EarthTalk: Is the Bush Administration Censoring Scientists?

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that the Bush Administration is said to have "censored" climate scientists? -- Anna Edelman, Seattle, WA

Word of the White House censoring federal climate scientists on global warming began leaking out to the press early in George W. Bush's first term in office, but only in the last few years have a few federal employees themselves been willing to go on record with such accusations.

A report released last January by two leading nonprofits, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Government Accountability Project (GAP), found that nearly half of 279 federal climate scientists who responded to a survey reported being pressured to delete references to "global warming" or "climate change" from scientific papers or reports, while many said they were prevented from talking to the media or had their work on the topic edited.

"The new evidence shows that political interference in climate science is no longer a series of isolated incidents but a system-wide epidemic," says UCS's Francesca Grifo. "Tailoring scientific fact for political purposes has become a problem across many federal science agencies."

The issue first bubbled to the surface when Rick Piltz, who worked for a decade coordinating federal research on global warming as part of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program-first under President Clinton and then Bush-quit in mid-2005 alleging that his superiors were misusing and abusing the scientific information he was providing.

Piltz told reporters that Phil Cooney, an official with the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) who worked for an oil industry trade group before coming to the White House, had been editing and altering documents published by the program. "The changes created a greater sense of scientific uncertainty about observed climate change and potential climate change," said Piltz. Soon after Piltz's accusations became known, Cooney left CEQ to work for ExxonMobil, which has itself been accused of publicly misrepresenting the science of global warming.

Just when the brouhaha stirred up by Piltz appeared to be dying down, National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) climate scientist James Hansen, who has been sounding alarms about global warming since the 1980s, rekindled the debate by telling reporters that NASA public affairs staff, under pressure from the Bush administration, were trying to censor his lectures, papers and website postings and keep him away from journalists. In response, NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin vowed to support "scientific openness" on climate and other topics.

But openness is only a first step. Says Piltz: "Even if we succeed in lifting this heavy hand of censorship, there is still the problem of getting the political leadership to embrace the findings put forward by the scientists."

CONTACTS: "Investigation Reveals Widespread Suppression of Federal Climate Research," Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org/news/press_release/investigation-reveals-0007.html; U.S. Climate Change Science Program, www.climatescience.gov.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

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