Climate Science & Policy Watch: Continuing the Rick Piltz Legacy

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As recent events in Florida clearly show, the issues around which Rick Piltz fought so passionately have not gone away. Instead, they still surface at an alarming rate. His timeless voice has never been more crucial, and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is committed to continuing this fight in his name.  A post from Louis Clark, President of the Government Accountability Project and Michael Termini is Climate Science & Policy Watch Interim Director and GAP’s Corporate & Financial Accountability Deputy Director…

We miss our dear friend, heroic client and wise colleague Rick Piltz. He was a rational voice who would routinely distill and translate scientific complexities into understandable language without doing harm to their meaning. He made climate change science accessible to concerned people across the globe who simply want to know what is happening to their climate and environment, who or what is responsible, and how to evaluate the extraordinarily well-financed propaganda that climate science denialists – a word that Rick coined – continue to pump into the public discussion and decision-making on climate policy.

As patrons of Climate Science Watch well know – now renamed Climate Science & Policy Watch and soon to be expanded in accordance with Rick’s vision for the program – Rick was a Senior Associate in the Climate Change Science Program during the George W. Bush presidency. He was responsible for digesting the science findings on billions of dollars worth of climate science research from thirteen different federal agencies and turning those into comprehensible reports for Congress and the public. On the darker side of that job, he was likewise required by top agency officials to incorporate secret White House edits into the final drafts of those reports. Some of the reports that the agency slipped over to the Bush White House came back with hundreds of hand-written edits penned by Philip Cooney, a former chief lobbyist from the Petroleum Institute – a corporate lawyer, not a scientist. These edits changed the reports substantially, making the actual results appear less definitive about whether climate change was even occurring and if human activity was the cause of that change. In one report, pages of disturbing evidence from the Arctic were crossed out altogether – in effect, shredded.

As is now well known, Rick collected these White House edits, and in June, 2005, he made history by revealing them. According to an Oxford University study, his disclosure influenced the way in which journalists reported about climate science thereafter: Rick shifted the discussion away from a battle of so-called experts toward recognizing scientific consensus. Rick’s laudatory obituaries last fall in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications described this history in detail. In some of these pieces and elsewhere, however, Rick was referred to as a “firebrand” because of his truth-telling. Although he would not have minded that characterization, most of us who knew him well experienced him as humorous, soft-spoken, and quite exacting in his language – certainly not a strident firebrand. Regardless, “tenacious and uncompromising truth-teller” seems more apropos. Rick was one of us and we must remember that so others will also find the courage to come forward.

As a powerful example, in a video filmed in the GAP studio (short version; full length version) Rick reflected upon why he did what he did. In a soft voice, he described his outrage at being required to incorporate inappropriate and political edits from an oil industry huckster into official government reports about the results of this nation’s investment in climate research at the very agency responsible for compiling, reporting and disseminating the results of vast sums of taxpayer research funds. He passionately said:

“When this guy’s edits came to me, there was part of me that said: ‘Who do you think you’re dealing with? Do you think I’m one of you? I’m not one of you.’”

Which brings us to an equally important question, “Who are these people who do go along with these types of demands?” For every whistleblower like Rick, there are hundreds of civil servants and corporate employees who remain silent and quietly follow dishonest orders. Recently, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting broke a story that employees and contractors working for state environmental agencies were prohibited from using terms such as “climate change” and “global warming” because the Governor of the state did not “believe in it,” as if the scientific data were an ideology or a religious doctrine.

For years, hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals apparently went along with this practice of substituting “faux science” for scientific reality. Given that Florida is arguably amongst the most likely places to suffer the greatest impact from rising sea levels in the United States, it is remarkable that we are into the second term of Governor Rick Scott’s tenure before this secret climate change denialist practice has come to light. Encouraged by Rick and these new Florida whistleblowers, hopefully others now will grasp the courage to come forward with new revelations. It is critical that these new voices join the warning chorus before it is too late.

We should all applaud these former employees and contractors who are stepping forward to expose this policy and practice. This time, perhaps we should spend less time analyzing or questioning what it is about the whistleblowers that compelled them to speak up. It is time to examine this governor, those state agencies and all those people who went along with the practices that allowed the climate denialist charade to thrive. It is time to follow the trail of breadcrumbs – why are people hiding the truth and what do they have to gain from lying to the public? And if they do benefit from hiding the truth, why are they in power?

Or to use Rick’s words: “Who do you think you’re dealing with?” The silence of so many is indeed an indictment of them and of their state organizations. Who did the Governor think they were? It is obvious. Sheep.

As recent events in Florida clearly show, the issues Rick Piltz fought so passionately have not gone away. Instead, they still surface at an alarming rate. His timeless voice has never been more crucial, and GAP is committed to continuing this fight in his name. Stay tuned for new developments and program updates as we re-launch the latest vision of Rick’s Climate Science & Policy Watch this spring.

Michael Termini is Climate Science & Policy Watch Interim Director and GAP’s Corporate & Financial Accountability Deputy Director.

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