Piltz is the director of the Climate Science Watch at the Government Accountability Project. He is former senior associate with the U.S. government Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), which coordinates the climate change research of 13 different federal agencies. Previous to that (1991-1994), he was a Congressional staffer for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. In March 2005, Piltz resigned from his position with the Climate Change Science Program over tampering with scientific reports by representatives of the Bush administration. Here, Piltz discusses the events that led him to resign and the influence of the fossil fuels industry over the Bush administration's environmental policy. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted Nov. 13, 2006.
... Let's start with your role in the Climate Change Science Program. What did you do exactly?
I went into the coordination office of what was then called the U.S. Global Change Research Program in the spring of 1995, and I was there for 10 years. ... That office was involved in strategic planning, communications, keeping all the interagency working groups together. The thing that made it interesting was that it was where the world of science and the world of politics collided. On the one hand, you had the career federal science technocratic managers and the science research community that they're hardwired to; and on the other hand you have the administration political appointees hovering over the governance and direction of that program and very, very concerned about any communications about the state of knowledge coming out of that program. And that's where the gatekeepers would step in, and I experienced that from my position there working on the program reports.
Well, it was the end result of a long process; it wasn't just one thing that happened at the end, really. I had worked under two different administrations during that 10 years, and there's none of them that are above criticism. But something changed with the current administration in the sense that they got crosswise the mainstream climate change science community on how to communicate.
It happened really starting in the first year of the new administration. At the same time that the president was pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the White House science office was telling us to start deleting all references to the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts, a major study that we had just completed.
And then it got worse. Starting in 2002, '03, '04, the White House Council on Environmental Quality [CEQ], which is a political office represented by their chief of staff, Phil Cooney, started exercising a kind of political policing function in directing the program not to even make any reference to the existence of the National Assessment, marking up reports to Congress to play down the global warming problem and so forth.
I continued to work there because I love that program. It's a very strong program as a research operation; it's really a national treasure. We were concerned with trying to buffer it from political influence, and the immediate working environment of the career professional people was a very high-quality experience. But it finally got to the point where I felt like to continue in that position was to be complicit somehow in what I saw to be a conspiracy of silence about how the administration had abused the science program.
In 2001, did you get a telephone call to tell you to delete particular items?
It was done by telephone call, right. There was nothing on paper.
Nothing on paper?
No. They've learned to a fair extent how to govern without putting certain things on paper. I had a few things [come] my way that were seen as having some significance just because they were on paper and thus [are] indicative of, I think, a broader pattern. But a lot of what happened just happened without it being reflected in the minutes of meetings or documents that could be gotten under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA].
And that first time that had happened and you were told to delete specific information, what did you think was going on?
It was obviously political. The program, at the request of the previous administration, had commissioned a major assessment of the implications of climate change for the United States. A whole series of reports was coming out: They had been given to the president; they were independently produced by an eminent panel; they had been transmitted to Congress; they were being published by Cambridge University Press.
And it was time to give the program's next annual report to Congress: Where are we? What have we learned? What are we studying? How much money do we need? How is it working on that? And there was a short passage in that that said the National Assessment has been published, and here it is, and here's what it's about. And even that was unacceptable.
Then in 2002, 2003, the program made a huge effort to create a strategic plan for climate change research for the next 10 years, and any time the National Assessment was referred to in any draft of that plan, it was systematically removed under the pressure of the White House, to the point where when they finally published that plan in the summer of 2003, all references to the National Assessment had been deleted. ...
Talk to me, if you would, about specific language, where you specifically saw edited language that you knew was incorrect.
If it had to do with observed global warming or projected global warming, the language that they would introduce would create an enhanced sense of uncertainty.
... "May" instead of "will," or "may" instead of "likely to" -- anything that would just give the sense that there was some fundamental unknown or unknowability about things that in fact were generally accepted in the science community. If it had to do with projected impacts on water resources, precipitation, ecosystems, infrastructure, they really tried to shy away from that language. They would tend to delete passages or complain that too much emphasis was given to the adverse impacts: "What about the beneficial impacts of global warming? Isn't there more balance? It just sounds too much like the National Assessment."
... Did they make the argument that the science isn't conclusive and so we need to soften these things, or were there other considerations?
Well, the political editing was not coming from science experts. ... There's always a kind of hashing back and forth about what's the best way to communicate something, but our experience before was that that was done among people who were all broadly within the mainstream science community, and it was just a communication issue. This was something else. This was something that was politically driven and systematically designed to create an enhanced sense of uncertainty about global warming, to play down the impacts.
The edits all leaned in a single direction, and if it was a report that had already been published, they would cherry-pick it and misuse it. There was a famous National Academy of Sciences [NAS] report that the White House commissioned in 2001 and came out in June of 2001, "Climate Change [Science: An Analysis of] Some Key Questions." They basically echoed the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] about observed and projected warming; they drew very heavily on the National Assessment for the discussion of impacts, and they identified a range of scientific issues that still need to be studied. And forever after, the White House only referred to the list of questions that still need to be studied. They cherry-picked that paragraph, and they [left] aside the rest of the report that adopts the more generally accepted consensus about global warming. ...
Now, in your opinion, were documents then released to the public that you think were wrong? Did they edit those scientific documents to make them wrong?
They edited scientific program documents to create an impression that was different from the way the science experts would have communicated the message.
I mean, do scientists recognize this as [their] own? Would I be upset, [if I were they,] that I'd signed my name to it?
Well, it's more a matter of what was missing, what was taken out. So you would read it, and you would say, "Well, this doesn't really tell the whole story; this is not the way we would say it." And if you laid side by side the way it was originally drafted by the federal science career people and the way it finally came out, they would say we have weakened it.
Editor's note: On April 17, 2007, NOAA added this article about warming and hurricane intensity.
... It's, to this day, the most systematic effort that's ever been undertaken to assess the potential consequences of climate change for the United States. ...
The biggest one ever. There's never been another one like this?
No. This was really the first time that a federal government, using the federal science program as its vehicle, had commissioned a report to address the question: What are the potential consequences, for the United States, of climate variability and change?
So the report was produced over a period of several years and resulted in a big stack of documents: this highly readable overview report and much more in-depth foundation reports and a whole series of regional and sector reports -- mid-Atlantic, Gulf Coast, Great Plains, Pacific Islands, water, coastal zones, forests -- a whole lot of issues. ...
Was it a scary report? Did it say that things would be bad?
Well, it was a balanced report. In some cases it said, actually, as long as our institutions remain strong, we can probably deal with most of it. If we have a good, strong public health infrastructure we can probably deal with the effects of heat waves. We probably can deal with agricultural productivity, but there are going to be a lot of particular effects on regions, and a lot of it is likely to be adverse, likely to be disruptive. ...
So it was a comprehensive first step, first of all, to define these issues. Second of all, it initiated a process of putting the leading scientists together with what they called stakeholders -- state and local policymakers, civil society -- to have a dialogue about, what are your concerns, what are our concerns, what can we tell you, what you need to have researched?
So it was a process that was put in place painstakingly over a period of several years, and it was intended to go forward. We should already have the second National Assessment out by now and be going into the third. ... They killed this process. It's a scientific integrity story; it's a censorship story; but it's also, what has the country lost in the last six years from not having high-level support from the leadership to tell science and civil society to get together and have this dialogue and develop reports and develop issues?
So it blocks national preparedness, and I think that's a modus operandi of this administration. I just happen to be particularly conversant with how it's played out in the global warming area, but it's not unique to global warming. There's a misrepresentation of the intelligence, and there's an animus toward proactive government to be prepared to deal with problems that arise.
This [assessment] was worked on during the Clinton administration but finalized during the early days of the Bush administration?
Yes, the overview and foundation documents came out at the end of 2000, early 2001. So it was prepared during the 1998, '99, 2000 period, and some of those regional reports came out even a little bit later.
And when did you know that there was going to be trouble? ...
Well, in the report to Congress that was being prepared during 2001 -- it was for fiscal 2002; it was an annual report that's required by law -- there was material in there about the publication of the National Assessment. ... They took it out of that, and next, the first thing they got their hands on was to take it out of their next report to Congress and all subsequent reports to Congress.
Then they took it out of the strategic plan, and they let it slip into one chapter of the national communication to the U.N. climate treaty secretariat, and then they disowned that report. Then there was a lawsuit filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute [CEI] that tried to demand that even links to PDF files of these documents on the Web be all eliminated from the Internet. This is taxpayer-funded, federal government stuff, and the global warming denial machine went to court to erase it from the Web. That case was dismissed with prejudice; you can still find some of those links, but it was a vanishing act.
Can you read the Assessment today? Can you look on a government Web site and read that document?
You can find the overview report and the foundation report and a number of the regional reports at USGCRP.gov, and you can also buy the overview and foundation reports from Cambridge University Press; I think they're still both in print. The regional and sector reports were never distributed by the government. They're not kept track of; they don't promote them; they don't use them. Some of them you could probably still get a copy of, but there's no ready way to put the whole thing together, because they've just abandoned the whole process by which that was supposed to be happening.
But they did not remove the links to the key reports from the Web. I think that they drew back from taking that step, but they did put a disclaimer on the page that links to those reports that says these reports were not subjected to the Data Quality Act. ... These reports were vetted and vetted and vetted and vetted by so many scientists it was painstaking. But this [disclaimer] enabled the global warming denialists to crow and say: "Aha! You see? The government admits that this is junk science." And it's just outrageous that nobody in the federal government was allowed to offer a defense to that.
If you look at the list of authors of the National Assessment, there are people who have chaired panels at the National Academy of Sciences; I mean, they don't put out junk. It was junk lawyers ... filing lawsuits, calling this junk science and getting away with it, with the total complicity of the Bush administration at the political level, and enforcing a conspiracy of silence on the federal agencies to not say anything about it.
And to this day, that is in place. Phil Cooney may have left his position in the White House last year and gone to work for ExxonMobil, but his legacy is that he told the federal agencies to stop referring to this document, and they still don't use it. They should be using it and building on it; they won't even refer to its existence.
You have reported on your Web site and in your organization that there have been scientists who have been silenced, but you've always said that the burying of the National Assessment was a more important act by the government. Why? ...
Well, they're all important, and they're all part of the same fabric. The attempt to muzzle Jim Hansen of NASA was a spectacularly bad example of the kind of political intervention of this administration, and Jim Hansen pushed back. Now, he has the stature to push back and get a lot of coverage, and so they had to back off of him. Other scientists aren't necessarily quite so strong and will tend to pull back from courting controversy.
But I think ... this process of the National Assessment, first of all, was a slap in the face to hundreds of scientists who worked on this for years to try to deliver to the nation an assessment of what the implications of global warming for the country. And to have it just absolutely trashed in Washington -- and the career people having their integrity compromised by being told not to use it, not to refer to it, not to build on it, not to commission another one -- what it does in terms of a large-scale suppression of an intelligence-gathering enterprise, what it does to block a process that's essential for national preparedness, to me, makes it the central climate change science scandal of this administration. ...
[Do] you come from a technical background?
I come from a policy background; I'm not a climate scientist. I'm academically trained as a social scientist, and I originally came into this more from the policy side. I worked on the professional staff of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology for four years in the early and mid-90s, supporting the committee's oversight of climate change issues and the U.S. Global Change Research Program [USGCRP], and that's where I got tied into the science program in the science community.
At this point I think I know a great deal more about the science than most political people and a great deal more about the politics than most scientists. So on a good day, I'm a bridge between those two worlds, but I don't purport to be a science expert. ...
In the Bush administration, there were gatekeepers in the Department of Commerce above you. What was the profile of those people? Were they scientists? Were they policy experts? ...
The ones who were the worst offenders did not: the chief of staff [Cooney] at CEQ, who was a lawyer. The director of the Climate Change Science Program, Jim Mahoney, [who was also] the assistant secretary of commerce for [NOAA], has a science background. He was a past president of the American Meteorological Society, also a Senate-confirmed Bush political appointee, and so he walked back and forth between the science program and the White House. I believe that someone like that -- he was like a moderate in a very hard-line environment -- tried to limit the damage, but at the same time I think was complicit in some of the things that were done that I think politicized and affected the credibility of the program.
You quit in March of 2005, and, if I'm correct about this, you helped a New York Times reporter out Phil Cooney [for his editing of scientific reports], correct?
Yes. ... We turned over some things to The New York Times. I had been so frustrated on the inside: Why doesn't somebody cover this? Why doesn't somebody cover that? And I realized that they couldn't cover it because they didn't have the story, and the only way they were going get the story is if someone like myself put it out.
I gave the Times an exclusive because I knew the reporter [Andy Revkin] would not butcher the story, because I knew that he was conversant and he understood the material he was working with. Other than that, I had no idea -- other than I expected there will probably be one good story -- what kind of resonance it might have or whether anybody would be interested. ...
And what was the reaction?
The reaction to the story? It was really quite a remarkable reaction. I was surprised. My goodness, it was the day it came out, I did interviews with basically all the commercial networks except Fox, and NPR and a bunch of the newspapers and The Washington Post started covering the issue. It really is amazing what happens with a front-page story in the Times, the way it gets picked up all over the world. Within hours you're on the news service in Kuala Lumpur, [Malaysia]; they're rewriting Andy Revkin.
So I think the story struck a nerve. And it was, I suppose, helped along by the fact that a couple of days later, the chief of staff of CEQ [Cooney] resigned and a couple days after that took a position with ExxonMobil; he had come out of the oil industry as a lobbyist. So I think that gave the story a certain kind of concise narrative shape. You didn't really need to know a whole lot about trace gases in the atmosphere or what was happening to polar bears to see what the fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop component of the story was.
So people who covered a political beat rather than just a science beat were able to pick up the story, and that gave it some legs.
Phil Cooney leaves the White House; he goes back to Exxon, which is the company he'd come from?
Well, he had been with the American Petroleum Institute [API], which is the lobbying arm of the whole oil industry, but the big player in their propaganda effort has been ExxonMobil. ... We can see from some e-mail traffic between CEQ and the Competitive Enterprise Institute that they had a strategizing-together, colluding relationship.
Do you have those e-mails?
Well, I have the famous one that Greenpeace put out that was from Myron Ebell at CEI to Phil Cooney at CEQ when this thing came out, the gist of which was, "Well, a fine mess you've created here. Why did you let this happen?" You know, "We can't help you guys if you keep stepping in it; now what are we going to do?" ... There was some irritation on CEI's part that Cooney wasn't being aggressive enough in censoring things or something, but whether the White House had specifically solicited CEI to sue them [to suppress the National Assessment] -- I mean, one can suspect it. ... I'm not even sure it's an essential point.
No, although I would say that by that time, a fair amount of what was going on was self-censorship by the agencies. There was a certain amount of the same kind of activity from the next chief of staff at CEQ. Not quite as aggressive.
Really, though, I think that all of the activity that comes out of the Council on Environmental Quality is driven by the head of that, Jim Connaughton; anybody from CEQ who's doing anything is really acting as his agent, and he's really acting as the president's agent. So there's some musical chairs going on. One thing that I've noticed is that among what I would call the global warming denialists, they have a tendency to move around from job to job so that they never stay in one place very long. And when I say denialist, I'm not talking about people who are scientists who are skeptical on some point; I'm talking about people who are clearly maneuvering with a political agenda.
But take, for example, someone like Michael Catanzaro, who used to write for a publication called Human Events, which is a very ideologically conservative publication. ... Then he goes to work as a communications guy for Sen. [James] Inhofe [R-Okla.], on the Senate Environment [and Public Works] Committee. Then he turns up at CEQ, and now he's the chief of staff for the deputy administrator at EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and I think anything that goes on the EPA global warming Web site probably has to pass under his nose and under his hand. ...
Let me ask you about Frederick Seitz: How much influence did he have over the way that the science was argued in the media?
... I'm not sure how current his influence is, but early on, because he had a prominent position in the science community, when he stepped forward as a prominent skeptic, I think it had some influence.
I think for a long time people in the media who tried to cover this story -- global warming is such a complicated issue to try to get your arms around, the different science components of it and how it relates to economics and society -- not that many people felt that they had that much expertise. And the fallback position for reporters is to do kind of a point/counterpoint thing. If you get something that's a strong statement that reflects basically what's coming out of the climate science community, there was, I think, a sense of pressure to not just go with that but to find someone who would say, "I don't agree with that," and report it for balance. ...
But I think we're probably kind of past that now. There are a number of scientists of greater or lesser prominence who argue in a contrarian position, but their views are not widely accepted in the science community, and some of them have really crossed the line. There's an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State named Bill Gray, who has a lot of cache because he's the hurricane forecaster maven; at the beginning of every hurricane season, he says how many hurricanes are going to hit the United States and so forth. It's always good for a news story, and then he uses that opportunity to mock global warming. But his colleagues regard him as just absolutely impervious to the evidence on that. ...
Do you think the American media failed the public by not being able to wrap their arms around this story and report it in a way that made sense to their viewers and their readers and listeners?
I think the coverage is improving, but it has been frustrating for a long time, the fairly low level of quality of coverage. There are a few leading outlets that make a serious attempt at journalism, but there's only one beat newspaper reporter in the whole country who has global environment as a beat, and he's with The New York Times.
The science reporting is either nonexistent or kind of ghettoized. If there's a science reporter, they're covering a little bit of everything. Global warming tends to get pushed aside as being environmental or science, and so it's not a political story. And I think that people who cover the politics, the White House press corps or whatever, they tend not to be content experts. Unless it can be framed in terms of a battle among political people, they don't know what to do with it. ...
... 2003, 2004, there is some effort to continue to make the Assessment go away, but at the same time, the Pentagon ... takes on global warming, and they issue a report that essentially mirrors what the scientists have been saying.
Yeah, there was a Pentagon planning office that commissioned a report ... on, what is the worst case scenario? What would we have to deal with? So it was a worst case scenario report: abrupt climate change, major impacts, environmental refugees. ...
But how did that play into that debate at the time? ...
I'm not aware that they did anything with the report. I think they hastened to say, "Well, this is not official policy; this is a report." I'm not even sure that they issued the report; I think it just came out that there was this report. And so on the one hand there was a desire to sweep it under the rug and not have it become a topic of general discussion. ...
On the other hand, there probably was some tendency on the other side to overhype the report, to say, "Bush's own secretary of defense is telling him that there's going to be a climate catastrophe, and he won't listen." That's not really what was happening. The Pentagon commissions these kinds of scenarios all the time, and they're important exercises, but it wasn't like the Joint Chiefs of Staff were taking this to Bush and making an issue out of it. I think it was too hyped in that particular sense.
... This issue has become politicized ... in the way that you just characterized how the Pentagon report was played. ... So what do you say to the average American who has to try to figure out how to get the politics out of this and think of it in a clear way? ...
I think it's absolutely true; the issue is exceptionally politicized now and really has been for some time. Even when I was working for the Congress, if there was a hearing on global warming, you knew, whether the member was a Democrat or a Republican and whether they were for or against the administration, you could pretty much predict the kind of rhetorical position they were going to take on global warming.
They weren't conversant with the science, and they tended to be more political and lawyerly about it and use that scientific information [in] that cherry-picked, instrumental way. And with the advocacy groups, there's a pitched battle on the policy that leads people to overhype or underhype the science. I'm not sure how to make that go away. ...
I guess all I can do is recommend to people that they stay close to the message that comes out of the mainstream science community as for the science of global warming. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports start coming out in 2007 and the leading scientists summarize what they're saying, pay attention to that. And if someone seems to be at war with that, be skeptical of them.
I think the scientists really could do more in this respect. I don't expect scientists to become political activists; their day jobs are pretty consuming. But I think that scientists, as a group, could do more as what I would call citizen scientists: to use their scientific expertise, but to communicate to their fellow citizens in such a way as to keep this discourse more honest.
And particularly when high-level public officials deny, ignore or misrepresent the scientists, they should call them down on it. They should say: "It's not OK to act like the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment doesn't exist just because you don't like what it says. It's not OK to let these industry-funded front groups call the National Assessment junk science." ...
When you think about why this is happening, have you come to a conclusion? Is it the oil companies who are able to push a compliant government who hasn't taken a strong stand one way or the other? Is it in the vice president and the president's office, where they have a long relationship with oil? ...
Well, I think it's a combination of things. There is the question of very powerful economic interests who want to head off regulation, and they have an interest in creating an enhanced sense of scientific uncertainty in order to avoid regulation. We saw that strategy pioneered by the tobacco industry, and we're seeing it now with global warming. We have had a power structure in Washington that's been very responsive to that constituency, and I think they come in with their minds made up politically that they're not going to go forward on this.
It's an enormously complicated issue. The science is very complex: There's a lot of circumstantial evidence, a lot of judgment calls. It's not easy; it's not totally cut-and-dried. So if you have a predatory interest in emphasizing scientific uncertainty, and you play upon the honesty of the scientists in saying, "Well, we never know anything for sure," then you can kind of tie things up.
It's also economically complex. ... It implicates our whole way of life, and there isn't going to be any easy way to make the problem go away. Particularly if you are convinced by some of the leading scientists who say this is time-sensitive, you can't wait forever to get started. So it's hard.
I remember the first summer of the global warming hearings, 1988; it wasn't just the one where Jim Hansen testified. Everybody on Capitol Hill who had any construable jurisdiction had their global warming hearing during the heat wave that summer. I went to all of them; I had just moved to Washington. I remember one that Congressman Miller chaired, George Miller, [Democrat] from California, and he listened to the scientists all morning.
At the end, he just shook his head, and he said: "I find what you're saying very compelling. I just don't know how Congress is going to deal with this. When you look at what we have to do to try to pass some little, not even very controversial piece of legislation, and you're asking us to look way down the road ... as a whole society and deal with something that's so futuristic, it just doesn't connect with the way we're set up institutionally. I don't know how we're going to do this."
He could almost have said it yesterday, except I do think that the science has really come a long way since then. ... That's where we are right now. It's not any one thing; it's all of those things. ...
How much time do you think the country has lost in the last couple of years with that kind of approach to global warming?
Well, it's clear that we've lost time. The science continues to develop. There are interesting initiatives at the state and local level, the California legislation [limiting greenhouse gases]. There's a case before the Supreme Court about regulating carbon dioxide [CO2]. There are the international negotiations; other countries are going forward and negotiating a new round of the Kyoto Protocol. It's not like the world stops.
Editor's Note: In April 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA does have the right to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act and ordered the agency to reexamine the issue.
But I think that there is no substitute for a strong, national-level action to tie the science to action, to response strategies, which we're not getting now. With everything that you can do as an individual, you cannot solve this problem by changing your light bulbs and driving a plug-in hybrid vehicle. We need a large-scale effort, and you can't even begin to discuss what's the best way to do that if you can't have an honest discussion about the implications of what the science is telling you.
And so they [the Bush administration] come forward. Even when they have what they call a technology plan, it doesn't involve doing anything very much with any sense of urgency with the technologies we have now. It's: "Well, maybe we'll have fusion; maybe we'll have some totally different kind of nuclear reactor; maybe we'll have coal but no carbon; maybe we'll run everything on hydrogen. Give us a few hundred million dollars for R&D on each of these things, and maybe we'll come up with something." And it's a sham. ...
Well, they certainly have impeded not only a strong response strategy on global warming, but they've impeded an honest discussion of the problem. I mean, as recently as well along into 2006, the president was standing up at a public event and responding to a question about global warming by saying: "Well, yes, the earth is warming. Fundamental question: Is it manmade or not?" That's not a fundamental question in the science community. It's a fundamental question if you're misrepresenting the intelligence on what the science community is saying in order to buttress your political position.
And if that's his legacy -- that after $25 billion of scientific research by the federal government and report after report by the leading scientists in the world, the president is still saying, "Fundamental debate: Does human activity have anything to do with global warming?" -- then that's a spectacularly bad legacy. How could it possibly be any worse? It lacks any kind of integrity.