Exposing the Contradiction: Challenging the Administration’s Claims of Supporting a Strong Climate Policy While Promoting Accelerated Fossil-Fuel Development

GAP launched Climate Science Watch (CSW) in 2005 under the leadership of Rick Piltz, who joined GAP when he resigned after 10 years in the U.S. Global Change Research Program Coordination Office to blow the whistle on the George W. Bush White House for political interference with the integrity of climate change communication. At the time, CSW became an important opposition voice in a hostile environment with the naysayers on climate change in charge of a “know-nothing” policy of denial. Today, GAP promotes, defends and advises experts inside U.S. policy centers who know about the political manipulation of science to suit a bureaucratic landscape that is hostile to what society is increasingly realizing are inconvenient truths. Although the fossil-fuel industry is now less able to obscure scientific findings, its pressure remains within federal and some state agencies responsible for climate science research. Our program was led and informed by those who directly challenged climate policy development during the heyday of climate science suppression. By regularly challenging similar efforts to compromise these critical climate policies, we believe we are helping to confront a global crisis.

We have seen great progress on much of what Rick and CSW worked on over the last decade: the global warming/science denial machine (a term Rick coined) is being more effectively countered, and we have many more allies in this effort; problems of scientific integrity in the White House and federal agencies persist in some cases that we have called attention to, but have been made less pervasive; a new, comprehensive National Climate Assessment was issued in May 2014 – a major step in what has been announced as an ongoing national assessment process; and climate change ‘preparedness’ has moved to a central focus of national climate policymaking – a term we continued to advocate for in order to emphasize the proactive and national security-oriented nature of policy and management actions needed to make infrastructure, water supply, food production, public health, coastal zones, and other systems resilient to climate disruption. Despite this progress however, we are also seeing challenging problems that are increasingly drawing our attention.

Many of the consequences of climate change are likely to be highly disruptive and costly for the United States. These include an increase in extreme weather; increased inundation in coastal regions; increased stress on water resources, storm runoff, and sewage systems; changes in land cover with disruption of a wide variety of essential ecological services and economic benefits; increasing stress on wildlife and biodiversity; ocean acidification; increasing health risks; impacts on Indigenous Peoples and cultures; and risks to the economy and to national security. Further, we face the real possibility of disruptive impacts from abrupt climate change, thresholds, tipping points, and surprises (See: Michael C. MacCracken and L. Jeremy Richardson, “Challenges to Providing Quantitative Estimates of the Environmental and Societal Impacts of Global Climate Change” [Pew Center on Global Climate Change, 2010). 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. Working strategically toward a goal of keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius implies expediting a phase-out of fossil energy sources and a clean energy transformation. However, not only has the Obama 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.

The federal government has leased public lands in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming with the hope of procuring 2 billion tons of mined coal, with several billion more in the works. Mountaintop removal coal mining continues in Appalachia. New permits are being given for deepwater drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and the government has begun to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean and is currently moving to do the same in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast. The administration has also fully supported a massive expansion of shale gas fracking, with no EPA environmental regulation in place or any agency decision on whether to regulate, and with some studies – as recent as July 7, 2015 – estimating large fugitive methane emissions from the natural gas system “potentially offsetting the climate benefits of natural gas” with potential estimates of the greenhouse gas having “a global warming potential over a 100-year time frame as high as 34 times that of carbon dioxide.” This of course says nothing of other significant environmental risks increasingly being linked to the practice, such as “surface, ground and drinking water contamination”  and the emerging view of officials “that wastewater disposal following oil and gas extraction is causing more earthquakes.” The government is also moving to expedite permitting new terminals for exporting liquefied natural gas, and the coal industry is seeking permits for several new terminals in the Pacific Northwest for exporting coal to Asia. Finally, the Keystone XL pipeline may still survive the President’s veto in the longer term and ending the long-standing ban on the exporting of U.S. crude oil reserves remains under consideration.

Clearly, as Rick repeated in hundreds of 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.” Moreover, it appears abundantly evident that the White House and federal agencies are not seriously incorporating the threat of global climate disruption into decision-making on such developments. Science-based climate policy development will be opposed at every step by powerful economic interests and anti-regulation ideologues. GAP’s CSW program was founded on action to counter such efforts, whether they come from inside government or from external pressure. We will continue to work with allies to expose and counter the global warming denial and disinformation campaigns.

However, it is also essential to recognize impediments within the Executive branch under the current administration. As Rick often taught, a comprehensive approach to climate change can be thought of as a combination of avoiding changes that cannot be managed, while managing the changes that cannot be avoided – that is, cutting carbon pollution to limit the rate and magnitude of climate change (“mitigation”), and making climate-sensitive systems more resilient to the disruptive impacts that are now inevitable and already observable (what has usually been termed “adaptation”). Rick recognized when creating CSW that both are essential for translating climate research into effective policymaking. It is not an either/or choice –scientific integrity demands a focus on dealing with impacts. While mitigation (expediting the phase-out of the fossil fuel system) is essential to averting potentially disastrous climate change, even a one-degree global warming is already melting the Arctic and subjecting the U.S. to an accelerated pattern of extreme climate-related weather events, including severe storms, drought, and wildfires – with projected impacts on a society that lacks preparedness to deal with what lies ahead.

As Rick often made exceedingly clear, “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.” GAP intends to honor Rick’s legacy by carrying on his important work as he had envisioned it and conveyed it to GAP just before his passing last fall. Building off of his successes and increasing impact on these critical issues, the next phase of GAP’s Climate Science Watch program – now renamed: Climate Science & Policy Watch (CSPW) – is to therefore oversee the actual implementation of the administration’s support for a strong climate policy and its behind-the-scenes actions that support accelerated fossil fuel development.

The President’s Climate Action Plan, for example, is commingled with what the administration has termed an “all of the above” energy policy that promotes fossil fuel research and development (R&D) and increased production of fossil fuel sources and natural gas exports. Under Rick’s watch, CSW repeatedly raised concerns about the apparent contradiction between the administration’s claim to recognize the scientific implications of global climate disruption, on the one hand, and an energy policy that has been put forward in terms of “energy security,” job creation, and a variety of other criteria, but without reflecting the urgency of the climate problem – and with no communication of the strategic need to transform the fossil fuel-based energy system (see here and here). The administration’s commitment to expanded extraction and development of U.S. fossil fuels contradicts the image being cultivated – particularly via the President’s Climate Action Plan – of taking aggressive action to confront climate change. There is in fact no strategy that acknowledges the need to phase out dependence on fossil fuels, but rather the opposite – pointing toward a potential new period of federal support for unconventional oil and gas development (e.g., via tar sands and fracking), fossil fuel exports, and federal R&D and loan guarantees for new fossil fuel technologies and projects.

Rick’s expanded CSPW vision centers around exposing this dynamic and calling on the President and administration officials to reconcile this contradiction between climate change planning and an “all of the above” energy policy that appears to align closely with the energy industry and continues policy and economic incentives for enhanced fossil fuel development. Following the road map Rick provided GAP President Louis Clark and CSPW Interim Director Michael Termini, we will do so by continuing to implement and execute the top-down approach Rick set forth and 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. We will be weighing in on critical policy issues he identified, including but not limited to: the President’s Climate Action Plan (which, for example, 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), the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the Quadrennial Energy Review, and national preparedness now in the immediate and long-term – a concept Rick and former CSW Senior Associate / 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 policymaking.

In tandem with this top-down approach, we will also work from the bottom-up via the execution of a coordinated campaign across the nation to meet and address these consequences on the ground where they are “affecting real people and real places,” as Rick would often say. We will be seeking to launch public education investigations and campaigns on critical national issues Rick identified, each with their own set of consequences, which highlight how we must phase-out fossil energy sources as Rick warned, including: hydro-fracking, off-shore drilling, pipeline integrity and vulnerability, and oil-by-rail transport. 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, both nationally and internationally, about the truth behind the scenes while asking critical questions we need answered, watch-dogging legislation and analyzing what is overtly and covertly taking place on the Hill, and, to quote Rick, “throwing grenades” of piercing criticism at the government or industry, whenever necessary in the form of strategic blog posts, white papers and reports.

Because of all Rick Piltz and CSW accomplished, the extensive network he developed throughout his career consisting of scientists, public officials, public interest groups, and the media, and the expanded CSPW vision he set forth to face today’s challenges, we are now strategically positioned to play a key role in meeting these challenges and having a significant impact on holding the government accountable for what is in all of our best interests and effectively 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.”