For those interested in veracity and validity in science and the law, the debate between politicians and scientists on climate change is incredibly frustrating to watch and listen to. A good example on the subject is a transcript of a White House briefing by Scott McClellan that discussed George W. Bush’s administration’s involvement with editing scientific reports on climate change. Phillip Cooney revised the scientific reports to add uncertainty to the issue of whether man-made emissions were a primary factor in causing global warming. Specifically, Cooney unilaterally edited the reports in ways that cast doubt on the link between greenhouse-gas emissions and rising temperatures. Trained as a lawyer, perhaps Cooney thought it was perfectly appropriate to edit expert reports to better advocate his client’s best interests. The question is, however, who was Mr. Cooney attempting to represent, the American people or the petroleum industry, as a member of George W. Bush’s administration? Without attempting to answer this question, this episode further erodes confidence in our country’s resolve to address, much less answer, questions of science in a truthful, straightforward, unbiased manner. Unfortunately, the federal government has lost most, if not all, of its credibility on scientific issues over the last eight years.
Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan faced a barrage of questions on Phillip Cooney’s editing of climate science documents on June 5, 2005. On 8 June 2005, The New York Times reported that it had obtained internal White House documents which proved that Cooney had unilaterally edited the national climate change reports during 2002 and 2003 to water down its conclusions. The newspaper reported that Mr. Cooney has no scientific training.
Phillip Cooney joined George W. Bush’s administration when he was appointed chief of staff of the Council on Environmental Quality. Prior to working for the Bush administration, Cooney was a lawyer and lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry group representing the American Petroleum Industry. While never denying Cooney’s editing of the documents, the White House claimed that such changes were part of the normal adjustments in language to government documents and that the documents were passed through multiple agencies while editing the document. In June 2005, Cooney resigned from his position in the Bush Administration and accepted a job at ExxonMobil.
Philip Cooney and his role in editing climate change reports were referenced in the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. During a March 2007 congressional hearing, Cooney conceded his role in altering reports to downplay the adverse effects of man-made emissions on the planet’s climate. “My sole loyalty was to the President and advancing the policies of his administration,” he told the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. A transcript of McClellan’s briefing is at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/06/print/20050608-2.html#d. The transcript reads:
Q Scott, the Government Accountability Project, a private group, has obtained internal White House documents that show that a White House official that was formerly a lobbyist for the oil industry has doctored and edited administration scientific reports in ways that consistently emphasize supposed uncertainties about global warming — uncertainties that the vast consensus of science doesn’t think are that severe. And I wonder, does the President think that helps the credibility of the administration on scientific issues?
MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, first, I disagree with the characterization. I think that your characterization is contradicted by the scientific community. The National Academies of Science came out with a report in 2001 that was requested by the President; it took a look at science of climate change, and in that very report it talked about how there are considerable uncertainties. So some of the language that you referenced was based on the very report from the scientific community that the President had requested.
And in terms of this report that came out earlier today, let me just step back and talk to you a little bit about our interagency review process, because that’s all this is. We have an interagency review process when it comes to issues like climate change and the environment. There are some 15 federal agencies that are involved in that interagency review process. It includes policy people; it includes scientists. And when we’re getting ready to put out a report, it goes through that interagency review process so people can have their input into the report.
One of the very reports highlighted in the article today was the administration’s 10-year plan for climate science. And that plan was widely praised by the scientific community, including the National Academies of Science.
Q The person in question, Phil Cooney, does he have any scientific background at all?
MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said, there are policy people and scientists who are involved in this process, in the interagency review process. And he’s one of the policy people involved in that process, and someone who’s very familiar with the issues relating to climate change and the environment.
Q Because of his work lobbying for the oil industry?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’ll be glad to get you his background, Terry. But he’s one of many people who are involved in the interagency review process, including those 15 federal agencies, and the White House offices like the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Environmental Quality. And the Office of Science and Technology Policy is very ably led by Dr. Marburger; he is a well-respected scientist. And they are very involved in that interagency review process. And that office not only is involved in the review process, but signs off on these reports before they go out. And they have signed off on these reports because they know that they are scientifically sound.
Q But administration scientists, Mr. Hansen at the Goddard Center in New York, a NASA scientist for 25 years, and others have come forward saying that the politicization of science in this administration — these are not democratic activists; this is a scientist who works for the government — has reached an extreme. And they point to instances like Mr. Cooney’s editing and doctoring of these summaries, scientific summaries as proof of that.
MR. McCLELLAN: I encourage you to go look at the reports, because one of the reports that you highlighted was widely praised by the scientific community, including the National Academies of Science. These reports should always be based on our scientific knowledge and what is the best available science. And that’s what we expect. And that’s what those reports are based on.
Q So the administration scientists who are saying you have politicized scientific research are just wrong?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I — go back and look at what the scientific community said about that 10-year plan on climate science, and what the National Academies of Science said. And I point you back to the very first question you brought up when you talked about how there’s some dispute that there are uncertainties regarding the science of climate of change.
Q That they are serious, that there —
MR. McCLELLAN: Right —
Q — that there’s uncertainty about the fact of global warming, and that there’s a significant human component to it. The consensus is in.
MR. McCLELLAN: A couple things. The National Academy of Science report back in 2001 said there are considerable uncertainties about the science of climate change. Now, there are some things we do know. That report pointed out that surface temperatures are still rising, and that that is in large part because of human activity.
That’s why this President is not waiting for us to have the full knowledge of science, as it continues to come in and we continue to learn more. The President is acting. We are moving forward on the President’s initiative to cut greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent come 2012. We are making steady progress. We are on track to meet that goal. We are moving forward on partnerships like the methane-to-markets initiative that the President outlined, and that the very individual you bring up was very involved in developing. This will help us produce cleaner burning electricity, and it will help capture a greenhouse gas emission and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
These are very important initiatives. We’re also leading the way, when it comes to research, around the world. We are providing more resources and funding into the research and development of new technologies, cleaner technologies, that will help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Q But in every example that you’ve cited —
MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, do you all want to —
Q In every example that we have seen, and Mr. Cooney’s emendations and deletions from these reports have been to the effect of making them less critical, less stringent, less apparently in need of immediate action. In other words, he’s done everything in the examples we’ve seen to pull back from worst-case scenario. He is not a scientist.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, that’s your opinion, and I think your opinion is wrong.
Q No, no, no, it’s evident in the reading of it. He is not a scientist. It upsets the scientific community that non-scientists are doing this. That’s why they say that he has a political agenda. Why wouldn’t they think that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Bill, let me repeat what I just said: This is not based on any one individual. This is an interagency review process, where everybody who is involved in these issues should have input into these reports. And that’s all this is. And if you go and look at the reports, namely the one I just referenced, the 10-year plan —
Q That’s the only one you can reference. There are others that you can’t reference because he changed them in a significantly different way.
MR. McCLELLAN: Where?
Q Well, right here, for example, in the October 2002 draft of Our Changing Planet. He says, “Many scientific observations indicate the Earth is undergoing a period of relatively rapid change.” He made that, “may be.” He cut out a section of another document on — I can read that to you if you want, but you get the idea.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you’re selectively quoting things. I think you ought to go and look at some of the things he pointed out in his —
Q But the only thing you can point to is that one 2002 —
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I just pointed to what Terry brought up, when he talked about serious uncertainties, or something to that effect, and that is language that was used in the National Academy of Science report. So, I mean, if you want to talk about the facts, I’m glad to do that, and I think the facts point out that our reports are based on the best scientific knowledge, and they’re based on the input —
Q But, Scott, you’re not talking about the same thing here.
MR. McCLELLAN: — they’re based on the inputs of scientists.
Q But, Scott, you’re clearly — I mean, the United States is — and I’m not making a judgment about this — is out of step with other countries in the world, in terms of the existence of climate change and the causes of it. That debate is clear. I mean, the President, just yesterday, when asked about this, said, the United States is spending millions of dollars —
MR. McCLELLAN: Billions.
Q — billions of dollars to research this issue, which is to say that he has not reached a conclusion yet. Fine. But —
MR. McCLELLAN: No, no, no, let me just correct you on that one point. It’s to say that there are still — there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the science of climate change, and that’s pointed out in the National Academy of Science report that the President requested when he came into office.
Q Right, but there is other — there’s the body of opinion here that still works against that. The point is, if you go back to June of 2003, an EPA report on climate change had a whole section on climate change simply deleted out of it, and critics charged the very same thing, which is that — it’s not that the view — it’s not a judgment about the view, it’s that the process here, the science here is being overwhelmed by the politics. Is that not a fair criticism?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it has been contradicted by the scientific community, itself, when they look at these reports and they widely praise the report that I referenced. It was one of our major reports on climate change. It was our 10-year plan on climate science research. And that is an important undertaking that this administration led. And there’s an interagency —
Q There’s ample evidence that you guys are — that policy people are putting their own spin on the science.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I guess, David, you want to let me finish and respond. I’m trying to get you the information that you want, not that some people may want us to say, because that’s not the case. I’m going to tell what the facts are. And the facts are that there is an interagency review process with a number of agencies involved that are impacted by — or that are involved in these decisions, in these reports. And many people have input into that interagency review process.
Our reports are based on the best scientific knowledge. There are number of scientists involved in this. The Office of Science and Technology Policy is involved very much in this process, and the head of that office is a well-respected scientist. And he has signed off on these reports because they’re based on sound science. They’re based on the best available science.
Q Scott, there’s another player in all of this. It’s a fellow who has been held out as a whistle-blower essentially, who is accusing the administration more or less of basically not giving an honest assessment on the environment. What’s your take on him? Is he a whistle-blower? Does he have an axe to grind? To what extent can you weigh in on —
MR. McCLELLAN: Who is this individual?
Q The fellow’s name is Rick Piltz.
MR. McCLELLAN: And what’s his background?
Q He’s been held out by the Government Accountability Project as a government employee —
MR. McCLELLAN: I mean, you might ask him —
Q — who, in fact, works for —
MR. McCLELLAN: You might ask him those questions.
Q He’s a senior associate for government climate change. So he’s in the office affected, and he’s the person making the assertions.
MR. McCLELLAN: And when did he come into that office and what was his background before that?
Q Well, he obviously left the office because he did not like the way these documents were being filtered. So are you not familiar with him? He was also mentioned in the article.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you might want to look into his background. I don’t know all the answers to that and why he has such motives. But that’s something for you to do, and to look at his background, why he came to these — or why he came to this. That’s not for me to do. I’m here to tell you what the facts are. And the facts are that our policies and our reports are based on the best available science, and that this administration is acting and leading the way when it comes to addressing the serious long-term challenge we face from climate change.
Q So you disagree with his assertions? You disagree with the notion that the administration is, in fact, making the assessment of —
MR. McCLELLAN: I don’t know what his assertions are. I saw them referenced in a report, but I haven’t heard exactly what his assertions are. That’s for you to ask him, and it’s for you to look at what his background is.