it did, along with dropping out of the Kyoto Protocol process, the global warming denial machine got away with calling that important report ‘junk science’, although it has been praised and cited repeatedly in National Academy of Sciences reports. Confronted with this political attack, the science community seemed completely disaggregated as far as being able to offer up any coherent, principled statement to the effect that it was not OK to call the National Assessment junk science. The science community needs to become less defenseless in the face of that kind of orchestrated political attack. 

National climate change preparedness

Looking forward, we are far from where we need to be. We can’t deal with this problem with the federal government being AWOL, as it has essentially been so far. And we can’t deal with it effectively without an honest discussion among the highest political leadership about the nature of the global climate disruption problem and its implications for the United States and the world.

The next President and Congress, I think, need to undertake a national climate change preparedness process, to put the federal government and the federal climate and global change research program in play in getting the country on a footing to manage our response to climate change—which we will be doing pretty much indefinitely now – as a problem of scientific intelligence gathering, risk assessment, and risk management.

In the future, if we are at a point where society has put in place the structure and processes needed to deal with climate change as a management problem, we will have a government entity – an independent entity, not just a direct political extension of the White House – staffed with the relevant scientific, technical, and professional expertise, that will, for example:

o Commission focused scientific assessments that are needed for policymaking and decisionmaking at all levels of government;

o Put out a steady stream of credible public communication that diagnoses and talks about the problems and how we’re handling them; and

o Put together the relevant scientific and technical expertise, with full federal support, to work with public officials down to the state and local level and in the private sector – those who have the practical responsibility for implementing emissions reductions and adaptation to climate change.

Whatever comes out of the post-Kyoto Protocol negotiating process, and whatever comes out of Congress on cap and trade legislation, there is going to be a host of practical implementation issues that will require a long-term response. And right now, the federal government is just absolutely not positioned to address that problem effectively.

We have a loosely aggregated climate research program among multiple agencies, run by career science technocrats who do a pretty good job of managing support for the scientific research and observing systems. But their careers are not built on focused policy-relevant assessment, public communications, and engagement with stakeholder problem-solving. I just don’t see that happening anywhere in the federal government. It will have to be created.

And at every step of the way it must be transparent enough to ensure the integrity and credibility of the process. We will have some recommendations to the next President and Congress about how that might be done.

Even after we get the heavy hand of Vice President Cheney’s censorship machine lifted and have the global warming denial machine on the run, we still face the problem of global climatic disruption. This is a very serious problem, and unless the best scientists on the planet are completely wrong it’s not going to go away. It’s going to have major consequences for society that we will have to deal with.

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