Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Climate change: hide the assessment

Officials at the government’s Climate Change Science Program edited scientific documents and controlled climate scientists media exposure


During an administration in which all three branches of government debated greenhouse gas regulation, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) was busy suppressing references to a landmark 2000 national assessment on climate change and delaying the congressionally-mandated update of that document. In 2005, Rick Piltz, a senior associate at CCSP, blew the whistle and resigned over politicization that he felt “undermine[d] the credibility and integrity of the program” — a 13-agency research effort overseen by the White House. Piltz testified in an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that reported White House officials heavily edited scientific documents and controlled which climate scientists could speak to the media. Philip A. Cooney, a former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, spearheaded the editing for the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) — including 181 edits made to CCSP’s 2003 strategic plan. CEQ deleted nine references to the national assessment — a document that sought to identify key climatic vulnerabilities in the United States. The oversight investigation highlighted other reports by CCSP and the Environmental Protection Agency in which material on climate change was significantly edited or deleted altogether. Cooney resigned after the revelations of his edits (and then went to work for Exxon-Mobil), but the administration called it normal procedure for political appointees to edit work by government scientists. Officials said it was done to echo a 2001 National Academy of Sciences report, but the oversight committee characterized the practice as cherry-picking science. Meanwhile, CCSP failed to meet a required November 2004 deadline to update the national assessment, electing instead to wait and issue 21 separate reports over a multi-year period. Those delays prompted criticism from the Government Accountability Office and the National Research Council. An environmental coalition sued the administration for its failure to issue an integrated report of its findings, and in 2007 a U.S. district judge ordered that assessment to be issued before June 2008. CCSP issued a report the following May, prompting whistleblower Piltz to say that “[a]fter seven years of denial, disinformation, cover-up, and delay, in its waning months, the Bush administration is finally beginning to allow the publication of reports that acknowledge this scientific reality.” The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy did not respond to a request for comment, but in a press release the office’s associate director said, “This assessment represents a comprehensive look at the effects of climate change for the United States and will be yet another tool for the nation’s decision-makers to use when planning for the future.”

As of December 8, CCSP had completed 14 of its 21 technical reports on climate change. It plans to issue the final seven by the end of 2008. The program also issued the first draft of an integrated report in July, which the administration said “will provide a single coherent analysis of the current understanding of climate change science.”

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