Denialist attack on EPA handling of Carlin global warming contrarian document– Part 2: The e-mails

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The global warming disinformation campaign – politicians, media, ideologue politicos—has falsely and disingenuously accused EPA of suppressing climate science and censoring a climate science whistleblower.  Part 2 in a series: What to make of the leaked McGartland-Carlin e-mails? 

Post by Rick Piltz

See previous post in this series:
Part 1: The document

On June 24 the Competitive Enterprise Institute – a libertarian “free market” anti-regulation policy group with a history of aggressively promoting global warming denialism and doing battle against the mainstream climate science community (also see our posts here and here)—posted a selection of 4 internal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency e-mails dated March 12-17, 2009, by EPA economist Alan Carlin and his director at the EPA National Center for Environmental Economics (NCEE), Al McGartland.  The e-mails concerned Carlin’s proposal that his climate change contrarian comments be submitted to an internal EPA review process as NCEE’s input to EPA’s “endangerment” finding. 

CEI referred to Carlin’s document as a “scientific analysis,” a “significant critique,” and “valid science,” and demanded that it be included in the endangerment docket so the public could respond to Carlin’s “new information.”  This is the usual disingenuous CEI political warfare and anti-science smoke-blowing (see Part 1 in this series).  I believe CEI is well-aware of how they are misrepresenting climate science and that their anti-regulatory ideology is driving their tactics and communications.

But what to make of Al McGartland’s message to Carlin on March 12, which says:

“In light of the tight schedule and the turn of events, please do not have any direct communication with anyone outside NCEE on endangerment.  There should be no meetings, emails, written statements, phone calls, etc.  All communication needs to go through Steve and me and then to Paul, and then to OAR.”

(Note that this message begins with “Re:” in the Subject line, which means it is in response to an email, presumably from Carlin, which is not included in the set that was posted.  So, we are joining an exchange between a National Center director and a staff member that is already in progress, and has some history that we are not seeing.) 

What to make of McGartland’s message on March 17 at 8:12 a.m. (and the missing e-mail trail), which says:

“Alan, I decided not to forward your comments.  The time for such discussion of fundamental issues has passed for this round.  The administrator and the administration has [sic] decided to move forward on endangerment, and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for the decision.  I have stressed in previous emails [which are not part of this posted set] that this is not a criteria document for climate change and greenhouse gases.  If such a document is ever drafted, then perhaps your comments might be considered.  I can only see one impact of your comments given where we are in the process, and that would be a very negative impact on our office.”

Here is what I make of it:  Carlin wasn’t “suppressed,” McGartland probably found him to be a problematic staff member – but McGartland appears to be a bureaucratic operator who keeps his finger to the political wind and under the new administration is now reaping what he sowed. To explain:

Alan Carlin has been at EPA for a long time, almost since the inception of the agency.  I’m told that he has a GS-16 civil service rank – a rank that has not been part of the system for decades, i.e., the highest GS rank anyone can achieve now is GS-15.  I’m told that he’s a nice guy, in his 70s, a gadfly who marches to his own drummer; that nowadays he’s pretty much left alone like an emeritus professor, and is given few assignments. 

Carlin took up an interest in global warming in recent years and bought into the “skeptic,” contrarian, and junk science work that is exploited by denialist ideologues like those at CEI, by Fox News and kindred spirits in the media, and by politicians who front for the fossil energy interests with cynical anti-science statements, such as Sen. James Inhofe.

During the Bush-Cheney administartion, I’m told, Carlin put on a contrarian speaker series at the agency.  This wasn’t assigned work, it wasn’t part of any NCEE mandate, it wasn’t his area of expertise, and it was scientifically biased.  This was not a case analogous to that of, say, Jim Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.  At the point that NASA Headquarters told him to stop giving talks and posting on his lab’s website without a pre-clearance from the political level of his agency, Hansen was turning out some of the pre-eminent scientific work in climate science, publishing a remarkable body of work in the peer-reviewed literature, and giving presentations at the American Geophysical Union and other scientific conferences based on his work and other leading mainstream science.  Carlin, rather, was a staffer who was wandering off the reservation in an intellectually amateurish way, who needed more professional supervisory oversight.

If this is what happened, I would argue that his boss, McGartland, should have reined him in back then, when Bush was in office, given him some assignments relevant to whatever expertise in economics he might have and that might have had something appropriate to do with policymaking, and worked to ensure more accountability for the intellectual credibility of the NCEE shop. But perhaps McGartland didn’t want trouble with his higher-ups, in particular with Brian Mannix, at that time the EPA Associate Administrator for the Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation (OPEI) – of which McGartland’s NCEE is a component.  While at EPA, Mannix was a lead political enforcer for the “we don’t believe in climate change” position.  My understanding is that OPEI was a prime foot-dragger on climate change issues during that time. 

My read of the situation is that it is likely that, in keeping with the practice of bureaucratic survivors who fall silent in the face of political misrule and fail to push back, McGartland was able to show Mannix that he had an in-house contrarian at NCEE. And then a new leadership came in to EPA with the Obama administration, one that expressed a commitment to scientific integrity—a significant change from their predecesors.  No more denialist political cops.  Now it would be an embarrassment to NCEE to forward Carlin’s document as NCEE’s contribution to the docket on a proposed rulemaking on greenhouse gases. 

I doubt that McGartland had to be ordered to do anything by his new higher-ups.  He could read the tea leaves.  He could protect NCEE’s reputation for competence (if it does have such a reputation these days) by keeping Carlin under wraps as much as possible.  So he had an exchange with Carlin over some period of time, in the process leaving an e-mail trail, including a few items that read as heavy-handed, repressive, and politically motivated – without challenging Carlin directly on the scientific merits of his contrarian work—and, while (probably legitimately) declining to have NCEE formally transmit his document, failing to inform and reassure Carlin of his rights to freedom of communication as an individual.

The quality of Carlin’s work does appear to have been raised as an issue, but in something that appears only indirectly in this set of emails. In Carlin’s e-mails written on March 13 and 16 it appears that his work has been criticized for its heavy reliance on sources that are not in the scientific peer-reviewed literature.

On March 17, 8 minutes after his 8:12 a.m. e-mail informing Carlin that his work would not be forwarded, McGartland had another thought and followed up with:

“With the endangerment finding nearly final, you need to move on to other issues and subjects.  I don’t want you to spend any additional time on climate change.  No papers, no research, etc, at least until we see what EPA is going to do with Climate.

“I would like you to work with Marrietta to get that grants data base in place…

“Also, I’d like you to update part of the market incentives report…

“Let me know if you have even more time for other endeavors.

“You may have heard that our budget was cut by 66%.  This work will have to be done inhouse.”

This looks to me like McGartland realized that his supervisory oversight of Carlin’s activity might appear to have been too loose, that he needed to show that he was managing him, and to do so needed to create some work (perhaps because Carlin was disconnected from any significant ongoing EPA environmental economics project?).  And also reminding Carlin that the NCEE budget would not allow Carlin to pass these assignments off to a contractor, while continuing his freelance activities on company time.

If I’ve significantly misread this situation, somebody with a closer read on it than I is welcome to clarify or to correct me via a confidential e-mail to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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In his post on this, Joe Romm, a former subcabinet official at the Department of Energy, said on Climate Progress:

So EPA was absolutely correct in dismissing Carlin’s too-late, not-germane, unscientific cut-and-paste job.

Yes, the EPA might have handled the affair better, but there is no ideal way of dealing with a civil servant determined to push disinformation into the system.  In my experience, if you try to reject it, the person will inevitably leak it to the media, which never bothers to check the underlying substance when it has a juicy story.  I would not be surprised if Carlin ends up at some denier organization, which may be his purpose all along.

One presumes his bosses know that he is not a scientist and that he has previously published papers arguing absurd things like “Reducing GHG emissions to the extent proposed by advocates, even if achievable, would cost many trillions of dollars, and is best viewed as a last resort rather than the preferred strategy.”

 

Chris Mooney, on Science Progress, called this incident “the first major attempt to invert the ‘war on science’ narrative and use it against the Obama team.”  I’ll take the liberty of quoting at some length to associate myself with Mooney’s interpretation:

In their zeal to find a “war on science” episode to claim as their own, however, these conservatives forgot one essential matter: substance. If the claims about climate science in Carlin’s report—co-authored with another EPA employee from the same office, John Davidson—aren’t plausible; if leading climate scientists do not accept them; if they lack all credibility; then where there’s smoke there’s no fire. For not only would the EPA be correct to reject Carlin’s claims on substantive grounds, but indeed, as an expert scientific agency it would be bound by its mandate to do so….

Alan Carlin is simply not James Hansen, arguably the most famous of many scientists who claimed to have had their work suppressed or in some way interfered with during the Bush administration. You will recall that the Bush administration had taken a stance critical of mainstream climate science; Hansen felt compelled to defend it; and then NASA underlings interfered with his access to the media. That’s a vastly different story from the present one: The Obama administration has taken a stance aligned with mainstream climate science; Carlin is criticizing it; and his scientific claims are not standing up very well. Of course the Environmental Protection Agency can’t use them to help make policy. According to the EPA, Carlin’s claims were, in fact, considered—and rejected….

It’s precisely that disregard for scientific substance, of course, which explains why they could perpetrate a “war on science” in the first place….

 

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