Earthbeat interview: Looking ahead on climate science integrity


In an election day radio interview, CSW director Rick Piltz talked about climate science integrity issues and looked ahead to what’s needed from the next administration.  See Details for text of Q&A.

The Earthbeat program is based in Washington, DC, at WPFW-FM (Pacifica) radio and airs on 50 stations nationwide, from Anchorage to Austin and from Gainesville to Santa Cruz.  It is archived online at  Host Mike Tidwell also talked with Celia Wexler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Chaos author Dr. Cindy Parker of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress.  Our portion of the one-hour program runs for about the first 27 minutes and is archived online here.  A lightly edited excerpt from the Q&A follows.  The interview was conducted in the morning on November 4, election day, so we didn’t know for sure who would win:

Mike Tidwell:  On this issue of scientific clarity and openness in particular, what would the next president need to do – if you were advisors to the next president of the United States – what would you recommend he do to get us back on track to having a free flow of information?

Rick Piltz:  I think there are a number of things that we need from the next President, the next Administration.  For one thing, high-level leadership right from the President, because the President set the tone on this in the last Administration and now the new President needs to change the tone and convey to the federal science community, the agency political heads, and the public that we are now going to have a culture of openness of scientific communication. 

No Administration is beyond needing a watchdog.  Everybody needs a watchdog.  There are a lot of embedded problems in the culture of the federal agencies, in the public affairs offices of the agencies, of scientists who are gunshy and keeping their heads down.  We are going to need to really watchdog the kinds of recommendations that the Union of Concerned Scientists and our group are making to try to head off problems before it becomes necessary for people to think about having to become whistleblowers to have people pay attention to it:

MT:  Playing Devil’s Advocate for a second, how much does it really matter that the federal government is being candid, for example about the climate science?  How much does it really matter that they’re getting those studies out there and releasing press releases that get the media’s attention?  It’s not like there is a shortage of climate information absent the federal government – we’ve got the IPCC with all their reports – they won the Nobel Peace prize.  We’ve got Al Gore out there with his film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”  We’ve got the media writing about it more than ever.  Do you think that the federal government’s dragging its feet in terms of the flow of information has been a serious part of America’s slowness to develop serious policies or has this just been – American culture is getting the information anyway and we just for whatever reason can’t get going and we shouldn’t blame the federal government. 

RP:  What we are talking about is a government political leadership that uses the evidence with integrity in dealing with the problem of global climate disruption at a policy level, at a management level.  And, right now, there’s been a disconnect for eight years between the evidence and the action.  Now, there are a lot of good things going on around the country at the state and local level and in communities, and in the development of new technologies and development of scientific understanding.  But I think we don’t have forever to get this problem dealt with and without a strong federal presence and leadership and resources we are not going to get there.  The grassroots actions don’t add up big enough, fast enough.  So we need to get the federal government to stop being AWOL in dealing with this problem and get engaged.

MT:  Let’s talk about a particular case that we might be able to highlight what has been happening and what a new administration might be able to do better on this issue.  California wants to regulate greenhouse emissions from cars, as does Massachusetts.  Massachusetts demands that the US government allow that, Massachusetts vs. US EPA goes to the Supreme Court.  US Supreme Court rules that in fact carbon dioxide is a legitimate pollutant under the Clean Air Act and therefore the EPA must produce a report that shows whether CO2 could be a threat to human and environmental health and if so it has to take appropriate steps.  What happened with that whole process?

RP:  With California asking for a Clean Air Act waiver to have stronger regulations of greenhouse emissions, the EPA refused to grant a waiver, under WH pressure, clearly.  They could reverse that decision pronto.  California and other states that opt to adopt the California model could go ahead with that regulation.  That should happen pretty quickly. 

EPA has been stonewalling in complying with the Supreme Court ruling that it determine whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger – it’s an endangerment finding – endanger public health or welfare – and if so they have to be regulated under the Clean Air Act.  And EPA senior experts put together a report with a finding that in fact greenhouse gases are an endangerment to public health and welfare.  The White House suppressed that report and wouldn’t allow EPA to act on it. And even when the science side of EPA came out with a report on climate change impacts on public health that had all the evidence in it that you would need to make an endangerment finding, they let that report go out and they just completely ignored it.

[Note:  On these items see our November 8 post:  Expected Obama early actions to reverse Bush on EPA greenhouse gas rules a first step]

MT:  I am wondering if it seems like there is a lot of Executive Branch control over the agencies’ ability to tell the truth.  Now you’ve got these federal agencies – they’ve got a lot of scientists – the best scientists in the world – whether it’s safety, the environment, you name it – are there.  But the administration, which is obviously politically motivated, has a certain matter of control.  Is it only Congress that can be the watchdog on that?  For example, if we had not had the Bush administration for eight years but a Democratic Congress, would we maybe have seen a better watchdog on this?  Or is it an inherent problem that the White House controls the agencies.

RP:  I think it is not a perfect situation under any administration – it did get a lot worse under the last administration.  For a number of years there was an almost complete collapse of Congressional oversight and investigation of what was happening – there was a collusion, there was a silence.  Much of what was previously the majority of Congress was aligned almost with the global warming disinformation campaign.  So yes, Congressional oversight

But the media as well.  The media for so long followed this sort of fake balance.  They covered science the way you cover political controversy. You have to have two sides of every discussion.  So they would have someone who represented the whole mainstream of the science community, but they would balance it with some political operative or contarian scientist on the other “side,” without looking into the merits of the thing.  For a long time, this helped suppress appropriate public understanding and awareness. 

Now the media have come a long way very well – what with the IPCC and Hurricane Katrina and people seeing through the administration and whistleblowers and a lot of things.  At this point now you don’t routinely see denialists quoted in every story, any more than you see Lyndon LaRouche quoted in every story on national politics in the Washington Post.  So there’s been some improvement, but there needs to be a watchdog on this process from different angles.

MT:  What is your prediction in terms of the recovery of scientific integrity within the federal government?

RP:  I think the next administration will almost inevitably be an improvement over the current administration on this.  Apart from whatever 10-point plans, cap and trade legislation, and diplomatic negotiations and so forth, you really need to look at:  Is this an administration where high officials will take the climate change problem seriously?  Will they use evidence with integrity?  Do they have a proactive, problem-solving, expansive conception of the role of government, for getting this problem dealt with?  Those are things you really want to look for.

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