At least since 2003, and especially after hurricane Katrina hit, the White House has broadly attempted to control which climate scientists could speak with reporters, as well as editing scientists' congressional testimony on climate science and key legal opinions, according to a new report by a House committee.
"The Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policy makers and the public about the dangers of global warming," said the report, which is the result of a 16-month probe by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "The White House exerted unusual control over the public statements of federal scientists on climate change issues."
To some observers, the House investigation, which drew on 27,000 documents gathered from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the US Department of Commerce, is notable as the most comprehensive assessment so far of alleged manipulation of climate science by this White House. It includes previously unknown elements – such as a 2003 incident in which it says top presidential environment adviser James Connaughton personally helped edit the Environmental Protection Agency's draft legal opinion that denied the agency had authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. (That EPA position was reversed by the US Supreme Court in a ruling this spring.)
Yet much of the material in the House committee report, which was released Monday, corroborates press accounts and congressional testimony that has dribbled out over the past few years. The White House and House Republicans strongly dispute the report, which is expected to be adopted as the House report. A White House spokesman describes it as "rehashed and recycled rhetoric."
But not Rick Piltz, director of the climate-science watch program at the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog organization. He and others say that while many presidents have shaped policy, the White House's efforts this time were about more than organizing a coherent policy message.
"What this report does is really show the extent to which communications – press releases and contacts with the media – all had to be routed through the CEQ," he says.
The report also concluded that the White House:
•Was "particularly active in stifling [scientists'] discussions of the link between increased hurricane intensity and global warming."
•Sought "to minimize the significance and certainty of climate change by extensively editing government climate change reports."
•Edited "EPA legal opinions as well as newspaper opinion articles on climate change."
What began in 2006 as a bipartisan investigation turned into a largely Democratic report. A "minority views" statement issued by Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, who was committee chairman in July 2006 when the probe began, called it a "political diatribe."
A call to the CEQ for comment on the report and for Dr. Connaughton's response was diverted to the main White House press office since he is at climate talks in Bali.
"We think this report is a thinly veiled attempt to distract attention from the administration's efforts to advance its commitment to the pursuit of sound environment, energy, and economic policy at the Bali summit," says Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.
Concerning Connaughton's reported involvement in crafting an EPA legal opinion, she said that was not surprising.
"The finding that he was involved in the drafting of an EPA opinion is hardly news," Ms. Lawrimore says. "He's the adviser to the president on environmental policy, and it would be odd if he didn't offer his thoughts and input on environmental law and policy."
Mr. Piltz sees it differently. He served under the Bush administration until spring 2005, when he resigned and exposed White House editing of the national climate assessment. As a senior staffer with the US Climate Change Science Program, he also served under President Clinton and saw marked contrasts between the two. "It's true that every administration has its own policy, and there's always a tendency to shade your communications," Piltz says. "But the difference here is that the White House science office under previous administrations was not at war with the mainstream science community."
The report adds other details. For example, while changes to the testimony of Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were widely reported, it was less known that other comments to Congress by Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, were also heavily edited, the report says.
Dr. Karl, it says, "was not allowed to comment in his written testimony that 'modern climate change is dominated by human influences,' that 'we are venturing into the unknown territory with changes in climate,' or that 'it is very likely (>95 percent probability) that humans are largely responsible for many of the observed changes in climate.' "
Instead of saying that global warming "is playing" a role in increased hurricane intensity, his comment became "may play" a role.