By Jonah Hahn
During the eight years of President Bush’s presidency, disputing, delaying, or diminishing the National Climate Assessment’s findings occurred as part of a larger struggle against accepting emerging consensus about anthropogenic climate change.
President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore released the National Climate Assessment, the first comprehensive report on climate change impacts across every region and many sectors of the United States, as a crowning achievement of its administration’s environmental commitment. Envisioned to provide essential information to policymakers addressing and solving the emerging climate change threat, the document, published in 2000 shortly after the election, was meant to catalyze action. Instead, President Bush and Vice President Cheney effectively disposed of the report, and all its valuable warnings virtually disappeared into thin air.
As Climate Science & Policy Watch assesses the past suppression of the 2000 National Assessment, and whether we could witness a similar instance of pervasive political interference into science under a future administration, a quick reflection on the Bush years serves as a useful entry point.
June 11, 2016 marked the 15th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s historic speech on global climate change in the White House Rose Garden. Less than five months after being sworn in, Bush unveiled the administration’s agenda on global warming and climate science initiatives. This initial address on climate change foreshadowed the subsequent eight years of dismantling important policy achievements in environmental protection, and a legacy described as a “climate assault” and the “worst … ever seen.” During the speech, as throughout his time in office, Bush highlighted scientific uncertainties about what constitutes a dangerous level of warming and the role of human activity, suggested waiting for conclusive data before taking policy action on climate, and ignored the findings of recent scientific documents – most notably the 2000 National Climate Assessment, conducted as a requirement under the Global Change Research Act of 1990. For example, Bush asked for a National Academy of Sciences report on global warming, which concluded that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, are likely its root cause. Bush called for more studies despite two recent, massive endeavors by respected scientists that both arrived at the same conclusions. In 2002, President Bush dismissed a State Department report to the United Nations that delineated the likely negative consequences of climate change.
CSPW, formerly Climate Science Watch (CSW), emerged from founder and director Rick Piltz’s whistleblowing on the Bush White House, which exposed that it systematically undermined critical climate science research to serve its political agenda. Piltz catalogued instances of abuses of power, manipulation of documents, and suppression of the National Assessment that fostered the “global warming denial machine,” a phrase coined by Piltz to describe a coordinated disinformation campaign to challenge the scientific underpinnings of anthropogenic climate change. By going public with his findings in June 2005, Piltz revealed evidence proving that, despite overwhelming scientific agreement on the causes and consequences of climate change, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) during the Bush administration systematically emphasized scientific uncertainty to serve its political agenda and ties with energy interests.
In his “Straight Talk” memo of 2002, GOP consultant Frank Luntz urged Republicans to make scientific uncertainty a centerpiece of global warming policy discussions. Luntz argued that while the scientific debate was closing against the Republican position, “there is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.” He also recommended substituting ‘climate change’ for ‘global warming’ because “‘climate change’ is less frightening.” President Bush adopted these suggestions, undermining the conclusions and consensus of the National Assessment and the rest of the scientific community. A comparison of his initial and final speeches on climate change illustrates the extent to which President Bush tweaked his rhetoric. In that 2001 address, President Bush mentioned “climate change” eighteen times, “global warming” once, and “warming” seven other times throughout the remainder of his speech. In 2008, however, his speech lacks a single reference to “global warming” or “warming” but does cite “climate change” twelve times. Blatantly omitting any allusion to global warming furthered Bush’s deliberate indecision on climate action by relying on palliative terminology.
Despite Luntz’s comments on the political implications of the two terms, climate change is now widely adopted throughout the science community since climate change more accurately describes the effects of elevated greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. A study in 2011 by researchers at the University of Michigan examined the different responses to the two phrases, finding that more people believe in ‘climate change’ than ‘global warming’ and that ‘global warming’ creates a more partisan divide. Curiously, they discovered that conservatives preferred to use ‘global warming’ while liberals prefer ‘climate change.’
Luntz notably admitted in a 2006 interview with the BBC that “now I think most people will conclude that there is global warming taking place, and that the behaviour of humans is affecting the climate,” but he asserted that “in 2000 the science was not definitive. There were plenty of people at that point who were challenging it.”
Unsurprisingly, a cozy relationship between oil interests and the Bush staff existed from the moment President Bush took office and continued for many years into his second term. Shortly after Bush assumed the White House, oil industry lobbyists sent memos asking for industry friendly policy shifts on carbon dioxide emissions regulations and requesting replacing certain government scientists due to their “aggressive agenda.” Key political appointees to the Department of Commerce, the CEQ, and State Department all had previously worked for or on behalf of oil companies, including ExxonMobil. Fossil fuel companies and the Bush-Cheney administration alike promoted a common agenda: emphasizing scientific uncertainty to justify delaying policy action resulting in regulatory constraints on carbon emissions.
Through Piltz’s revelations, the public learned that one of these appointees, Philip Cooney of the CEQ, an attorney who had been a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, edited government science documents to emphasize scientific uncertainty and minimize the relationship between human activity and climate change. An investigation by the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight discovered that Cooney and other CEQ officials made “at least 181 edits to the Administration’s Strategic Plan of the Climate Change Science Program to exaggerate or emphasize scientific uncertainties” along with “at least 113 additional edits to the plan to de-emphasize or diminish the importance of the human role in global warming.” CEQ enforced similar changes to EPA’s Report on the Environment and Latest Findings on National Air Quality: 2002 Status and Trends, as well as to the Climate Change Science Program’s annual report to Congress.
In addition to tinkering with government documents, there was a litany of other instances of scientific integrity abuse. From cancelling an agricultural brochure about reducing greenhouse gases to communication muzzling to reducing grant funding after critical studies, to political interference proliferated within federal agencies under the Bush administration. Public Affairs Offices (PAO) in many federal agencies heavily monitored press scientists’ communication privileges and interactions, instituting restrictive policies. Titles of papers were softened to reduce media attention. As CSW Fellow Tarek Maassarani wrote in Redacting the Science of Climate Change, “incidents of interference are often top-down reactions to science that has negative policy or public relations implications for the administration…the overbroad application of restrictive policies and their chilling effect impact a wide range of personnel.” Thus, President Bush and his administration effectively censored or forced self-censorship of any science deemed to be inconvenient to the overall climate policy agenda. As PAO staff fell in line and enforced the administration’s uncertain approach to science, scientists lacked truly free expression on a critically important topic.
Although President Obama announced a scientific integrity policy in 2009 as a direct response to the documented problems under President Bush, implementation to restore credibility is still a work in progress, with certain agencies more actively promoting positive, honest environments than others. Nonetheless, scientific integrity is much improved under the current administration.
Unfortunately, despite its history of political abuse, the National Climate Assessment process, and more broadly the current federal climate science research enterprise, could still be vulnerable to similar treatment under a hostile administration. CSPW is currently preparing a white paper on the suppression of the Assessment under the Bush administration with an eye toward ensuring that its process and publication can continue in the future, regardless of the political pressures surrounding the document.
Jonah Hahn was a Harvard University Mindich Research Fellow for CSPW in the summer of 2016; during this time, he researched and authored a CSPW White Paper, “Promoting and Sustaining the National Climate Assessment After a Period of Suppression and Political Influence: A Cautionary Tale.”