June 08, 2005
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change
Today's New York Times has an article by Andy Revkin on the role of a Bush Administration official who edited two high level climate reports, one the annually issued "Our Changing Planet" (past editions here) which provides a very broad overview of climate research in the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the other is the Strategic Plan of the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). For several reasons I believe that this news story, which will no doubt be warmly welcomed by some, is pretty weak stuff.
Here is why, point-by-point:
1. The Bush Administration has clearly shown willingness to cherry pick and even mischaracterize information in pursuit of its political agenda. The most obvious example is its misuse of intelligence leading to the Iraq war. So it does make sense for outsiders to carefully watch how the Bush Administration uses information in support of its agenda. No problem there.
2. Of the two reports Revkin finds that a high level official edited, one report, the CCSP Strategic Plan was subsequently twice comprehensively reviewed and revised by a scientific committee convened by the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC committee endorsed the scientific content of the plan and recommend that it be implemented "with urgency." Whatever effects the Bush official's edits had on the plan did not stop the NRC from endorsing its scientific content. Thus, we should conclude that the edits were not particularly significant or they did not remain in the final version.
3. In contrast to today's story, the NYT and Andy Revkin reported in August 2004 that the release of the FY 2005 Our Changing Planet represented a "striking shift" in the Bush Administration's stance on climate change - toward accepting the science. I didn't buy that argument then, and commented, "the 2003 edition of Our Changing Planet, while perhaps somewhat more staid in comparison to the 2005 report, nonetheless contains numerous references to human-caused climate change and predictions of its future, negative impacts. The USGCRP is after all a multi-billion research program motivated by evidence that humans are causing climate change and the desire to develop policy responses. It is hard to see what the news here is. The fact that the 2005 report echoes much of the language of earlier reports does not seem to me to be a striking change or motivated by any possible "shift in focus" of the Bush Administration." Revkin can't have it both ways -- Our Changing Planet cannot both serve an example of the Bush Administration's acceptance of climate science and its misuse of climate science.
4. Let's take a look at the specific edits in question. Both examples seem exceedingly insignificant. Two that Revkin cites in detail are: (1) "In one instance in an October 2002 draft of a regularly published summary of government climate research, "Our Changing Planet," Mr. Cooney amplified the sense of uncertainty by adding the word "extremely" to this sentence: "The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability is extremely difficult."" (I do attribution work, related to trends in economic damage, and it is fair to characterize it as difficult or exceedingly difficult.) And (2) "a sentence in the October 2002 draft of "Our Changing Planet" originally read, "Many scientific observations indicate that the Earth is undergoing a period of relatively rapid change." In a neat, compact hand, Mr. Cooney modified the sentence to read, "Many scientific observations point to the conclusion that the Earth may be undergoing a period of relatively rapid change."" Are we really going to ascribe some policy or political significance to the difference between "may" and "is"? It would be naive to expect that political officials do not play a role in spinning high level reports, but if these are the worst examples that the NYT can dig up in this case, then it would seem that the official in question, even if from the oil industry, is editing with a pretty light touch compared with some of the perspectives I have seen from that community.
5. Rick Piltz, a former democratic congressional staffer and USGCRP staffer under the Clinton Administration, who was apparently the source of the documents, claims in the article that the actions of the Bush Administration have "undermine[d] the credibility and integrity of the [U.S. climate science] program." While the Bush Administration may have undermined its own political credibility, it goes too far, way too far, to suggest that anything that the Bush Administration has done has undermined the scientific research being conducted under the CCSP and USGCRP. I'd be surprised if climate scientists accepted such a characterization of their work. Climate science is fully politicized, but the vast majority of bench scientists are doing excellent work, largely unaffected by the controversies at the interface of climate science and politics.
Here is what I wrote last August and I think that it is still true: "The New York Times' apparent strategy of playing "gotcha" with agency documents on the science of climate change is sure to set off an (another) extended series of debates about the science of climate change and who believes or admits what. If so, then score another point for those who desire inaction on climate change because endless debate over the science is about as close a proxy to inaction as you can find. In the end, those pressing the Bush Administration to admit the science of climate change may very well achieve this goal, but they will likely find it to be an empty victory as the Bush Administration can very easily admit the science and then justify its actions on a range of legitimate, non-scientific factors."
In short, the front page New York Times story today is a manufactured controversy.Posted on June 8, 2005 11:01 AM
funny thing about informational democracy and the advent of search-based news: the at-large community of journalism decides whether it's a real story or not and they've voted with their pens. Google news shows hundreds of outlets picking up the story. Doesn't make your analysis wrong (I agree with it), but perhaps gives a nice insight into what "The Media" is fishing for.
Posted by: kevin vranes at June 8, 2005 09:33 PM
The press gaggle at the White House yesterday had a lengthy Q&A with Scott McClellan, White House spokeman, on this issue (Thanks Chris Mooney for the link.) It is worth reading in full:
Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at June 9, 2005 06:59 AM
...I would have to agree with your assertion that this "controversy" over minor, even inconsequential, edits is manufactured.
I would suspect the real reason for printing the story had more to do with Tony Blair's arrival and a desire to create a "perfect storm".
The synergies, even collusion, that routinely occur on these media blitzes, by an iron triangle composed of the media, foundations and their grantees, and party operatives, would startle most casual observers.
Posted by: Observer at June 9, 2005 01:29 PM
While the examples Revkin cites are admittedly trivial, they're symptomatic of a much larger effort within the WH to downplay scientifically documented (by bodies like the NRC and the IPCC) risks of climate change and control information. This effort includes much more signifant (and, occasionally, scientifically egregious) edits to prior reports, unprecedented political oversight of climate-related documents/processes, and on several occasions, blocking/slowing the release of climate-related information.
The significance of this has nothing to do with its implications for policy (because, as as you say, the "gotcha" game won't work). Rather, its significance is the additional revelation, albeit weak, of inappropriate scientific interference at the highest levels of government and importantly, for the first time, naming a name and providing possible motivations.
Posted by: OnTheInside at June 9, 2005 11:05 PM
"Whatever effects the Bush official's edits had on the plan did not stop the NRC from endorsing its scientific content. Thus, we should conclude that the edits were not particularly significant or they did not remain in the final version."
Does not follow at all as anyone who has ever submitted a report to a requesting authority can attest. Essentially your choices are to 1) swallow the cant, knowing now that there will never be any action, 2) to try and insert for publication that there should be urgent action, knowing now knowing that there will never be any action, 3) to go public loudly, knowing that there will never be any action, and that you will never work in this town again.
The outcome of this little farago appears to be a mixture of 2 and 3.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at June 11, 2005 09:29 PM
Eli, as anyone who has ever served on an oversight body would attest, there is a fourth possibility.
That the submission for review, as written, is editorially acceptable.
Posted by: Observer at June 13, 2005 10:35 AM
Observer, you are correct.
Posted by: Eli Rabett at June 13, 2005 09:29 PM