Rick Piltz, a “whistleblower” who decried the politically motivated editing of climate change science in government reports, died on 18 October 2014. Piltz’s death reminded me that getting government officials to accept the reality of climate change was a challenge over the past decades.
During my tenure on the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) from 2001 to 2003, I witnessed firsthand the fight to protect scientific integrity in government documents. You may ask, Why did the government edit research reports? In my judgment, the editing reflected an overriding fear that regulating greenhouse gas emissions would create economic burdens [Hecht, 2009]. The recession of 1992 likely contributed to George H. W. Bush’s loss of the presidential race to Bill Clinton, which might account for such anxieties in George W. Bush’s administration.
A decade later, this lingering fear remains an obstacle to any serious discussion of actions to address climate change.
During his career as a House Science Committee aide, Piltz helped write the 1990 Global Change Research Act, which called for periodic national climate change assessments, a 10-year climate research plan, and annual progress updates for Congress.
The act also created the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which coordinates climate activities across all federal agencies. Piltz held a key position in the USGCRP, and in this role he became aware that the Bush administration was editing government research reports to downplay any links between human activity and climate change.
Piltz left the USGCRP in 2005, citing his frustration with the Bush administration. The Washington Post’s obituary noted that he was disturbed by the “altered descriptions of climate research written by government scientists and their supervisors with the apparent intent of raising doubts where many climate experts thought there were none” [Eilperin, 2014]. Piltz leaked many of these edits to the New York Times, which eventually forced the resignation of a key Bush administration official.
The Politics of Climate Change
In 2003 I had firsthand experience with politically driven editing of government research while I was on detail to the White House as assistant director for sustainable development at CEQ. During that period, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Christie Todd Whitman was attempting to launch the first EPA Report on the Environment (RoE). This landmark document aimed to provide the American public with a current snapshot of U.S. environmental conditions while also establishing a set of environmental indicators to track changes over time.
The RoE ran into considerable difficulties because of disagreements among federal agencies. In January 2003, a frustrated EPA chief of staff came to visit CEQ chairman Jim Connaughton and asked for help in finalizing the report. Chairman Connaughton was supportive and directed me to resolve the interagency disputes.
One major issue in the RoE was the chapter on climate change. CEQ’s initial view was that such a chapter was unnecessary because so many other climate reports were available. I argued with Connaughton that an EPA RoE without a chapter on climate change would not be credible. In the end he agreed but made it clear that the chapter should reflect the state of knowledge as described in publicly available documents.
I circulated the draft RoE to all federal agencies and executive offices and resolved nearly all outstanding issues except the chapter on climate change. On 27 January 2003, I received an email from staff at the Office of Science Policy and Technology advising that “this chapter should be thoroughly reviewed for content and usefulness of that content. The section ‘What are the contributors to climate change?’ is not balanced and virtually ignores any mention of natural variability…if this cannot be balanced, it needs to be removed.”
The situation only got worse when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent a note to CEQ chief of staff Phil Cooney on 4 March 2003 saying, “Phil, I don’t know whether you have reviewed the Climate Section of the EPA report, but I think you and Jim need to focus on it before it goes final. Even though the information is generally not new, I suspect this will generate negative press coverage.”
The Final Straw
I worked with EPA and CEQ to try to resolve all concerns about the tone and conclusions of the chapter, although CEQ was trying to overplay the uncertainty of results. This focus became clear to me when Phil Cooney brought me a controversial science paper [Soon and Baliunas, 2003] and asked me to include an illustration from the paper in the RoE. This paper clearly contradicted the published accounts of historical climate trends. It concluded that “the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium.”
I quickly canvassed the scientific community about the paper and received strong rebuttals. Eventually, in an 8 July 2003 Eos article [Mann et al., 2003], 13 of the authors cited in this paper refuted the interpretation of their work. The Soon and Baliunas paper eventually led to serious criticism of the journal editors and its publication. EPA, of course, refused to include the paper in its RoE, and I informed Cooney about this impasse.
As I worked though this issue, it was clear to me that Cooney was under pressure from others in the White House who wanted nothing in the RoE that could be used to justify regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. Four versions of the chapter went back and forth between CEQ and EPA. CEQ was clearly frustrated by the process and in April gave me a final version with instructions to tell EPA “to take it or leave it.”
On 23 May 2003, after several days of internal EPA discussions, EPA staff called me and reported that EPA administrator Whitman had yanked the climate chapter from the report. Whitman’s position was that the chapter—as edited—would diminish EPA’s credibility as an environmental agency. According to her immediate staff, the benefits of removing the chapter were that “it would provide little content for attacks on EPA’s science and that removing it may be the only way to meet White House and EPA needs.” Although politics may dominate much of our lives, principles must also be protected. In this case, much to her credit, Whitman put science above politics and protected the integrity of EPA.
Public Disclosure in 2003 and 2005
After the EPA RoE was published in 2003, an unidentified person leaked to the New York Times copies of the text before and after editing. News on the front page of the New York Times on 19 June 2003 said that White House officials had tried to force EPA to substantially alter the report’s section on climate change [Revkin and Seelye, 2003].
As noted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the unidentified White House officials demanded so many qualifying words such as “potentially” and “may” that the result would have been to insert “uncertainty…where there is essentially none.”
That was in 2003. Two years later, on 8 June 2005, more examples of White House editing were reported in the New York Times. They had been leaked by Piltz, who had resigned from his government position a week earlier. In this case a report prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been heavily edited. Unlike the edits in 2003, the editor was now clearly identified as Cooney—the New York Times actually printed reproductions of his handwritten edits [Revkin, 2005].
Two days after this leak, Cooney resigned and joined Exxon Mobil. Two years later, Congress held hearings on the White House editing of climate science in government documents. In December 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform produced its analysis of the Bush administration’s relationship to climate change issues. According to the report [U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, 2007], these findings “led to one inescapable conclusion: the Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.”
Science Integrity Upheld
Piltz’s commitment to protecting science led him to found the group called Climate Science Watch, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the integrity of climate science. Today we do not see the kind of editing showcased in the period between 2003 and 2007. However, the debate on human-induced climate change continues.
The battle over climate science has gone on for decades [Hecht, 2014]. Today the science provides a compelling case that human-induced climate change is real. This was affirmed by the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report and the 2014 National Climate Assessment report, which concluded that global warming over the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.
Impacts related to climate change, already evident in many sectors, are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond. Many U.S. states, Native American tribes, and local communities have begun to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change, which are disproportionately felt by poor and disadvantaged communities.
Sadly, it has taken more than 40 years to reach the point where the urgency of action on climate change is acknowledged in both the federal government and most of the private sector. Congress has yet to catch up.
Protecting Scientific Integrity Requires Courage
During his more than 20 years in Washington, Piltz’s primary focus was the collision of climate science with the reality of climate politics and policy. Many government and university scientists were part of this battle and often were subject to personal attacks. However, the integrity of science was protected by courageous officials, including Piltz and Whitman.
Unfortunately, the debate on climate change is not over. Building a national consensus on how to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the threats of climate change remains an ongoing challenge. As political tides shift, overcoming these challenges will surely require the courage of more people who are unafraid to stand up for scientific integrity.