By Tom Yulsman
08/20/2005 07:41:22 PM
Scientists usually pride themselves as being above the political fray. But earlier this summer, three climate researchers not only found themselves at the center of the battle over global warming but also victims of a political inquisition.
The inquisitor was Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. His targets were Michael E. Mann of the University of Pennsylvania and two colleagues. The congressman demanded that the scientists turn over records related to every bit of climate research they had ever overseen. Among other things, Barton asked for a listing of every study they had completed, every source of funding for their work, the location of all of their data archives, a detailed description of everything they had done with the data since publication of their study and all of their computer code. Barton also demanded answers to a series of questions that in tone and substance seemed appropriate for a criminal investigation.
The scientists' alleged crime? A reconstruction of climate history showing that the latter half of the 20th century was warmer than any other period in the past 1,000 years. The reconstruction, a graph whose shape has earned it the moniker of the "hockey stick," was one important piece of evidence among many that humans are causing global warming. This view is held by the vast majority of climate scientists and is reflected in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Barton says his probe was motivated by the findings of Steve McIntyre, a mining industry executive, and Ross McKitrick, an environmental economist, who claim to have invalidated the so-called hockey stick graph. Never mind that the Canadians' study, published in a self-avowed political "journal" without peer review, has itself been invalidated. Barton's real motivation is suggested by the company he keeps. The top industries supporting him since 1989 have been oil and gas and electric utilities, which have contributed more than $1.7 million to his campaign coffers.
The congressman's inquisition of three mainstream climate scientists has brought attention once again to a festering issue: the politicization of science. It gained publicity during the presidential campaign when the Union of Concerned Scientists accused the White House of abusing science at federal agencies. "There is significant evidence that the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression, and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented," the report charged.
John H. Marburger III, science adviser to President Bush and a self-described "lifelong Democrat," called some of the report's conclusions "preposterous." Whether they really are is unclear. But it is only fair to point out that the union is a left-leaning advocacy group. And just as it decries politicization of science, so do conservative groups, which charge that the same tactics have long been used to support environmental regulation.
If what government researchers themselves say is any indication, however, then political interference with science is real and very troubling. A survey of 460 scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, completed in June by the Union of Concerned Scientists, bears this out. Among the findings, 53 percent of respondents said they knew of cases in which "commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention." And 58 percent knew of cases in which "high-level U.S. Department of Commerce administrators and appointees have inappropriately altered NOAA Fisheries' determinations."
These findings mirror those of an earlier survey of 1,400 biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Even more troubling, the administration seems to be censoring politically inconvenient science. In 2002, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency removed a section on global warming from an annual report on pollution, after the White House had heavily edited the section for political reasons.
This fits a pattern of censorship. In March, Rick S. Piltz resigned his position as a senior associate at the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, citing pervasive politicization of science by the Bush administration. In a 14-page memo he sent in June to officials who deal with climate change at 10 agencies, he described in detail how the White House was interfering with the scientific mission of the program. "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," he wrote. 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," Piltz added.
One "flagrant and fundamental example," he said, involved a scientific report on the potential consequences of climate change in the United States. This "National Assessment" was produced with the help of hundreds of scientists and went through extensive review by experts. Yet the White House, Piltz wrote, "decided early on to essentially send the National Assessment into a black hole." It did this by deleting it from reports that would be seen by Congress and the public.
Recent documentation unearthed by New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin supports Piltz's charges. The documents show that a White House official edited climate science reports to discount the human impact on warming. Philip A. Cooney, then chief of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and a former official with the American Petroleum Institute, made dozens of changes. For example, in a 2002 draft of a summary of government climate-change research called "Our Changing Planet," Cooney crossed out a paragraph on shrinking glaciers and snow pack. In margin notes, he claimed the paragraph was "straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings."
It's simply not appropriate for a political operative to make a scientific judgment like this, says William Collins, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a lead author of a major report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scheduled for release in 2007. "It is an abuse of that person's position of power to edit a document in that way."
If censorship of government reports were not enough, the administration is trying to muzzle government scientists as well. A prominent example is James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and a respected climate researcher. According to Hansen, in 2004 Sean O'Keefe, administrator of the space agency at the time, instructed him to stop talking publicly about human contributions to global warming.
The Bush administration is not alone in this, as the Joe Barton affair demonstrates. The congressman clearly is trying to intimidate researchers into shutting up about global warming, and also to sow doubt about the validity of climate science.
Caspar Ammann, an NCAR researcher who recently reproduced the hockey stick graph of Michael Mann and his colleagues, says Barton's inquiry is not intended to take a fair and balanced look at the science. Barton is asking for "every piece of work they ever did, every grant in their whole scientific career," he says. "This is just ridiculous." Ammann concludes that the congressman and his colleagues are "fishing for something somewhere that they can use to discredit the scientific integrity of these people, and therefore the result, and therefore the IPCC final conclusion."
Abusing science for political ends didn't start with the Bush administration. And Republican policymakers have every right to favor the free market over command-and-control regulation. The president and Joe Barton were elected by the people, so on issues of policy the final call is theirs. Moreover, science doesn't tell us what to do, if anything, about vexing environmental issues such as global warming. It does not provide "the answer" - just imperfect information, which policymakers can consider before making their decisions. In the end, that information naturally will matter less than the values held by policymakers. This is true of both Republicans and Democrats.
That being said, this White House and some of its supporters in Congress have gone beyond their legitimate policymaking roles to interfere with the free exercise of scientific inquiry. They have also censored scientific information and the scientists themselves for political reasons. The taxpayers who funded this research have every right to hear what it has yielded so they can make up their own minds - based on an accurate picture of the science, and their own values.
If the president has a convincing case on issues like climate change, then let him make it forthrightly, without filtering the science through his propaganda machine. The fact that he and his supporters resort instead to censorship and intimidation suggests that the president has no case.
As James Hansen so aptly put it recently, "There is something rotten here in Washington."
Tom Yulsman is co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado
Informant: Teresa Binstock
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