A grand finale (?) for climate program under Bush: Last 5 of 21 reports approved at 11th hour

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The completion and publication on the last working day of the Bush administration of the remaining five of 21 “Synthesis and Assessment Products”—the centerpiece climate science reports of the US Climate Change Science Program—is on one hand, laudable, but on the other hand, raises serious questions about the lack of transparency and accountability in what must have been a frenetic process to get them finalized and approved.  Off-the-record accounts of a flurry of hundreds of substantive editorial comments from the White House Science Office and to a lesser extent, the Office of Management and Budget, have come to our attention.  We urge the White House to make these comments and the author’s responses public, as has been done with the other public and peer-reviewed comments on the draft reports. 

Post by Anne Polansky

As of January 15, with just one working day remaining in the 8-year Bush administration, only three quarters of the CCSP’s primary work product had been completed and approved for publication. 

On January 2, Climate Science Watch expressed concerns about the multi-year delay in getting these reports completed in a letter to OSTP’s Deputy Director for Science Sharon Hays, who bears responsibility for CCSP products and progress.  We said: 

Our concern is two-fold:  (1) unnecessary delays continue to impede the timely release of the final Synthesis and Assessment reports that constitute a core component of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program’s commitment under the Bush administration to inform Congress and the public on the scientific underpinnings of climate change, and (2) the final clearance process, which you ultimately control, is failing to adhere to the CCSP guidelines, recommendations of the National Research Council, and published timelines for the reports.  The clearance process is taking months instead of weeks and, unlike prior stages in the reports’ production, is not transparent and open to public scrutiny.  The appearance of White House influence on the scientific content of the reports during the clearance process calls into question the integrity of the final products.

By January 9, we learned and made note of the fact that the CCSP had managed to get 2 of the 5 draft reports cleared for approval and publication.  CSW communications with a few of the key authors indicated that these reports, and possibly one or two others (but not all five) would be released either Thursday January 15 or Friday the 16th.

On January 16 we learned that all five of the reports were finalized, cleared, and published. 

One can only deduce that it took a yeoman’s effort on the part of many individuals to push these remaining five reports out the door, apparently motivated by a wish to avoid getting a grade of “incomplete” at the end of Bush’s second term.  While this 11th hour effort is commendable—and is certainly better than the alternative of having several draft reports handed off to the Obama administration where their fate was unclear—it entailed off-the-book procedures in which staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management of Budget were, behind the scenes, directing numerous, substantive, editorial comments and suggestions to the authors, while holding up reports in the final review stage for months in certain cases.  A few of the authors, to their credit, have indicated to us that not all of the suggested edits were accepted and incorporated.  In other words, agency scientists stood up to pressure from the White House to make last-minute, substantive changes that should have been suggested much earlier when the reports were open for peer and public review.  We believe it is inappropriate for White House staff to intervene in this way.  In our experience, White House interventions constitute a kind of pulling of rank on scientists and agency personnel, even if the editorial interventions are science-based.  They violate established Guidelines designed to ensure transparency and raise questions about the sort of politically-motivated interference in science communication that has typified the approach of the Bush administration to climate disruption. 

To remove any doubt about the nature of these last-minute editorial changes, the White House, the Climate Change Science Program, and the relevant lead agencies should make public what changes in these reports were called for in the final White House review.  Only by doing so will the CCSP demonstrate transparency in the review process.  Failure to post the comments and the authors’ responses will give no assurance that the Bush White House was not guilty of interfering with scientific integrity from its first day in power, to its very last.   

We will be posting on the content of these five final reports, listed below: 

•  SAP 1.2:  Past Climate Variability and Change in the Arctic and at High Latitudes (.pdf)— USGS (lead agency)

•  SAP 2.3:  Aerosol properties and their impacts on climate (.pdf) —NASA

•  SAP 4.1:  Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region (.pdf, 7.5 MB, 784 pp.)— EPA

•  SAP 4.2:  Thresholds of Change in Ecosystems (.pdf)—USGS

•  SAP 5.2:  Best practice approaches for characterizing, communicating, and incorporating scientific uncertainty in decisionmaking (.pdf)—NOAA

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