Lowball Warming

There are few who understand the ins and outs of the U.S. government's climate-change research program better than Rick Piltz. A political scientist by training, Piltz moved to Washington, D.C., from Texas during the scorching summer of 1988, when NASA climatologist James Hansen put global warming on the map with his famous congressional testimony warning that the greenhouse effect had been triggered by humans. Piltz eventually wound up working for a decade as a senior official in the climate research program, launched in 1989 and now a $ 2 billion dollar a year enterprise. An insider who coordinated the editing of many program documents, Piltz resigned in March, charging that White House politics has undermined the credibility and integrity of the program. Now he has some very revealing stories to tell.

On Wednesday, June 8, The New York Times told some of those stories to the American public. Based on documents provided by Piltz and the Government Accountability Project, the paper reported that a White House official formerly with the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's trade association, had edited the text of government scientific documents on climate change. The changes, according to the Times, generally had the effect of casting doubt on the increasingly strong scientific conclusion that human beings are causing global warming and its attendant environmental effects.

In a 14-page complaint memo written following his resignation from the government, Piltz went further: "I believe the overarching problem is that the administration … does not want and has acted to impede forthright communication of the state of climate science and its implications for society." As Piltz goes on to say, although he has worked in different administrations, none has been so bad: "I have not seen a situation like the one that has developed under this administration during the past four years, in which politicization by the White House has fed back directly into the science program in such a way as to undermine the credibility and integrity of the program in its relationship to the research community, to program managers, to policymakers, and to the public interest."

To hear Piltz tell it, the White House has essentially broken the back of the U.S. climate-change science program by suppressing one of its key documents: the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, a 2000 report loathed by industry that explains national and regional vulnerabilities to global warming (decreased snowpack in the West, for instance, will lead to dwindling water supplies for an already parched region). Piltz relates in his complaint memo that references to the report have been "systematically" edited out of government scientific documents, and claims that the administration has deliberately sent the report into "a black hole." As Piltz put it to me in an interview, "There's got to be a special circle in hell reserved for people who play games with scientific information."

The stories we're now hearing from Rick Piltz sound highly credible to anyone who's followed previous accusations about the way the Bush administration handles science, especially climate science. Such charges have come from multiple government insiders (though few have put their names alongside the charges as Piltz has), and have been reported on by many different major newspapers. They have even prompted an unprecedented protest against the administration's scientific stewardship by a stunning cast of luminaries organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The big picture, in short, is nothing new. But in the case of the revelations that have come courtesy of Rick Piltz, it's the details that count -- as well as the timing.

Even though Piltz's complaints were far broader, journalists immediately latched on to a key nugget: A lawyer formerly with the American Petroleum Institute named Philip Cooney, who had previously lobbied against the Kyoto Protocol, had been the White House editor of the scientific documents in his role as chief of staff on the Council on Environmental Quality. Here was a classic fox-guarding-the-henhouse story that everyone could understand and get easily outraged about. The blogs went nuts over the news. Moreover, the charges came just as Tony Blair arrived in the United States to pressure George W. Bush to do something about global warming. Blair's visit -- a prelude to the coming G8 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, where more pressure will be applied -- catapulted the issue from an environmental obscurity to the center of pack media coverage.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan was thrust into a journalistic feeding frenzy, where his defenses of the White House's "interagency review process" for scientific reports did not impress. McClellan uttered that phrase as if the mere fact that such a process exists provided an automatic justification for the routine editing of scientific content by political actors. It didn't wash. Before long, The Daily Show was mocking the Bush White House for its willful and devious denials of global warming, Cooney had resigned from his government post (promptly moving to work for Exxon Mobil, a key corporate sponsor of global-warming skepticism), and USA Today was declaring, "The debate's over: Globe is warming."

What hath Rick Piltz wrought? It's too soon to tell, but there's a new feeling in the air about global warming. It's a sense that the Bush administration may finally be held to account, by the media and by Congress, for four years of obstruction and denial while a planetary problem steadily worsened.

Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a TAP Online columnist. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.