Those who are developing the new National Climate Assessment must be prepared to defend it against the attacks that can be expected from the war on climate science, CSW director Rick Piltz said during an April 5 public comment period to the panel that is responsible for producing the assessment. When the first National Assessment was attacked by the denial machine and politically suppressed by the Bush Administration, the science community and the federal climate research program leadership failed to stand up for it.

Earlier posts on the new National Climate Assessment:

National Climate Assessment team convenes in Washington, DC, to begin producing a major new assessment due in 2013 (April 7)

Budget cuts loom as the U.S. launches a National Climate Assessment  (April 8) 

Statement by Rick Piltz to the National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee during public comment period, April 5, 2011 (we were allowed five minutes):

Good morning.

I direct the CSW project here in Washington. We focus primarily on what happens on the political receiving end of climate science communication – the use and misuse of climate science in politics and the policy process. I worked in the U.S. Global Change Research Program coordination office for 10 years. I was there during the time that the first National Climate Assessment was developed in the late 1990s, with the Overview report that came out in 2000.

I think there are a few lessons from that experience that might be applicable to this new effort. I think the first National Assessment was an important first step that should have been continued. The Synthesis Team did a great job. Tom Karl co-chaired that. Other people here were involved with it – Tony Janetos, Jerry Melillo, Mike MacCracken, and others. The new administration came in in 2001 and didn’t like the report and decided to bury it.

Essentially they suppressed the report. The federal agencies were directed not to make reference to the existence of the report in USGCRP reports, not to use the report, not to continue the process. They suppressed the report. When they were criticized for doing so in the National Academy of Sciences review of the USGCRP Strategic Plan, they stonewalled the Academy. The Bush Administration colluded with what I call the global warming denial machine, without ever providing any scientific or real legal rationale for killing that report. There’s an excellent history of it by Chris Mooney in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November-December 2007.

Key points:

Everyone pretty much rolled over for that. The USGCRP leadership failed to push back. The National Assessment Synthesis Team had disbanded and was really in no position collectively to defend their work. When Andy Revkin at the New York Times called up scientists for a reaction, he told me each individual scientist had an idiosyncratic position, or critique – maybe they wanted to use a different model.

The community had no collective way to respond to the charge from the global warming disinformation campaign that this was ‘junk science’. It was an outrageous charge. The Synthesis Team did not produce junk science. And yet there was no effective way to deal with it.

I would say that today we are witnessing a war on climate science and an attack on the personal and professional integrity of leading climate scientists that makes the Bush Administration seem nuanced and subtle by comparison. The situation is not normal.

I’m not talking about legitimate skeptics who can be convinced by science education and communication, or who are interested in all the legitimate policy debate questions. I’m talking about a corporate and ideologically driven right-wing effort to hamstring the political system from being able to deal with climate change as a policy problem – hiding behind an attack on scientific evidence and scientific assessment. They want to call the Academy a political organization, they want people to disregard the IPCC, and so forth.

This report will be attacked. There is no way to bullet-proof it against that war on science – that’s a myth. They’ll look for procedural missteps, they’ll look for anything, they’ll invent something if they need to.

To conclude:

You need to be prepared to defend your work. I’m not suggesting that the committee become political combatants. But you can’t just hand in your report and walk away from it and shrug your shoulders when it’s attacked. You have a professional and scientific and civic responsibility to have the courage of your own work and to defend this assessment and its process.

You also need to have stakeholder support. You need to be developing your stakeholder support as you go along, so that stakeholders will defend the usefulness and value of the process. You can’t wait until 2013 to have a communication outreach. You need to be building support for the integrity of what you’re doing by communicating with people as you go along.

And I think with that, you won’t be able to avoid the attack, but you’ll be able to defend better than happened last time.


Also see:

Joint letter to the National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee from NGO representatives (March 31)

[Updated April 14]  Chris Mooney on How the War on Science Works–And How to Respond

On the fate of the first National Climate Assessment, some of my earlier work includes:

Testimony at House Oversight Hearing  (Testimony before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, U.S. House Of Representatives, Hearing on Allegations of Political Interference with the Work of Government Climate Change Scientists, January 30, 2007)

Declaration in support of memorandum of amici curiae John F. Kerry and Jay Inslee, in the case of Center for Biological Diversity v. Brennan. Supporting exhibits.  (Declaration in federal court challenge to Bush Administration on the National Assessment)

Interview with PBS FRONTLINE  (Extended text of interview for “Hot Politics” program, first aired April 24, 2007)

The “Vanishing” National Climate Change Assessment

Revisiting Presidential Transition recommendations on climate change assessment and preparedness

Toward a Second U.S. National Climate Change Assessment  (Article published in Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, Vol. 86, No. 52, 27 December 2005)