Introducing the Next Phase of Rick Piltz’s Climate Science Watch Program: Climate Science & Policy Watch

Rick Piltz accepting The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling in 2006. Source: The Ridenhour Prizes.

Rick Piltz accepting The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling in 2006. Source: The Ridenhour Prizes.

Today we are launching the next phase of Rick Piltz’s legacy program, which he outlined for GAP President Louis Clark and me before he passed away last fall. As you are likely well aware, in 2005 Rick courageously blew the whistle on the George W. Bush White House for political interference with the integrity of climate change communication. Rick and GAP then created Climate Science Watch (CSW), and under Rick’s leadership, the program became an important opposition voice in a hostile political environment of climate change denial.

Rick was clear about his expanded vision and where the effort needed to go, given the high ground he and his team had so heroically achieved over the years with Climate Science Watch. The next phase of Rick’s program – now aptly renamed: Climate Science & Policy Watch (CSPW) – is to assess the actual implementation of the current administration’s stated support for a comprehensive climate policy and critique its contradictory, behind-the-scenes actions which support accelerated fossil fuel development. Today’s launch, after months of preparation by a team of CSPW contributors composed of experts and colleagues he had mentored and worked with, is the first step in realizing that vision.

The denial, disinformation and censorship that Rick fought so fiercely have not gone away. In fact, we can easily identify that the climate science denial machine (Rick coined the term) has taken on a new form. We see this in Florida in the form of officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) who were ordered not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports, and, at least one scientist who was actually ordered to remove the term “climate change” from a report on climate change. This “unwritten policy” went into effect soon after Governor Rick Scott took office and appointed a new DEP Director. Scott is widely known for his statement back in 2010, while first running for office, that he had “not been convinced” that climate change is caused by human activity. Scott has since repeatedly stood by this conviction, despite the fact that according to NASA, “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree [that] [c]limate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.”

We also see the denial machine alive and well in the form of Jim Inhofe, Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who, when trying to support his claim (and central premise of his book) that climate change is a “hoax” actually entered a snowball on the Senate floor as evidence to argue against the reality of increasing temperatures. Inhofe, like Scott, also claims there is still a “lack of science.”

The denial machine also lives on in politicians, such as Scott and others, who question the existence of climate change with a blanket claim of ignorance declaring they “are not scientists,” so they can’t speak to the issue and, by obvious extension, neither can we. And, we see it in the practices of the fossil extraction industry, which – with support from the Obama Administration – continues to put the environment at risk when we are already right up against the point of no return and simply can no longer afford to keep doing business as usual.

Rick sounded this warning for years; a warning that was echoed all the way back in 2006 when GAP advised James Hansen – renowned climate scientist who headed the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies – as he blew the whistle on attempts by NASA officials and the George W. Bush Administration to silence him on the dangers of climate change. GAP then conducted a year-long investigation into the gagging and suppression of the free speech of federal climate scientists, who attempted to speak out about their findings. This investigation resulted in two landmark reports released in 2007 – Redacting the Science of Climate Change and Atmosphere of Pressure, co-written with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) – that found objectionable and possibly illegal restrictions on the communication of scientific information to the media, and the wrongful editing and delay of press releases. The reports received broad national attention and were presented in testimony at two congressional oversight hearings.

First with his landmark congressional testimony back in 1988 and then again in 2009, Hansen famously warned, “the climate is nearing tipping points. Changes are beginning to appear and there is a potential for explosive changes, effects that would be irreversible, if we do not rapidly slow fossil-fuel emissions over the next few decades.” Scientists have since diagnosed and continue to characterize the problem of global climate disruption, using observing systems, process studies, predictive modeling, and scientific climate change assessments such as those issued by the National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Global Change Research Program, resulting in the overwhelming scientific consensus cited above. In late July 2015, Hansen released a new paper in the European Geosciences Union journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussion warning “that even 2 degrees Celsius of global warming may be “highly dangerous” for humanity.” The paper projects “sea levels rising as much as 10 feet in the next 50 years.” Hansen and 16 co-authors thus again warned policymakers “that we have a global crisis that calls for international cooperation to reduce emissions as rapidly as practical.”

Now, after a decade, the warning Rick helped deliver has finally reached not only a mass audience, but also a fever pitch. Significantly, making worldwide news this summer, this view has now even been officially endorsed by the Catholic Church via Pope Francis who formally acknowledged that there is “a very solid scientific consensus” that climate change is indeed occurring and is “mainly” the result of human activity. In his environmental encyclical entitled “Laudato Si,” released on June 18th, Francis writes: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that most of the global warming of the past decades is due to the concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and others), emitted especially because of human activities.” Francis continued that these concerns are made even worse by “the intensive use of fossil fuels that is at the core of the global energy model.” Moreover, Francis echoed the warning issued six years ago by Hansen: “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us (see here at p. 20).” Rightly asserting that a “bold cultural revolution (see here at p. 85)” is needed to reverse course, Pope Francis provided instructions to bishops throughout the Catholic Church “on how to spread the pope’s message to the world’s more than one billion Catholics.”

While it took the world a while to catch up, Rick was always laser-focused on this challenge we all now face. The climate change problem must be strategically dealt with in completely different public and political arenas, where conflicting values and agendas run rampant. Communication between the worlds of science and policymaking is a challenging problem under the best of circumstances, but has been made even that much more difficult in the case of climate change by political conflict and failures of political leadership. Rick stressed that avoiding disastrous consequences for the biosphere and human society calls for major policy steps to chart a new course, both in the U.S. and internationally. The National Academy of Sciences, in its 4-volume America’s Climate Choices report, concluded that in order to keep global warming below the internationally agreed-upon 2o C goal, a strategic climate policy should adopt a total cumulative “carbon budget” for atmospheric emissions. This scientifically based advice to the government for working strategically toward a goal of keeping global warming under 2o C implies more dramatic emissions reductions expediting a phase-out of fossil energy sources (coal, oil, and natural gas) and a clean energy transformation. However, as Rick often frankly pointed out, not only has this administration not articulated a strategy commensurate with the scope and urgency of the problem, it continues to make decisions on energy development and export that would lock the system into primary dependence on fossil fuels far into the 21st century. And, as he repeated in countless telecasts, “the fossil fuel industry has no expectation of being phased out, and in fact is seeking to bring about the development of a new era of expanded extraction, domestic consumption, and export.”

To combat this problem, Rick saw the expansion of GAP’s climate program as necessary to address the policies that regulate the fossil fuel and energy interests, support those like him who have the courage to speak truth to power and present the scientific facts, and hold the government accountable to what is in all of our best interests. As Rick said for many years:

“The need to hold the federal government accountable for the integrity of science-based decision making on climate change in the current atmosphere of political polarization — combined with the pressure of corporate power on government policy and the absence of an agreed-upon, coherent national climate policy with legislative support — is as great as ever.”

In truth, Rick needed a small army to help realize his vision. Well, now we have amassed one – comprised of expert volunteers who share in Rick’s passion, and whom he mentored. Together, we will continue to implement the top-down approach he began to realize; such as when he helped lead the charge for national preparedness in the face of the already present consequences of climate change and thus influenced the incorporation of preparedness language into the President’s Climate Action Plan. In tandem with this top-down approach, we will also work from the bottom-up via a coordinated ground campaign across the nation to meet and address these consequences of climate change where they are “affecting real people and real places,” as Rick would often say. We will do so while regularly employing the main tool from Rick’s arsenal, his prized CSW blog, as the connective tissue and galvanizing force to inform the public about the truth behind the scenes. All while asking the crucial questions we need answered, watch-dogging legislation and analyzing what’s taking place on the Hill, and, one of my favorite Rick-isms: “throwing grenades” of piercing criticism at the government or industry, whenever necessary.

And so, after months of preparation, today we continue Rick’s mission doing just that: weighing in on critical policy issues he identified, including but not limited to: the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the Quadrennial Energy Review, the President’s Climate Action Plan (which addresses the problem of coal-fired power plants by pledging to develop rules to regulate emissions, but fails to address the problems of coal leasing, mining, and export), and national preparedness now and in the long-term – a concept Rick and current CSPW Contributor Anne Polansky proposed in CSW’s National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative (NCCPI) back in 2008, which has since become part of mainstream policy-making. Simultaneously, we will be working to launch public education investigations and campaigns on the ground across the country on critical issues, each with their own set of consequences, which highlight how we must indeed phase-out fossil energy sources as Rick warned, including: hydro-fracking, off-shore drilling, pipeline vulnerability and oil-by-rail transport – all while throwing those grenades of his from the CSPW blog in the form of strategic blog posts, white papers and reports. Again, a team, or a small village is needed to carry out this vision. Well, this is where GAP shines, and we will be taking advantage of our tested methodology to get maximum impact out of this coordinated effort.

Over the years, we have successfully employed our Know Your Rights Campaign (KRYC) methodology across GAP’s program areas in order to inform individuals about the rights available to them to safely blow the whistle. Most recently, these efforts have included GAP’s BP/Gulf Coast KYRC, which resulted in over 30 whistleblowers disclosing significant environmental and public health threats. Insiders within core aspects of the fossil extraction industry know why the aforementioned practices are perilous for the environment in ways that must be exposed and brought to the public’s attention. We must reach them and inform them about their rights to safely blow the whistle. Utilizing decades of experience, the interrelated KYRC initiatives above are strategically designed to spread transparency throughout the extraction industry from the bottom-up. In coordination with Rick’s top-down policy approach, we are now poised to take maximum advantage of our history and reputation and have a significant impact on challenging the fossil industry – both at its roots at the policy level and on the ground where those policies meet reality and “affect real people in real places.”

Starting today, we will be working together to answer the clarion call Rick sounded, live the values of the mission he set before us, and continue fighting this critically important fight while always questioning the status quo of government and industry relationships. Rick taught us that together we have the tools, the expertise and the power to confront the climate science denial machine and fossil-fuel interests and turn this thing around for the sake of real people in real places, for our children and our children’s children. In that spirit, I find it fitting to launch Rick’s expanded vision with his own words upon accepting the 2006 Ridenhour Award for Truth-telling at the National Press Club. Against insurmountable odds and great personal risk, Rick exposed the George W. Bush Administration because it was necessary and because it was right. I personally see these words as Rick’s call to action and have it framed in our office to remind us every day. In my view, it is a call for each of us to play our role in doing all we can in this fight that affects each of us in ways that stagger the imagination:

“You have to have the leadership – listen to what federal climate scientists are saying – and embrace it and accept it and promote it and act on it…But it’s really for the rest of us to take the responsibility to hold public officials accountable to enable society to get the global warming problem dealt with effectively. And that’s something I think that we all have a role in. I’ll leave you with that thought.”

Accepting the 2006 Ridenhour Award for Truth-telling
National Press Club
Washington, DC
April 4, 2006

Michael Termini is GAP’s Climate Science & Policy Watch Interim Director.

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