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 Distorting & Suppressing Climate Change Research


This temperature records showing the last 1,000 years deleted from the EPA report discussed below.

Since taking office, the Bush administration has consistently sought to undermine the public’s understanding of the view held by the vast majority of climate scientists that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are making a discernible contribution to global warming.

After coming to office, the administration asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to review the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and provide further assessment of what climate science could say about this issue.2 The NAS panel rendered a strong opinion, which, in essence, confirmed that of the IPCC. The American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest organization of earth scientists, has also released a strong statement describing human-caused disruptions of Earth’s climate.3 Yet Bush administration spokespersons continue to contend that the uncertainties in climate projections and fossil fuel emissions are too great to warrant mandatory action to slow emissions.4

In May 2002, President Bush expressed disdain for a State Department report5 to the United Nations that pointed to a clear human role in the accumulation of heat-trapping gases and detailed the likely negative consequences of climate change; the president called it “a report put out by the bureaucracy.”6 In September 2002, the administration removed a section on climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) annual air pollution report,7 even though the climate issue had been discussed in the report for the preceding five years.

Then, in one well-documented case, the Bush administration blatantly tampered with the integrity of scientific analysis at a federal agency when, in June 2003, the White House tried to make a series of changes to the EPA’s draft Report on the Environment.8

A front-page article in the New York Times broke the news that White House officials tried to force the EPA to substantially alter the report’s section on climate change. The EPA report, which referenced the NAS review and other studies, stated that human activity is contributing significantly to climate change.9

Interviews with current and former EPA staff, as well as an internal EPA memo reviewed for this report (see Appendix A) reveal that the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget demanded major amendments including:

  • The deletion of a temperature record covering 1,000 years in order to, according to the EPA memo, emphasize “a recent, limited analysis [which] supports the administration’s favored message.” 10
  • The removal of any reference to the NAS review—requested by the White House itself —that confirmed human activity is contributing to climate change. 11
  • The insertion of a reference to a discredited study of temperature records funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute. 12
  • The elimination of the summary statement— noncontroversial within the science community that studies climate change—that “climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment.” 13

According to the internal EPA memo, 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.”14

In a process now-departed EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman has since described as “brutal,”15 the entire section on climate change was ultimately deleted from the version released for public comment.16 According to internal EPA documents and interviews with EPA researchers, the agency staff chose this path rather than compromising their credibility by misrepresenting the scientific consensus.17 Doing otherwise, as one current, high-ranking EPA official puts it, would “poorly represent the science and ultimately undermine the credibility of the EPA and the White House.”18

The EPA’s decision to delete any mention of global warming from its report drew widespread criticism. Many scientists and public officials— Republicans and Democrats alike—were moved to decry the administration’s political manipulation in this case. Notably, the incident drew the ire of Russell Train, who served as EPA administrator under Presidents Nixon and Ford. In a letter to the New York Times, Train stated that the Bush administration’s actions undermined the independence of the EPA and were virtually unprecedented for the degree of their political manipulation of the agency’s research. As Train put it, the “interest of the American people lies in having full disclosures of the facts.”19 Train also noted that, “In all my time at the EPA, I don’t recall any regulatory decision that was driven by political considerations. More to the present point, never once, to my best recollection, did either the Nixon or Ford White House ever try to tell me how to make a decision.”20

Were the case an isolated incident, it could perhaps be dismissed as an anomaly. On the contrary, the Bush administration has repeatedly intervened to distort or suppress climate change research findings despite promises by the president that, “my Administration’s climate change policy will be science-based.”21

Despite the widespread agreement in the scientific community that human activity is contributing to global climate change, as demonstrated by the consensus of international experts on the IPCC, the Bush administration has sought to exaggerate uncertainty by relying on disreputable and fringe science reports and preventing informed discussion on the issue. As one current EPA scientist puts it, the Bush administration often “does not even invite the EPA into the discussion” on climate change issues. “This administration seems to want to make environmental policy at the White House,” the government scientist explains. “I suppose that is their right. But one has to ask: on the basis of what information is this policy being promulgated? What views are being represented? Who is involved in the decision making? What kind of credible expertise is being brought to bear?”22

Dr. Rosina Bierbaum, a Clinton administration appointee to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) who also served during the first year of the Bush administration, offers a disturbing window on the process. From the start, Bierbaum contends, “The scientists [who] knew the most about climate change at OSTP were not allowed to participate in deliberations on the issue within the White House inner circle.”23

Through such consistent tactics, the Bush administration has not only distorted scientific and technical analysis on global climate change and suppressed the dissemination of research results, but has avoided fashioning any policies that would significantly reduce the threat implied by those findings.

In the course of this investigation, UCS learned of the extent to which these policies seem to extend. In one case that has yet to surface in the press, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sought in September 2003 to reprint a popular informational brochure about carbon sequestration in the soil and what farmers could do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to one current government official familiar with the incident, the brochure was widely viewed as one of the agency’s successful efforts in the climate change field. The NRCS had already distributed some 325,000 of the brochures and sought a modest update, as well as proposing a Spanish edition.24

Notably, even this relatively routine proposal was passed to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) for review. William Hohenstein, director of the Global Change Program Exchange in the office of the chief economist at the USDA, acknowledged that he passed the request on to the CEQ, as he says he would “for any documents relating to climate change policy.”25 While Hohenstein denies that he has been explicitly ordered to do so, he says he knows the White House is concerned “that things regarding climate change be put out by the government in a neutral way.”26 As a result of CEQ’s objections about the brochure, staff at the NRCS dropped their proposal for a reprint.27 “It is not just a case of micromanagement, but really of censorship of government information,” a current government official familiar with the case noted. “In nearly 15 years of government service, I can’t remember ever needing clearance from the White House for such a thing.”28

2 National Academy of Sciences, Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, 2001.

3 See AGU.

4 P. Dobriansky, “Only New Technology Can Halt Climate Change,” Financial Times, December 1, 2003.

5 US Climate Action Report, Department of State, May 2002.

6 K.Q. Seelye, “President Distances Himself from Global Warming Report,” New York Times, June 5, 2002.

7 See

8 “Report on the Environment,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, June 23, 2003.

9 A.C. Revkin and K.Q. Seelye, “Report by EPA Leaves Out Data on Climate Change,” New York Times, June 19, 2003.

10 EPA internal memo, April 29, 2003. (See Appendix A.)

11 Ibid. Deleted reference: National Academy of Sciences, Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, 2001.

12 Revkin and Seelye, New York Times. Discredited study: W. Soon and S. Baliunas. 2003. Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years. Climate Research 23(2):89-110. Study discrediting it: Michael Mann et al. 2003. On past temperatures and anomalous late 20th century warmth. Research 23(2):89-110. Study discrediting it: Michael Mann et al. 2003. On past temperatures and anomalous late 20th century warmth. Research Eos 84(27):256-257.Eos 84(27):256-257.Eos

13 EPA internal memo.

14 Ibid.

15 NOW with Bill Moyers transcript, September 19, 2003. NOW with Bill Moyers transcript, September 19, 2003. NOW with Bill Moyers

16 Revkin and Seelye, New York Times.

17 Author interviews with current EPA staff members. Names withheld on request. See also “option paper” in EPA internal memo, Appendix A.

18 Author interview with EPA staff member, name withheld on request, January 2004. EPA internal memo.

19 Russell E. Train, “When Politics Trumps Science” (letter to the editor), New York Times, June 21, 2003.

20 Russell E. Train, “The Environmental Protection Agency just isn’t like it was in the good old (Nixon) days,”, September 22, 2003.

21 White House, President’s Statement on Climate Change (July 13, 2001).

22 Author interview with EPA scientist, name withheld on request, January 2004.

23 As quoted in N. Thompson, “Science friction: The growing—and dangerous—divide between scientists and the GOP,” Washington Monthly, July/August 2003.

24 Author interview with USDA official, name withheld on request, January 2004.

25 Author interview with William Hohenstein, USDA, January 2004.

26 Ibid.

27 Author interview with William Hohenstein, USDA, January 2004.

28 Author interview with USDA offi cial, name withheld on request, January 2004.

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