Climate Science Watch was developed by Rick Piltz, who teamed up with the Government Accountability Project to blow the whistle on a high-level official in the George W. Bush White House, Phillip Cooney, for political interference in legally-mandated communications to Congress and the public of key findings in federal climate change science programs. In the spring of 2005, Piltz resigned in protest from a high-level position at the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) Coordination Office, after ten years of dedicated service. The USGCRP is a two-billion-dollar inter-agency program codified by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 to better understand Earth’s climate system and how it responds to escalating levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Piltz had become increasingly frustrated with the intrusion of politics into the scientific arena and the intentional mischaracterization and downplay of the serious risks associated with climate change, in order to thwart the adoption of public policies to curb carbon dioxide emissions. Cooney, a former attorney with the American Petroleum Institute, was the Chief of Staff for the Council on Environmental Quality under Bush; he had been systematically doctoring scientific reports on federal climate change research in order to downplay the climate threat. Piltz’s whistleblowing act included turning over documents edited by Cooney to the press; GAP’s communications team helped to bring about a damning exposé, a front-page article in The New York Times, causing Cooney to abruptly leave his CEQ post. Piltz viewed these politically-driven, corporate-friendly improprieties in the White House as an extension of a larger, ongoing climate denial campaign, which he later dubbed the “global warming denial machine,” that had been originated and orchestrated by the fossil fuel industries beginning in the 1980s.
In the summer of 2005, he founded Climate Science Watch, a public interest education and advocacy project and a flagship program of GAP, to serve a watchdog function over federal climate science. Its core mission was to promote integrity and accountability in the way public officials use, or misuse, climate science and related research, toward the goal of translating science into effective action to meet the challenges posed by global climate change.
CSW quickly became an important voice when the federal government was outwardly hostile towards the idea that we needed to ratchet down carbon dioxide emissions and adopt a low-carbon energy policy. Counteracting the climate change “denial machine” became CSW’s primary role, and most of the work CSW did over the next nine years was to help ensure that taxpayer-funded climate change science and impacts assessments could be conducted, peer-reviewed, and communicated accurately to the Congress and the public without political interference.
Through careful investigation, in-depth analyses, clear communication, and effective reform advocacy, CSW brought to light instances of censorship and suppression of communication by federal scientists, including Congressional testimony, and worked to establish reforms preventing scientists from reporting their findings to the media and the public. CSW developed original content and generated stories and position papers that prompted extensive electronic and print media coverage both in the US and internationally. CSW also served as an important vehicle for communication by leading climate scientists, through interviews and guest posts on the CSW website and interviews. Piltz testified several times before the US Senate and House of Representatives, and contributed to a successful legal challenge to the George W. Bush Administration in federal court.
The CSW website secured a broad domestic and international audience, attracting tens of thousands of readers that included reporters, government officials, Congressional offices, scientists, educators, activists, and others. CSW continued to attract media coverage throughout its nine-year tenure: work conducted by CSW resulted in pieces in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press, for example. Piltz appeared on television broadcast programs including 60 Minutes, PBS FRONTLINE, and was a guest several times on Al Jazeera American.
CSW was one of the first groups in the nation to recognize and act on the fact that the United States was poorly prepared for a host of dangerous climate change impacts, such as flooding, extreme weather, heat waves, prolonged drought, sea level rise, storm surges, and so on. Piltz and the CSW team, which included CSPW’s Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky for several years, was concerned that censorship and suppression of scientific information on regional climate change impacts useful for warning the public was slowing and impeding the ability of communities across the nation to ready themselves for what was to come. CSW launched a National Climate Change Preparedness Initiative in 2008 and is credited for being the first to introduce the notion of “preparedness” in the national conversation about climate change impacts.
The following are some of CSW’s most-viewed posts: