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Bush administration in hot seat over warming

The Democratic-controlled Congress stepped up its pressure on President Bush's global warming strategy, hearing allegations of new political pressure on government climate scientists at seven federal agencies.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The Democratic-controlled Congress on Tuesday stepped up its pressure on President Bush’s global warming strategy, hearing allegations of new political pressure on government scientists to downplay the threat of global warming.

Lawmakers received survey results of federal scientists that showed 46 percent felt pressure to eliminate the words “climate change,” “global warming” or similar terms from communications about their work.

The scientists also reported 435 instances of political interference in their work over the past five years.

Bush in his recent State of the Union address acknowledged that climate change needs to be addressed, but he opposes mandatory caps on carbon emissions, arguing that industry through new technologies can deal with the problem at less cost.

The intense interest about climate change comes as some 500 climate scientists gather in Paris this week to put the final touches on a United Nations report on how warming, as a result of a growing concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, is likely to affect sea levels.

The new allegations were made at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Waxman said he and the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, had sought documents from the administration on climate policy, but were repeatedly rebuffed.

"The committee isn't trying to obtain state secrets or documents that could affect our immediate national security," said Waxman, opening the hearing. "We are simply seeking answers to whether the White House's political staff is inappropriately censoring impartial government scientists."

"We know that the White House possesses documents that contain evidence of an attempt by senior administration officials to mislead the public by injecting doubt into the science of global warming and minimize the potential danger," Waxman added.

Waxman said his committee had not received documents it requested from the White House and other agencies, and that a handful of papers received on the eve of the hearing "add nothing to our inquiry."

Nearly half cited edits
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a private advocacy group, and the Government Accountability Project, a legal-assistance group that represents whistle-blowers, sent out the survey to 1,600 scientists. Surveys were returned by 308 scientists. Not all answered every question, but the survey found that:

  • 43 percent of respondents reported edits during review of their work that changed the meaning of their findings.
  • 46 percent felt administrative requirements that impaired climate-related work.
  • 67 percent said the environment for federal government climate research is worse now than five years ago.

The groups urged lawmakers to ensure “scientists’ constitutional right to speak about any subject in their private lives and allowing scientists to make ultimate decisions about the communication of their research.”

“The new Congress must act to prevent the continued interference with science for political purposes,” said GAP attorney Tarek Maassarani. “A good first step would be for Congress to amend current whistle blower protections to specifically protect the rights of federal government scientists.”

Hearing witnesses included a NASA official and a former senior official of the office that coordinates the government’s climate programs. That former official, Rick Piltz, quit his job in 2005, charging that scientists’ climate documents were being edited by political appointees to tone them down.

Administration officials were not scheduled to testify. In the past, the White House has said it has only sought to inject balance into reports on climate change.

At the hearing, Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, criticized the survey as self-selecting and flawed.

Allegations of political pressure have been at the center of a controversy involving James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the country’s top experts on climate change. Hansen had accused NASA of trying to keep him from speaking publicly about global warming, and the agency later backed off.

Climate legislation coming
Since Democrats took control of Congress this month, there has been a rush to introduce climate legislation.

In the Senate, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was holding an open meeting Tuesday for her colleagues to express their views on climate change, in advance of a broader set of hearings on the issue.

Among those to make comments were two presidential hopefuls — Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. Both lawmakers favor mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, something opposed by President Bush, who argues such requirements would threaten economic growth.

Boxer has offered the most aggressive bill, one that is touted as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by mid-century.

Obama and McCain are sponsoring a bill along with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., that would cut emissions by two-thirds by 2050. Another bill, offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., would halt the growth of carbon emissions by 2030 and then is expected to lead to reductions.

All three would require mandatory caps on greenhouse gas releases from power plants, cars and other sources. They also would have various forms of an emissions trading system to reduce the economic cost.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to create a new select-committee to hold hearings and recommend actions on climate change. That proposal has been met with resistance from chairmen of committees with jurisdiction over various aspects of the matter, but nevertheless has indicated the new importance the issue has taken in Congress.