Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, 1/23/24 – 6/3/13, R.I.P.

I had the opportunity to answer questions from Senator Lautenberg about Bush administration political interference with climate science communication at a Senate hearing on Climate Change Research and Scientific Integrity in 2007.  The exchange also included a 3-way point-counterpoint with James Mahoney, who had chaired the U.S. Climate Change Science Program as a Bush appointee.

189px-Frank_Lautenberg,_official_portrait,_112th_portraitNew York Times, June 3, 2013: Senator Frank R. Lautenberg Dies at 89




Recalling the hearing on Climate Change Research and Scientific Integrity [includes written testimony; webcast no longer available], before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, February 7, 2007, the following is taken from the published transcript from the U.S. Government Printing Office report on the hearing (Senate Hearing 110-1060):

Senator Lautenberg. Thanks, Mr. Chairman, and thanks to all of you for the work that you’ve done, and for bringing your views, even though we have a contrary analysis of what a couple have said. After having heard so much about the intimidation of science, and scientists and their effort to tell it like it is, very frankly.

Mr. Knutson, you said that NOAA had sent Public Affairs officers to monitor comments that you would be making to the press–what do you think, once again–what was their intention? Did they just want to listen to you? You have a lot of intelligent knowledge, did they just want to hear?

Mr. Knutson [Thomas R. Knutson, Research Meteorologist, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. I’d rather not speculate on their motives. I can say that they did not interfere with what I said in these appearances, but I know a number of scientists have commented that this just seems to not be right, that it seems–some call this activity “minders”–having minders come around to see what see what we say, and sort of monitor us.

Senator Lautenberg. You’re generous in your views. Mr. Piltz?

Mr. Piltz [Rick Piltz, Director, Climate Science Watch, Government Accountability Project]. Well, how Mr. Knutson was dealt with by the NOAA political structure has been revealed–at least to some extent–by internal e-mail traffic that was obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, and it was–in particular–after Hurricane Katrina and toward the end of the 2005 hurricane season when NOAA was, this was very much in the media, and there was the question of, does the intensity of this hurricane activity have something to do with global warming? Clearly, it was on the public’s mind.

And the NOAA leadership was doing a press wrap-up on the season and all of that, and it seemed to me, there was clearly an effort to selectively put forward certain scientists at NOAA and keep others out of the media, in such as way as to sort of sever the link in the public mind between increased hurricane intensity and global warming. Tom Knutson’s work was climate modeling projections that showed that under business-as-usual greenhouse gas scenarios, that over the course of the 21st century, more and more of our hurricanes would be category four and category five.

There was a political operative at the Department of Commerce who, in collusion with the NOAA Press Office, didn’t want Tom Knutson giving interviews to the press in which he would describe his work. And instead, they selectively put forward people from the weather service who said, “We don’t see any connection.” It’s a tremendous–it’s a really amazing example of the mismanagement, misrepresentation of the state of knowledge on this issue, selectively, by the NOAA leadership.

Senator Lautenberg. We have documents that show redaction and changes in wording that “could be dangerous, might be dangerous,” or “is dangerous”–what does that say? Is there any possibility that this was just innocent scribbling? Dr. Mahoney?

Dr. Mahoney [James R. Mahoney, Environmental Consultant, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and former chairman of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program]. No, Senator. Senator, no–I don’t think those comments were made where they were, or they were offered as editorial comments. I don’t think they were offered simply to try to pick one word over another, I think they were attempts to create a more moderate picture, or a less dangerous picture.

If I pick up on the Chairman’s words, the issue is how much would the public be scared by some of these things? I have no doubt that some people interpret their, did interpret their jobs as–among other things–aimed toward reducing, what I call, the “fear factor.” I’m just quoting that here, I’m not saying that’s a phrase in common use about it. And that would be a reason that some editorial comments would be reflected that way.

I do think there’s another matter that is important in context to this, Senator, if I could add to that. Some documents are meant to be project reports, or planning documents or things of that sort. And, I saw occasions–much of this came to my attention–where some, including among working scientists, would see in the case of a document, the opportunity to editorialize, somewhat, by pointing out the great problems that might occur. Because, after all, each of us as individuals have our thoughts and feelings–we may feel this is highly possible, or not, in some cases.

So, from the perspective of trying to create a plan document, or an overall project report document, I would find that I would try to be very careful to avoid extremes at either end. And the extreme at the one end would be that which, would be attempts to take out all the scary words. The extreme at the other end would be that, that would say, “The sky is falling,” when it may not be appropriate to say that. So, I–

Senator Lautenberg. Well, it certainly doesn’t seem to have been a journalistic exercise, to improve the quality of the language. I mean, it’s obviously designed to change what’s being said into something less, something different. And, Mr. Piltz, do you want to make a last comment, before I get chastised by the Chairman?

Mr. Piltz. Yes, Senator, if I could just comment on that. I worked for the Climate Change Science Program for 10 years, and I worked with career science professionals throughout the agencies, putting together 9 editions of the annual report of the Program to Congress, Our Changing Planet. It’s not a technical document, it’s a communication to Congress and to a wider audience, but it had many state of knowledge statements in it. I’m not a scientist, but I worked with 90 career science professionals, with them clearing every step of the way, to put together the most careful, reviewed language on what was understood, the highlights of recent research, and what the issues were. And, that–once that had been cleared by the science professionals–and I was accountable to them at every step of the way, it would go to the White House for final review and clearance.

And there, political gatekeepers would step in. And most notably, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Chief of Staff for several years there was a former oil industry lobbyist, who clearly had a political agenda. And, I think, if you kind of look at the process, he was not accountable back to the science community, his proposed edits didn’t have to be vetted by anyone, there was some pushing and pulling as to exactly how much of it to take, but I think that if you put it in front of the scientists and say, “Was this editing that enhanced the quality of the scientific communication, or made it more accurate?” I think you will find that the answer was no. And so, I don’t think it was a question of toning down extremes. I think it was a question of White House misrepresentation of language that had been agreed upon by science professionals.

Senator Lautenberg. I will close with this, Mr. Chairman. I have a report submitted from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program in 2003, and it starts with, “Warming will also cause reductions in mountain glaciers, advance the timing of the melt of mountain snow, of snow packs in polar regions,” et cetera, et cetera. And the entire paragraph is deleted, by Mr. Cooney, I believe. And, I mean, that evidence is hardly circumstantial. This is a gross attempt not to furnish the information as it was developed, period.

Mr. Piltz. I think it was generally understood among people in the program that there was something about this process that wasn’t completely on the up-and-up. Everyone has a right to comment, but I think under the previous Administration, comments of as little merit as we were seeing would have been flat-out rejected by the Program Office, and they would have been backed up by the White House Science Office, and here, a lot of that stuff was being allowed to go through. And I–I think that the science leadership was trying to hold the line, but they were really under a tremendous amount of White House pressure. That’s why the National Assessment got suppressed, they’re not even allowed to talk about that, to this day.

Senator Lautenberg. Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. It will be on us if we don’t listen to what we’re hearing these days. Thank you very much.

*    *    *

And thank you very much, Senator, for your many years of contributing to the public interest.

Earlier posts on this hearing:

Recalling an exchange with Sen. John Kerry about climate change and the Bush White House

Sherwood Rowland Senate testimony on IPCC, science censorship, and the need for climate action

From Testimony by Dr. F. Sherwood Rowland of the Departments of Chemistry and Earth System Science of University of California Irvine, Irvine, California before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on “Climate Change Research and Scientific Integrity”,  February 7,  2007:

Presentation of one’s work as one sees it is the bedrock of the scientific enterprise.  However, in the last several years, my scientific conversations have run into far too many instances in which the reports of the significance of the work have been subsequently changed by others, often by persons with less, or even no, expertise in the subject at hand.  Some of these conflicts have been gathered together, with verified details, by the Union of Concerned Scientists and by the Government Accountability Project, and are presented here today.  The working out of the best approaches to mitigation or adaptation to future climatic change is critically dependent upon possession of the most accurate and pertinent knowledge.

My oral statement and written testimony  for the hearing.