What the U.S. Climate Assessment Has to Do With the KXL Decision

The pipeline originated in the Bush era, when similar climate reports had the status of orphan or pariah. Times have changed.

The cover of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, released on May 6. "This assessment is about presenting actionable science," said Obama adviser John Podesta after the report's release. Under George W. Bush, the White House instructed federal agencies not to rely on the findings of the climate assessment to guide any policies, nor to use it to guide further research into climate change.

The Obama administration's National Climate Assessment published last week after several years of work by 13 federal agencies is a striking example of the differences between Barack Obama and his predecessor on global warming science and policy.

Obama is emphasizing that climate change is now here and that action to confront it cannot be delayed. George W. Bush, in sharp contrast, put the accent on uncertainty and delay.

In "Keystone and Beyond," a new e-book published by InsideClimate News, I explore such differences between Obama and Bush as a way of examining the Keystone XL decision in historical context—to see what's changed since the pipeline was proposed under Bush, and how these changes may influence Obama's decision on whether the project is in the nation's interest. The two presidents faced starkly different oil markets, for example. They also took opposite views on whether carbon dioxide is a pollutant, whether it should be controlled under either the Clean Air Act or under a new cap-and-trade bill, and whether the United States should commit itself to steeply reducing carbon emissions under a new global treaty.

When it comes to how they dealt with the science of climate change—including the national climate assessments—the difference between the two presidents could not be sharper.

Understanding this is especially useful now, given the role the new NCA report is expected to play in the Obama administration's decision-making from now on. As John Podesta, Obama's special counselor, put it: "This assessment is about presenting actionable science."

Every part of the president's far-reaching climate action plan that he presented last year—and even actions not formally included in that plan, such as his decision on the Keystone XL line—should be guided by the science presented in this document. So should the programs of state and local governments as they seek to deal with the climate crisis that lies ahead.

That, after all, is the document's purpose. Produced by hundreds of scientists working for a long list of federal agencies, it is nothing if not authoritative. But it is accessible to laymen, written simply, well-annotated and elegantly presented online.

The underlying research has been subjected to peer review, and an early draft was published for public review and comment. The National Academy of Sciences did its own scrupulous review of the draft, and published its recommendations for improving the document. All of this significantly strengthens the new report, lending extraordinary credibility to its findings that climate change has already arrived, that it will affect every corner of the country, and that urgent steps are needed to slow its acceleration and to prepare for the damages that cannot be avoided.

Thus the NCA's warm embrace by the White House.

Under the Bush administration similar climate assessments were granted a status somewhere between orphan and pariah.

History of Denial

The history of national climate assessments goes back almost 25 years. A 1990 law, the Global Change Research Act, requires them to be written every four years. In 1998, during the Clinton-Gore administration, a blue-ribbon team was set up to produce the first such report. It was issued in November 2000, just as the votes were being counted in the disputed election that brought George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to office.

Once in power they promptly buried it.

The White House instructed federal agencies not to rely on its findings in any policies, nor to use it for the intended purpose of guiding further research into climate change.

References to the 2000 assessment were stripped from the Bush administration's annual climate reports to Congress.

In 2003, the administration willingly settled a lawsuit seeking to defang the report, brought by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Caving in to the institute, a leading climate-denial workshop supported by the Koch family and other fossil fuel interests, the White House effectively consigned the report to irrelevancy.

As for the legal requirement to produce a follow-up report in 2004, Bush ignored it. Instead of a comprehensive quadrennial review, his administration offered a series of narrow reports, which trickled out at a languid pace. Their main effect was to emphasize the uncertainty of the science, a recurrent theme during the Bush administration.

The National Academy of Sciences, the government's pre-eminent advisor on the use of science to form policy, raised its eyebrows, and eventually wrote a long treatise on how to properly conduct a climate assessment, but had no power to force the president's hand.

By 2005, the flagrant disregard for the legally required process of producing scientific assessments had become something of a scandal. The story of the Bush administration's handling of climate story has been documented in detail over the years by Rick Piltz, a government whistleblower who was instrumental in exposing the scandal and who left the government for Climate Science Watch, a watchdog program of the Government Accountability Office.

In 2006, Sen. John Kerry, now Obama's Secretary of State and the man in charge of both the Keystone decision and the negotiations toward a new climate treaty, called on the White House to issue a new assessment. He called the Bush administration's obstructionism "a severe impediment to well-informed government policy and action on global warming."

He and a Republican ally at the time, Sen. John McCain, asked the Government Accountability Office to issue a report on the administration's compliance with the Global Change Research Act. It found Bush's alternative approach for keeping up with climate science to be too little, too late.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace filed a lawsuit in 2006 to compel the Bush administration to comply with the law and issue a report.

Kerry, among others, filed a supporting brief in the case, calling Bush's approach "part of a larger pattern of suppressing climate science."

The judge agreed with the environmentalist plaintiffs, and in May 2008 the Bush administration met the court-imposed deadline, issuing a perfunctory report. It was essentially a review of the literature, which had little if any impact on the administration's policies during Bush's final months in office. The second NCA would not be completed until 2009, after Bush left office.

Kerry's Role

"Keystone and Beyond" cites Kerry's senatorial role in this fight as an example of his early, detailed understanding of where climate science was leading climate policy.

At Senate hearings in 2007, where he berated an administration official for "the most serious dereliction of public responsibility that I've ever seen," Kerry was already focusing on the need to keep the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at less than 450 parts per million, a number scientists say may give the world a reasonable chance of avoiding the most serious risks of global warming. (In April, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 exceeded 400 ppm all month for the first time in human history.) To reach the 450 ppm safe-climate target, nations must stay within a strict carbon dioxide emissions budget that probably means leaving three quarters of readily available fossil fuels in the ground.

If Kerry follows this reasoning, it might well influence his decision on whether building the Keystone XL is in the national interest.

President Bush, who came to the White House just as the tar sands expansion was gearing up and whose administration consistently supported the building of an ever larger network of pipelines to support that enterprise, has called the Keystone XL decision a "no brainer." All the more so, if one deliberately avoids the science. Perhaps the Obama administration's demonstrably different approach to climate science will lead to a different view.

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