The gust of wind that surged through Washington, D.C., earlier this month was not a warm front moving in. It was the collective sigh of relief when President Obama issued a memorandum that will protect the work of the 100,000 scientists and engineers in the U.S. government.
But it’s likely that no one felt a greater sense of relief – or vindication – than Rick Piltz.
Rick is the guy who blew the whistle on the Bush administration’s censorship of federal climate science. More specifically, he’s the guy who told The New York Times about the politically motivated manipulation of climate science reports by Phil Cooney, an oil industry lobbyist who was appointed to a top position in the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).
It wasn’t a pleasant experience for Rick. From his former position as senior associate in the office that coordinates the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), he witnessed a sustained government cover-up of federal climate science. To blow the whistle, he had to resign after 10 years in the job.
The CCSP is a joint effort by 13 federal agencies to study what climate change is, how it’s progressing and what the impacts will be. Participants include many of the nation’s top climate specialists from the NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several other government agencies.
Rick saw the blatantly dishonest and disgraceful pattern of how the White House and its political appointees were handling reports from these agencies. One example was the type of censorship Cooney was doing at the CEQ. Cooney, who came to government from the American Petroleum Institute, oversaw the CCSP’s work for the White House.
“Cooney waited until the 12th hour, after the career scientists had finished reviewing the reports,” Rick recalls. “He edited them at the last minute.”
Cooney’s edits weren’t minor changes in grammar and punctuation. He was watering down scientists’ conclusions.
But Cooney was just one operative in a much broader pattern in the Bush administration, Rick says. The administration modified or suppressed many other scientific findings, including the important national climate assessment written in the final months of the Clinton-Gore administration. That report, required under the 1990 Global Change Research Act, covered the potential impact of climate change on every region of the United States, on its water resources and coastal zones.
“They didn’t suppress it on the basis of science,” Rick says. “They suppressed it because of politics. The logical conclusion of the assessment was that the U.S. had to take action, and the administration didn’t want action. People had not yet grasped the lengths the administration would go to misrepresent the intelligence about climate change.”
With Republicans in Congress unwilling to blow the whistle on a president from their own party, a lack of oversight added to the problem.
So one day in March 2005, Rick packed his files in boxes, moved them to his home office and resigned from his job.
“I just got tired of accommodating it,” he said. “I had to get out of there to tell this story.”
He met with the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit that advises whistleblowers on their rights. Then he called The New York Times.
“I didn’t know whether what I was saying would have any impact,” he said. It did. The New York Times broke the story on Page 1 on June 8, 2005. Within hours, Rick was contacted by ABC, NBC and CBS, CNN, The Washington Post and even the BBC.
Cooney resigned two days after the story broke and moved to a job at ExxonMobil.
When Democrats took over Congress after the 2006 election, they held hearings on the Bush administration’s handling of climate science. Rick provided detailed testimony with 25 exhibits, including the documents Cooney edited.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform conducted a 16-month investigation of the Bush administration’s use of climate science and concluded the administration “engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.”
In the meantime, Rick spent nine months without income or benefits. He cashed in his retirement money and took out an equity loan on his home to start Climate Science Watch, described on its web site as a “nonprofit public interest education and advocacy project dedicated to holding public officials accountable for the integrity and effectiveness with which they use climate science and related research in government policymaking, toward the goal of enabling society to respond effectively to the challenges posed by global warming and climate change.” His salary today is one-third less than he earned in government.
In the new presidential memorandum to federal agencies, President Obama wrote:
The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.
Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.
If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.
To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking.
The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.
Obama directed agencies to institute a number of reforms to make scientific information more readily available to the public and to give greater protection to future Rick Piltzes who blow the whistle on the suppression or misuse of science.
So here’s to Rick Piltz, to federal scientists like Jim Hansen who continued speaking out about climate change under threat of retaliation, and to those tens of thousands of other scientists scattered throughout the government’s agencies and 700 research institutions who are trying to make the nation smarter about many of the key issues of our time.
And here’s to President Obama for ordering that ideology and politics will no longer interfere with science in the United States government.
As I’ve written before, one of the most difficult challenges facing our elected leaders will be to close the gap between what scientists consider necessary and what politicians consider possible. With the prospect of unfiltered science, that gap might now become a little smaller.