Climate official resigns, blasting White House influence
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Friday, March 4, 2005
Climate official resigns, blasting White House influence
Brian Stempeck and Andrew Freedman, Greenwire reporters
A top climate official announced plans to resign his federal post
next week, blasting the Bush administration's global warming research
plan and raising concern about the potential for politics to
influence federal findings.
Rick Piltz, senior associate with the Climate Change Science Program,
said he would resign at the end of next week after 10 years at CCSP
and the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the agencies responsible
for federal climate research.
Piltz expressed frustration with what he sees as the intrusion of
politics into the scientific arena and a questionable scientific
review process overseen by top White House officials.
"I resigned because of a number of differences with the Bush
administration's approach to climate change and climate science over
the past four years," Piltz wrote in an
to Greenwire this morning.
"There is a problem with the process that has been established for
final review and revision of these reports and clearance for
publication," he continued, noting that lead scientists on climate
studies are not given the power to approve their final reports. "The
final review and clearance would be done inside the administration,
through a process that was seen as potentially subject to political
influence on how the scientific conclusions were expressed.
"There is a governmental process, and potential political influence,
in the way these reports are approved," Piltz said. "It's not clear
yet how big a problem this will become in practice. But it occurs in
the context of a widespread distrust of the Bush administration in
the scientific community -- for exactly the reason that the
administration has come to be perceived as not keeping politics out
of science, on climate and other issues."
Piltz described oversight of CCSP research at part of a larger
pattern. "The administration chose to have the CCSP Synthesis Reports
be government documents rather than asking the independent scientists
to write them and let the chips fall where they may -- and this leads
to a number of potential problems," he concluded. To view Piltz's
"He felt some differences in his view about the way the work is being
done," said James Mahoney, director of CCSP and deputy administrator
of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "I certainly
have commended him for his diligent work over 10 years on the
program," Mahoney added, noting that Piltz is only one of the 300
officials working on CCSP reports.
But other climate researchers say Piltz's resignation should send a
message to the Bush administration.
"I think it's a clear indication of a growing frustration," said
Michael MacCracken, a scientist at the Climate Institute who
previously worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for 34
years and also spent nine years with the U.S. Global Change Research
Program. "A number of other people are quite frustrated by the
administration's attempt to control the scientific findings, the
presentation of the scientific findings."
Just two weeks ago, the lead author of a forthcoming CCSP climate
report asked to have his name removed from the study, questioning
whether White House officials are looking to put their own spin on
Eric Sundquist -- formerly a lead author of the U.S. State of the
Carbon Cycle Report -- announced he was removing his name from the
study in a Feb. 22
circulated to his colleagues.
"A year and a half after the submittal of the first SOCCR proposal,
not a word of the report has been written," Sundquist wrote.
"Inevitably, many potential authors and reviewers of the SOCCR have
expressed concerns about the purpose and nature of the government
review and approval process."
At issue is the federal scientific review process. When scientists
finish their report, they must then submit it to the National Science
and Technology Council, a Cabinet-level group, for final approval.
Sundquist and other scientists question why their work needs the
approval of top Cabinet officials.
"The involvement of the NSTC (or any agency) in giving final
clearance to this report seems to be potentially suspect," MacCracken
wrote in a public comment about the process. "For an administration
supposedly committed to openness and credibility in the scientific
process, this is a serious shortcoming."
Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said there is a
concern that changes will be made to the CCSP reports without authors
being given the opportunity to review them and make sure they are
"scientifically correct or consistent with their research."
"Given the track record that we've seen from this administration in a
number of areas, that's not an illegitimate concern," Meyer said.
Meyer cited the example of the 2003 U.S. EPA "State of the
Environment Report" that included a short paragraph on climate change
after the White House requested that the agency make significant
changes to a longer proposed section. According to a UCS account that
was confirmed by an EPA official, the White House requested revisions
that EPA officials believed stretched the credibility of climate
, August 30, 2004).
Federal officials maintain that they are not looking to rewrite CCSP
findings, and that the review process will be transparent. "The core
issue here is that somehow there's going to be an editing or a spin
that would tend to change the underlying science," CCSP Director
Mahoney explained. "I think it's a hollow critique."
Before a climate report is sent the National Science and Technology
Council, a draft will be posted on the Web, making it possible to
track changes in the final report. "The full text of these documents
will be all posted online for public review before that approval
step," he said.
Mahoney conceded that the process is taking longer than CCSP
initially thought. "We were somewhat naively optimistic about the
scope of the work," he said. "It's been a tremendous amount of effort
getting moving. I wouldn't deny that there's an element of criticism.
"This is a bureaucratic process, but these are controversial
questions," Mahoney added. "The very process we set up has been set
up to make sure all of the relevant views are aired."
Bob Hopkins, a spokesman for the White House's Office of Science and
Technology Policy, said that CCSP's strategic plan has twice been
reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences and received high marks.
"They have a track record of getting things done on a timely and
professional basis," Hopkins said.
Ultimately, climate researchers are optimistic that kinks in the
review process will eventually be worked out.
Anthony King, a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who is
heading up the carbon cycle report from which Sundquist removed
himself, said many scientists are concerned that the review process
will provide an opening for political officials to alter report
language. But those fears may be allayed following the end of the
public comment period on the report "prospectus," he noted.
"When it gets to the final level of review there is some ambiguity in
that [review] process," King said. "It can be and will be resolved."
To view Piltz's e-mail detailing his reasons for resigning,
To view Sundquist's letter about why he removed his name from the
To view public comments about the CCSP review process,
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