Has the White House interfered on global warming reports?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

More than 120 scientists across seven federal agencies say they have been pressured to remove references to "climate change" and "global warming" from a range of documents, including press releases and communications with Congress. Roughly the same number say appointees altered the meaning of scientific findings on climate contained in communications related to their research.

These findings, part of a new report compiled by two watchdog groups, shed new light on complaints by a scattering of scientists over the past year who have publicly complained that Bush administration appointees have tried to mute or muzzle what researchers have to say about global warming.

"We are beyond the anecdotal," says Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), one of the two groups, referring to press reports of a dozen instances of interference that have emerged over the past 12 months. "We now have evidence to support the view that this problem goes deeper than just these few high-profile cases."

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Global-warming science must be accurately represented to enable lawmakers to craft adequate policies to control the problem and adapt to climate change, Dr. Grifo says. Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other agencies working on climate-related issues are doing excellent work. "But it's under threat, and they are struggling to get their results out" to the general public, she says.

Grifo described some of the report's findings during hearings Tuesday before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and during a press briefing afterward. The two groups say they will release additional material next week, when the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation holds similar hearings.

On the eve of 'consensus' report

The hearings and the new report come as climate scientists from around the world have gathered in Paris to put the finishing touches on a comprehensive "state of the science" report on global warming. The volume is a "consensus" document that summarizes the past five years of peer-reviewed research on the subject and is set for release Friday.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering several pieces of legislation that would impose controls on industrial carbon-dioxide emissions – blamed for trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing to the noticeable warming effect on the earth's climate.

The question is not so much about federal scientists' ability to publish their results in specialized journals that few but their colleagues read, the report's authors say. Instead, the trouble arises when agencies translate "journalese" into language the general public or lawmakers can grasp for use in official government reports or media releases.

The UCS is an environmental group with a longstanding interest in the politicization of science. The other watchdog group behind the report, the Government Accountability Project (GAP), supports strong protections for whistleblowers.

Their report combines a written survey the UCS gave to 1,600 scientists (of which 279 responded) with in-depth interviews GAP held with some 40 scientists and officials, such as agency press officers. GAP also pored over thousands of pages of documents gathered via the Freedom of Information Act, says Tarek Maassarani, a staff attorney with the group. [ Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Maassarani's last name.]

Sometimes scientists and career public-affairs officers would send press releases related to global warming up the ladder for review, then never hear back. Or appointees changed the wording in ways that scientists felt distorted the results or their implications, and the researchers weren't given a chance to argue their case. One of the most blatant examples focuses on the issue of hurricanes and global warming. According to the report, in 2005, the White House stepped in to block an interview MSNBC sought with NOAA scientist Thomas Knutson, who a year earlier had published a modeling study on the potential link between hurricanes and global warming. The interview was to focus on new research by other scientists that suggested global warming has contributed to trends toward stronger hurricanes.

Documents GAP obtained showed that instead of approving subsequent interviews with Dr. Knutson, high-level public-affairs officers routed interview requests to NOAA scientist Chris Landsea in Miami, who argued, in part, that the quality of global hurricane data was too poor and inconsistent to draw meaningful conclusions. In another instance, reporters interested in interviewing a NOAA scientist who had coauthored a new research paper concluding that modern warming "is dominated by human influences" were sent instead to then-deputy administrator Jim Mahoney.

Details of interference

In all, 150 scientists reported a combined 435 instances of real or perceived "interference" related to global-warming research within the past five years. This has led to self-censorship, Mr. Maassarani says,

During Tuesday's hearing, additional evidence came from Rick Piltz, who resigned from his position as senior associate with the administration's Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) in 2005 over what he saw as repeated instances of interference in the program's reporting process – often with pressure coming from two conservative think tanks that have spearheaded efforts to debunk global warming. One of their key contacts in the White House, he says, was the chief of staff of the president's Council on Environmental Quality, Philip Cooney, who served as an attorney and lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute prior to joining the council.

The UCS and GAP offer what they call a model policy that they say would reduce the likelihood of political interference in communicating scientific results on climate. "We respect the idea that policy needs to be coordinated within agencies," Grifo says. "We're not talking about having scientists coming out with policy" but rather with their specific results.

The issue of climate-science politicization reemerged last year following a report in The New York Times about a NASA public affairs officer's attempt to muzzle James Hansen, a noted climate researcher at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Subsequent stories alluded to similar activities at NOAA.

This led NASA Administrator Michael Griffin and NOAA's chief, retired Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., to issue strongly worded statements in support of scientific openness and the need to communicate federal science to taxpayers accurately, and without political interference. But while some NASA researchers say the climate has improved in their agency, many in NOAA say they are still waiting to see change.

It's unclear whether the hearings this week and next will lead to legislative changes to reduce political interference. Some analysts suggest that in the governmental realm, politics and science are tightly intertwined. Roger Pielke Jr., a science-policy specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, noted in testimony before the committee Tuesday that selecting which results to highlight with a press release is by nature a political act.

Yet even Dr. Pielke says that "the Bush admininstration has engaged in hypercontrolling strategies for controlling information" on global warming.

Adds Grifo, "It's time for the public to stand up and be angry, too. It's their knowledge, their scientists, just like Washington is their capital."

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