Recalling an exchange with Sen. John Kerry about climate change and the Bush White House


John Kerry is for real on pushing back against climate silence and the denial machine in Washington. I had the opportunity to testify before Senator Kerry and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee at a hearing on Climate Change Research and Scientific Integrity, held in February 2007. I called the Bush Administration’s political interference with climate science communication “misrepresenting the intelligence.” He called it Orwellian.

Senator Kerry was challenged on climate change mitigation policy by Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) at his Secretary of State confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 24. He pushed back unequivocally on the clean energy economy and the danger of inaction on climatic disruption:

Kerry has a long history with the effort to bridge climate science and Washington politics, dating back to the 1980s. I remember him as one of maybe two other senators who ever attended the series of roundtable hearings on global change research chaired by Al Gore during Gore’s last two years in the Senate (1991-1992). These hearings, before the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, were almost more like seminars with panels of the leading expert scientists. During that period I was on the professional staff of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, where I developed a number of hearings for the committee on climate change research, assessment, and policy issues. I sat in on the Gore roundtable hearings, seeing Gore and Kerry educating themselves in detail on scientific issues that were essentially ignored at that time by the overwhelming majority of members of Congress.

Kerry is for real on climate change. It remains to be seen how the White House will frame its response to this challenge and establish its priorities, and thus how he will be able to move forward as Secretary of State.

Recalling the hearing on Climate Change Research and Scientific Integrity [includes written testimony; webcast no longer available], before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, February 7, 2007:

From the opening statement by the Committee Chair, the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii):

…[W]e must investigate the numerous allegations that our federal scientists are being constrained from conveying their research findings and conclusions.

Such allegations are serious.  We in Congress as well as decision makers within the regulatory agencies must examine and weigh the scientific evidence to guide changes in policies, laws, and regulations.  To make the best decisions, we need free access to unbiased scientific findings and conclusions because the quality of our decisions is highly dependent upon the science we use to make those decisions.  To deny federal scientists the right to speak, to change the findings of their work, or to deny the release of their work, basically creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear, is a great disservice to the public.

On January 30, 2007, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued the report, Atmosphere of Pressure: Political Interference in Federal Climate Science.  The report found and documented an alarming number of instances in which federal scientists and employees were pressured to downplay the significance of their climate science work or were prevented from sharing their results and conclusions with the public.

We have much work ahead of us if we are to seriously address the issue of climate change.  We begin with the issue of scientific integrity as the foundation of that effort. …

 From Senator Kerry’s opening statement at the hearing:

… [T]his Administration has been beyond irresponsible on this. Beyond irresponsible. In the face of all of this science, in the face of all of these reports, they’re playing games, political games for money.

What they do is they take the science, and they tailor it to reflect their political goals. The interference is stunning–from deleting key words, deleting words, this is George Orwell at its best–deleting “warming climate,” deleting “global climate change,” deleting “climate change” from press releases, changing agency mission statements, de- emphasizing climate research, denying media access to prominent climate scientists. It’s absolutely stunning, what’s been going on. And it has to stop.

This is the right place to begin, Mr. Chairman, looking at what has been going on in terms of blocking America’s access to the truth. …

My oral statement and written testimony  for the hearing.

Senator Kerry’s questioning of witnesses — a somewhat condensed transcript from the U.S. Government Printing Office report on the hearing (Senate Hearing 110-1060):

The Chairman. And now I’d like to call upon a recognized leader in this area of concern, Senator Kerry.

Senator Kerry. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, very, very much. …

Mr. Piltz, let me just confirm with you–you were the coordinator of the National Assessment, you coordinated the agencies that put together the National Assessment for the year 2000, correct?

Mr. Piltz. I did not have operational responsibility for the National Assessment. It was coordinated out of the office that I worked in. The National Assessment Coordinator, Dr. Michael McCracken, had a separate staff within the program that I worked in. And I was working on the annual reports to Congress, and other things. I was very closely attuned to what was happening with that, I was in on the early planning meetings, I saw the whole process by which the National Assessment was developed, I went to the meetings of the synthesis team and the regional workshops around the country, and I saw exactly what happened to it, under the Bush Administration, from practically the day—-

Senator Kerry. You described that earlier. Precisely what happened to it? Would you describe it right now?

Mr. Piltz. Well, as early as 2001, and much more aggressively from the middle of 2002 onward, the Administration moved to first ignore and then actively suppress the–they disbanded the whole National Assessment process, this nationwide expert-stakeholder dialogue that was the intelligence gathering, diagnosis capability. And, they literally suppressed the use of the report, for any–I mean, not just as a policy document, which it wasn’t, but even for research planning.

I was directed by the White House Science Office to delete the section on the National Assessment from the annual report to Congress in the year it came out, and then from the middle of 2002 onward, we had a very strong push to take it out of the Strategic Plan, and—-

Senator Kerry. Did they tell you why they wanted you to take it out? Were you given any reasons?

Mr. Piltz. No, there is–the Administration has never gone on record with any reason for why there is anything wrong with the National Assessment. It has been used by the IPCC, it has been used by the Academy [National Academy of Sciences], it has been praised by the Academy, and no scientific or intellectual justification has been given for why this would not be playing a significant role in research planning and decision-support activities. Not just the original document, which is 6 years old now, but the whole process that it initiated, of unfettered communication.

No, there’s never been, I mean–I think it’s evident that the reasons were politically driven, rather than scientifically justified. I think it’s generally understood within the Program.

Senator Kerry. And as you say, it was generally understood–what was the understanding about what the political reasons were?

Mr. Piltz. Well, you know, Dr. Mahoney [former Director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 2002-2006] could probably address this too, but I–it was my—-

Senator Kerry. He’s smiling, he’s looking forward to doing that.


Mr. Piltz. It was my understanding–and I was not in the room when high Administration officials decided this, I just saw the fallout from it–but it is my understanding that the White House directed the CCSP leadership, and in particular, it’s my understanding that Phil Cooney at CEQ [White House Council on Environmental Quality] was the proximate White House political operative agent. But just as an operative in a chain of command that went all the way to the top–directing the CCSP leadership that we weren’t going to be using this report, discussing it, putting it in the Strategic Plan, and making it very clear that we were not going to go forward with another integrated National Assessment process.

And that was transmitted, then, to the agencies by the, at the principals level.

Senator Kerry. How many years had you worked there?

Mr. Piltz. Ten years.

Senator Kerry. What was your background before that?

Mr. Piltz. Well, I had been working on the collision between science and policy on global warming since I first moved to Washington in 1988, the same week as the famous hearing where Jim Hansen testified. I was on the staff of the House Science Committee for 4 years, 1991 to 1994, I’m–my academic training is as a social scientist. At this point I know a lot more science than most policy people, and a lot more politics than most scientists, so I’m in between those two worlds.

Senator Kerry. And what do you think has been the consequence for our country of this flat-Earth approach to the science and the global warming issue itself, global climate change?

Mr. Piltz. Well, you know, the Administration has had many mechanisms, I mean, there’s the National Assessment, there’s the keeping scientists away from the media, there are some disappearing websites, there are these pre-clearances–it goes on and on–ignoring the Arctic Assessment, it just depends on what they need to do.

But, the net effect of it, is rather than to embrace the scientific assessment and use that to drive effective response strategies, it’s somehow worrying about trying to make the science communication conform to a pre-determined political position, that might be threatened by a more straightforward science communication.

Senator Kerry. What would you call that?

Mr. Piltz. What would I call it?

Senator Kerry. What’s the–I mean, what’s the rationale?

Mr. Piltz. I believe that, sir, when the President is asked about global warming, and says, “Yes, the Earth is warming, fundamental debate–is it man-made or natural? ” That’s not a fundamental debate in the science community. And, I mean, you ask me what would I call it? I call it misrepresenting the intelligence.

Senator Kerry. Dr. Mahoney [James R. Mahoney, Environmental Consultant], your testimony, your written testimony, leads one to believe that there had been no real occurrences where NOAA scientists have been prevented from speaking freely regarding their scientific findings to the media, is that really your opinion?

Dr. Mahoney. No, it isn’t, Senator, and I don’t think I said that.

Senator Kerry. Well, just in the written testimony, it doesn’t make it explicit. Could you make it explicit here, now? Are there instances where scientific findings have been prevented from being spoken about to the media by scientists, by NOAA scientists?

Dr. Mahoney. What I think has occurred, Senator, in some cases is, in the process of interacting with the Public Affairs representatives in NOAA in particular, there’s a perception developed that some of the scientists were discouraged, or at least not encouraged, and in some cases discouraged from carrying out interviews with the media. In some cases, interviews that might have been set up were denied by the Public Affairs Office representatives and the like. And, I certainly saw instances of that during my time at NOAA.

Senator Kerry. Dr. Anthes [Richard Anthes, President, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research], you said in your testimony that we need to restore U.S. leadership on Earth science, and that the Bush cuts to NOAA and NASA have hurt us. The cuts are about 30 percent, aren’t they?

Dr. Anthes. The cuts in NASA are about 30 percent, and in real purchasing power, from the value as recent as the year 2000. So, this is a 30 percent cut in the Earth science research. And you can look forward, into the future, and see that there are almost no plans in NASA for additional missions to study the Earth from space. I showed a chart in my testimony that shows the number of instruments was decreasing from about 120 last year, to something like 80 in 3 years from now, and then on down to 50 percent by 2015. So, unless things are turned around, there is a huge shift away from Earth science and observations from space, which are needed more than ever. This is not the time to be cutting back on observations, it’s the time to restore them and restore the U.S. to a leadership capability.

Senator Kerry: … What we have on the record here is a picture of this Administration willfully, purposefully, quashing science from reaching the American people. Willfully stepping in the way of legitimate global climate change conclusions being drawn. Willfully stepping in the way of proactive steps to try to deal with this. In effect, a dodge and a duck, an avoidance of reality. That’s the conclusion you have to draw from scientists being told, “Don’t talk about it,” words being stripped out of reports, and budgets being cut.

Dr. Brennan [Bill Brennan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 
Acting Chairman, Climate Change Science Program], what’s your response to that? Are you proud of a record of the last 6 years that sees the United States falling behind the rest of the world, avoiding science, and not telling the American people the truth?

Dr. Brennan. Thanks, sir. My response to that is that the United States is the lead in advancing climate science, as I testified, the United States involvement in the world—-

Senator Kerry. How can you be the lead in advancing climate science if–I mean, I was here with Senator Hollings, as Senator Inouye was, when we passed the Global Change Research Act, 1990. And we specifically set out the following, “at least every 4 years, to give us the National Scientific Assessment. To integrate, evaluate, interpret research findings on climate change, scientific uncertainties, analyze the effects of global climate change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production, use, land and water resources, transportation, human health, welfare, human social systems, biological diversity, analyze current trends in global change, both human inducted and natural.” Don’t you think that if the IPCC report comes out in 2001, if you guys were serious about this, that you might have reported to the Congress after that your judgments about that report?

Dr. Brennan. Sir, as you know the Administration, utilizing the CCSP process, is advancing the 21 Synthesis and Assessment Reports to advance our understanding of a science that is developing and evolving very rapidly, and it provides a very direct way to get advances to—-

Senator Kerry. Well, let me ask you about your understanding. Do you accept the scientific consensus that since the Industrial Revolution, the planet has warmed up by 0.8 degrees Centigrade, do you accept that?

Dr. Brennan. I accept that the scientific consensus that unequivocally indicates that the Earth is warming, and that there are anthropogenic causes for that. … I believe that the temperature will continue to increase.

Senator Kerry. Fair enough. And, do you accept the consensus of the scientific community as now ratified by what was put out in Paris last week [release of IPCC Fourth Assessment Report], that we can no longer afford the cushion of a temperature increase up to 3 degrees centigrade …

Dr. Brennan. I agree that the cushion available to us is narrow, sir. And the Administration supports the IPCC report.

Senator Kerry. If that’s the case, where is the plan for this Administration to cut carbon? To cap carbon? To reduce carbon? To the levels that will hold us to 450 parts per million, which is the scientifically agreed-upon level that we must accept. Where’s the plan?

Dr. Brennan. Sir, the Administration has been developing and has a plan, and has been working to reduce greenhouse gas intensity, it has been working to address the fuel side to reduce emissions, to stop emissions, and then to reverse—-

Senator Kerry. Sir, with all due respect, that’s just talk. There’s no real plan to hold carbon emissions to a 450 parts per million level. … You guys aren’t responding to it. I have to tell you this.

Dr. Brennan. Sir, I believe we share a common goal in reducing these emissions, and the approach—-

Senator Kerry. No, I don’t think we do share that…

And I think it is the most serious dereliction of public responsibility that I’ve ever seen. Ever. When scientists are told, “Don’t tell the American people the truth,” I mean, this is serious stuff. In all of the years I’ve been on this Committee, I’ve never seen something like this. Where an Administration is unwilling to pull people together and say, “How are we going to do this?” …

You folks are not leading this country to a place where we can embrace that, and go do that, with alternatives, efficiency, renewables. …

I know we can pontificate up here, and that’s all we get, sitting here as a Senator. And we can try and take something to the floor. But I’ve got to tell you, in my judgment in 22 years here, you’re not doing your job. The Administration’s not doing its job. This is a disgrace. You are turning your backs on future generations in this country. And, you are potentially inviting the possibility of global catastrophe, which will cost millions of lives, spread disease, destroy species, destroy land, you’ve got 100 million people living within 3 feet of sea level in buildings in Shanghai, in New York, in Boston, and other similar places, and you’re just inviting this potential catastrophe.

You’re not doing it. And I invite you to go back and talk to your people back there, and take a look at what your public responsibility is.

Is there anybody here who disagrees? Mr. Piltz?

Mr. Piltz. I don’t disagree. But I would say, Dr. Brennan’s a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce. I understand the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy declined an invitation to testify at this hearing, and they left Dr. Brennan hanging out here to get beat up.

Senator Kerry. You’re good to support him.

Mr. Piltz. The problem is–the power—-

Senator Kerry. I understand, folks, this is the forum we have, but this is deadly, serious stuff. This is the most serious thing I see. This is, what, how many years now of hearings on this Committee, since 1987–almost 20 years. Almost 20 years of hearings on this Committee, when we’ve been talking about this very science.

We need a carbon cap, we’ve got to reduce carbon. We’ve got to get serious about putting incentives in our automobiles to be hybrids, and plug-ins and all kinds of things. … China is building one coal-fired plant per week. That can’t happen.

And we better show the global leadership to prevent it from happening. And I don’t care if people get tired of me ranting on this, I’m going to rant on this every day I can for the next–for the time I’m here. Because this is the most serious issue we have.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Earlier related posts:

Sen. Kerry condemns climate disinformation campaign, challenges Washington’s “conspiracy of silence” 

“When it comes to the challenge of climate change, the falsehood of today’s naysayers is only matched by the complacency of our political system,” Sen. John Kerry said in a powerful speech on the Senate floor yesterday. “We should be compelled to fight today’s insidious conspiracy of silence on climate change—a silence that empowers misinformation and mythology to grow where science and truth should prevail.”

Sherwood Rowland Senate testimony on IPCC, science censorship, and the need for climate action

From Testimony by Dr. F. Sherwood Rowland of the Departments of Chemistry and Earth System Science of University of California Irvine, Irvine, California before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on “Climate Change Research and Scientific Integrity”,  February 7,  2007:

Presentation of one’s work as one sees it is the bedrock of the scientific enterprise.  However, in the last several years, my scientific conversations have run into far too many instances in which the reports of the significance  of the work have been subsequently changed by others, often by persons with less, or even no, expertise in the subject at hand.  Some of these conflicts have been gathered together, with verified details, by the Union of Concerned Scientists and by the Government Accountability Project, and are presented here today.  The working out of the best approaches to mitigation or adaptation to future climatic change is critically dependent upon possession of the most accurate and pertinent knowledge.

Senate Commerce climate science hearing follow-up: News reports

Environment News Service — … Completed in 2000, the national assessment was mandated by the 1990 Global Change Research Act. It was intended to be continually updated and to serve as a centerpiece of the government’s effort to inform the policymakers and the public in developing a national climate policy.

The administration effectively killed the program and suppressed discussion of it by participating agencies, according to Piltz, who now directs GAP’s Climate Science Watch.

That action “has done, and continues to do, the greatest damage in undermining national preparedness in dealing with the challenge of global climate change,” Piltz told the committee.

“It is clear that the reasons for this were essentially political, and not based on scientific considerations,” Piltz added. “The White House through the Council on Environmental Quality directed this suppression, which was then implemented by the CCSP leadership.”

…Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, told colleagues the Bush administration’s actions were “almost criminal.”

“They take the science and tailor it to reflect their political goals,” he said. “The interference is stunning … it is George Orwell at its best. It has to stop.”

Also: Union of Concerned Scientists and Government Accountability Project, Atmosphere of Pressure: Political Interference in Federal Climate Science (2007)

This entry was posted in Climate Science Watch, Congress: Legislation and Oversight, Obama Administration. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Recalling an exchange with Sen. John Kerry about climate change and the Bush White House

  1. Susan C. Harris says:

    The IPCC reports are checked, double-checked and vetted by hundreds of scientists, and approved by governments around the world.

  2. Forest says:

    Kerry’s comments are the first positive signs and reasons for hope I have seen in the last two decades. In the end it is not about the science (which informs), but about the politics (which decide).

    Now we just need to find a sliver of enlightenment in our federal political system in Canada. We are still in the stone age here.

Comments are closed.