On “Editing Scientists” at the White House Council on Environmental Quality


Scientific American contrasts CEQ chair Nancy Sutley’s stated position on science and policy at the White House with what we observed, reported, and documented under her Bush-Cheney CEQ predecesors, and what the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee discovered in its lengthy investigation initiated after we leveled our charge. “My role here and CEQ’s role is to advise the president on environmental policy,” says Sutley. “The science is what the science is…I am not editing science.”

Post by Rick Piltz

On October 22, Scientific American magazine posted an article, “Editing Scientists: Science and Policy at the White House,” that revisits an issue I raised in 2005 after leaving the U.S. Climate Change Science Program/Global Change Research Program Office. An excerpt:

When Nancy Sutley moved in to her new office as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)—a 40-year-old White House environmental policy advisory office created by Congress—she found a lot of red pens. Immediately, she removed the pens from her desk and asked her staff to remove any red pens from their desks, as well.

“The White House should not be in the business of editing science,” Sutley says. “Let the scientists do the science. It’s a really easy bright line for me.”

Great image. I didn’t know CEQ apparently actually used red editing pens. I saw only black-and-white when the handwritten mark-ups of climate change program reports came in via the fax machine outside my office at the Climate Change Science Program.

Her predecessor, Jim Connaughton, now executive vice president for corporate public affairs and environmental policy at Constellation Energy, disputes the anecdote….

But the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found that significant editing of science documents had occurred during Connaughton’s tenure and the issue remains fraught with controversy: Just how much editing of government-funded science was done, and will it continue in future?…

During the Bush era…the CEQ came to play a large role in setting environmental policy, particularly in the area of climate change. Lawyer Philip Cooney, a CEQ chief of staff and a 15-year veteran of the American Petroleum Institute, spent the first term of the administration editing science reports from various agencies on climate change to downplay the role of greenhouse gas emissions—emphasizing elements of uncertainty from a 2001 National Research Council report on climate change, according to an investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Following his resignation in 2005 immediately following reports of the editing, ostensibly for “family reasons,” he joined ExxonMobil….

“Bush aide edited climate reports” (New York Times, June 8, 2005)

“How the White House edits out global warming” (Sierra magazine, Jan.-Feb. 2006)

Scott McClellan and White House global warming spin

The apparent interference by CEQ during the Bush administration prompted a 16-month congressional investigation beginning in July 2006 that pored over 27,000 pages of White House documents. “The evidence before the committee leads to one inescapable conclusion: the Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming,” the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wrote in its report on the matter in December 2007. “White House officials and political appointees in the agencies censored congressional testimony on the causes and impacts of global warming, controlled media access to government climate scientists, and edited federal scientific reports to inject unwarranted uncertainty into discussions of climate change.”

Among other things, the committee found that CEQ routinely approved or disapproved media interview requests with federal scientists. Cooney himself made 294 edits to the administration’s 364-page Strategic Plan for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program posted July 24, 2003, “to exaggerate or emphasize scientific uncertainties or to deemphasize or diminish the importance of the human role in global warming.“…

Climate Science Watch testimony at House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, January 30, 2007

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on Phil Cooney (March 28, 2007)

House Oversight Committee approves report on political interference with climate science communication (Dec. 12, 2007)

Nor were these edits merely recommended. CEQ’s Cooney “approved” the final draft of the Strategic Plan and e-mailed James Mahoney, then the assistant secretary for oceans and atmosphere at the U.S. Department of Commerce and, in the words of Connaughton “the top official overseeing the Climate Change Science Program,” on July 2, 2003, asking, “Is there any means of your assuring me that CEQ’s comments were accepted in the final draft…[M]y alternative is to re-read the 330+ pages.“…

Her new approach at CEQ “is to be guided by science and law,” Sutley says. “I’m not a scientist….My role here and CEQ’s role is to advise the president on environmental policy. The science is what the science is…I am not editing science.”

Every Administration needs independent-minded watchdogs, internal and external, to help ensure government integrity and accountability, not least in the relationship between science and policymaking. So far, the Council on Environmental Quality under Obama appears to be playing a constructive role in climate change policy, in particular through its leadership in initiating the current interagency planning process, still in its early stages, for designing the federal role in supporting US adaptive preparedness for the impacts of global climatic disruption. In the Bush-Cheney-Connaughton era at CEQ, the potentially harmful impacts of climate change were not a welcome subject, nor was national preparedness planning (for climate change, or in a number of other areas). 

A few more items:
Vanity Fair Dante’s Inferno—Green Edition —The Eighth Circle (April 22, 2007)

Rolling Stone cover story on White House global warming denial links Cooney to V-P’s office and Rove (June 29, 2007)

Interview with PBS FRONTLINE

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