A Conversation between Climate Science Watch’s Rick Piltz and Government Accountability Project President Louis Clark.  Originally published in Bridging the GAP (Winter 2005), newsletter of the Government Accountability Project, Washington, DC.

Clark: Could you briefly describe what it was like to be working for the federal government over the last ten years?

Piltz: It was a great experience for me much of the time. The people that I worked with in the coordination office of the Climate Change Science Program were an outstanding group of people. I came to have a great appreciation for the value of the research program that we were supporting and for the caliber of the people who were coordinating it and managing it. My problem really was more in how that whole enterprise bucked up against the political world, and in recent years against the politically driven White House agenda and the way it involved itself with the program.

Clark: How was that?

Piltz: Well, I think we saw something that was quite different with the Bush administration, and it started early on really in a way we hadn’t seen before. There were people whose sole job was to move the political agenda of the White House, involving themselves in making decisions that were very important for the management of the science program. People from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is a strictly political policy operation, started to get involved. The person from the State Department was not just a career science person, as we had before, but was the Kyoto Protocol negotiator or nonnegotiater. And the administration conveyed a pretty clear message about where it came down on the matters of global warming science and policy. Then the career people started to get their message reshaped by that. It became a real serious problem.

Clark: Did the administration try to put into place their scientists?

Piltz: No, the scientists continued to do their work. This administration has tended to trim the funding a little bit, but research has basically been fairly strongly supported. Where the problem manifests itself is when scientists put material out that synthesizes and communicates the state of their understanding in a way that is relevant to the management of society. So it’s not just the publications in the technical journals, but its the stuff that gets communicated that says “this is what it implies for those of you have decision-making responsibilities. And there the administration, I think, was very threatened by what was coming through, because to acknowledge the mainstream communication of climate change science would have created more public pressure for a stronger policy. And that’s exactly what they did not want to happen. So rather than using the mainstream science as a serious input to policymaking, they bent it out of shape. If they couldnt stop it from being published, they would ignore it, misrepresent it, or allow it to be misrepresented by their political allies and not correct them. If it was up to them, they would suppress it and all references to it.

Clark: How crudely were they editing documents?

Piltz: What I was working on were reports of the Climate Change Science Program, such as the annual report to Congress, which talks about how we are spending the money and what we are learning from it. That material would include, in nontechnical language, statements about climate change that were written by federal science professionals who work with the leading scientists. After that stuff had been written, revised, worried over and well-edited, White House reviewers, and sometimes State Department reviewers, would come in and make 11th hour changes before anything went out. So they would basically do an edit on a document and make hundreds of changes.

Clark: Were the people making these changes scientists?

Piltz: No. The best example was an oil industry lobbyist. Prior to being the chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Philip Cooney had been a lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute, which is the lobbying arm of the oil industry. There he was at the table, marking up documents. I found that very problematic. Sometimes the director of the program would argue about some of the proposed changes and the two of them would go back and forth at a political level and maybe some compromises would be made. But it wasn’t a matter of going back to the scientists and saying, Well, what do you think of this?” It was just negotiated at the level of political leadership. So it was spin.

Clark: Was that former lobbyist a scientist?

Piltz: No, he was a lawyer.

Clark: So, he was obviously not qualified to change the interpretation of scientific findings?

Piltz: Right. If the scientists say that it is likely that there will be a change in precipitation or that the world will warm significantly in the 21st century, its not appropriate for him to take out the “likelys and put in something that sounds fundamentally more uncertain, as though the scientists don’t know what theyre talking about. The cumulative effect if you look at all of the changes that he made and all the changes that he proposed that people had argued with, was to significantly alter the tone and the content of the communication in a way that obstructed the integrity and impeded the flow of communication of scientifically based information to the Congress and to the public.

Clark: So you blew the whistle on that?

Piltz: That’s right. I held copies of those kinds of incidents and a number of others. But they were not the sort of thing that you could make a big public issue out of and still keep your position. I finally decided that this was not a situation that I was willing to work under anymore that it was not my job to edit things to suit an administration that was fundamentally at odds with the scientific community – and I resigned. By doing so, I reclaimed my freedom of speech in a new way. And I blew the whistle on this and showed what they were doing.

But there is not a big paper trail of this sort of thing. For one thing, they dont have to engage in too many examples of heavy-handed censorship before the career people get the message. Then there sets in what I call “anticipatory self-censorship, and the career people stop bringing certain things up because they don’t want problems. And it distorts the process.

They would also do things like have a discussion at a meeting, make a decision and then say, Let’s not have this reflected in the minutes; lets not create anything that can be obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.”

Clark: Obviously we are talking about a subversion of scientific integrity by the White House very directly. What kind of feedback have you gotten from these various scientists after you brought it to attention through a front-page story in The New York Times?

Piltz: Its mixed. The feedback I have received has been pretty positive. I sense that those who don’t like what I did just stay clear of me. But I have heard from a number of people in the federal program and in the science research community a kind of thanks, You said things that a lot of people would like to say but can’t. On the other hand, some people in the federal government tend to run scared and I’ve noticed that in certain cases Ive had more difficulty getting my phone calls returned.

Clark: What’s the impact of this on yourself in terms of what youve been through?

Piltz: You can ask me again down the road, but as of right now I feel very good about what I did. When I decided to resign, it was just one day I had had enough and I resigned. So I went a substantial period of time without replacing the lost income, but on the other hand it has freed me up to do something important that I want to do, that I need to do and that I think can make a contribution. And really I think I can do more for the public interest and even the true interests of the program I was working for by speaking freely rather than being continually frustrated when I was on the inside. So being on the outside has been a liberating experience, and I am very encouraged and gratified by the fact that what I’ve been trying to say has a certain amount of resonance with people. I think maybe Ive done a little bit of good and could do some more down the road.

Clark: What are those plans for doing good?

Piltz: Well, I’ve initiated a new public interest watchdog project called Climate Science Watch. Its sponsored fiscally by the Government Accountability Project, which I have an excellent and close relationship with in a number of areas. Climate Science Watch is a focused project dedicated to promoting integrity and accountability in the way climate science and related research are used in policymaking and politics. We’ll also look at the media and the special interest groups as they pertain to this whole relationship between climate research and policymaking. Right now there is a dysfunctional relationship and the message is not getting through the way it needs to. What I want to do is be a bridge builder helping to promote a better relationship between the world of science and the world of politics using what I have learned in 17 years in Washington.

There really has been no truly effective, independent, critical oversight of the federal climate science program. Thats $2 billion a year – 13 federal agencies and Congress does not do anything even remotely close to a good job of overseeing that program. So the press doesn’t really get into it very much. As the program develops and we raise new issues, as we develop a strong public presence by putting up climatesciencewatch.org and our email communications network linking feds, congressional offices, media, scientists and so forth, I think that it will be a vehicle through which people can not only communicate, but bring out material. If they cant put it out themselves, they can put it out through me.