Altered climate reports spark stormy hearing

Times Staff Writer

Government scientists, armed with copies of heavily edited reports, charged Monday that the Bush administration and its political appointees had soft-pedaled their findings on climate change.

The accusations led Democrats and Republicans at the congressional hearing to accuse each other of censorship, smear tactics and McCarthyism.

To underscore their charges of the administration’s oil-friendly stance, Democrats grilled an oil lobbyist who was hired by the White House to review government climate change documents and who made hundreds of edits that the lawmakers said minimized the impact of global warming.


“You were a spin doctor,” Rep. John A. Yarmuth (D-Ky) told the lobbyist.

Republicans targeted a NASA director who testified about administration pressure, accusing him of political bias, of politicizing his work and of ignoring uncertainties in climate change science.

And they disputed his contention that taxpayer-funded scientists are entitled to free speech. “Free speech is not a simple thing and is subject to and directed by policy,” said Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah).

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing was marked by an open confrontation between Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and the ranking Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) -- a rare display of direct debate in otherwise carefully choreographed hearings.

The hearing was the latest effort to challenge what the Democratic congressional majority sees as the Bush administration’s unchecked use of power. In the past few weeks, Democrats have held inquiries or announced plans to examine the unmonitored use of national security letters that allow the government to spy on Americans, the dismissal of U.S. attorneys and the identifying of former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, among other issues.

Waxman has been particularly aggressive, pursuing inquiries about intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq war and the politics of global warming.

To support their charges Monday, the Democrats produced hundreds of pages of legal depositions, exhibits and e-mail exchanges between administration officials. The paper trail illustrated how officials with no scientific training shaped the administration’s climate change message and edited global warming reports, inserting doubt in the place of definitive statements and diminishing the role people play in the planet’s rising temperatures.


Waxman’s committee received more than eight boxes of papers from the White House Council on Environmental Quality that he said provided disturbing indications of political interference.

“There may have been a concerted effort directed by the White House to mislead the public about the dangers of global climate change,” said Waxman, who also cited the administration practice of “controlling what federal scientists could say to the public and the media about their work.”

“It would be a serious abuse if senior White House officials deliberately tried to defuse calls for action by ensuring that the public heard a distorted message about the risks of climate change,” Waxman said.

One example showed how a report originally said the U.S. National Research Council had concluded that “greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures to rise and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.”


Edits by ex-oil lobbyist

Philip Cooney, the oil lobbyist who became chief of staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, changed that to read: “Some activities emit greenhouse gases that directly or indirectly may affect the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation, thereby potentially affecting climate on regional and global scales.”

James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said the edits confused public understanding of the issue. “If we push our climate system hard enough, it can pass tipping points,” he said. “That is not a situation we want to leave for our children.”


Hansen decried political interference in climate change science. “Scientists shouldn’t be hired to parrot some line.”

But he also said the real weapon against scientists was the budget. Last year, he said, the administration slashed climate change budgets retroactively by 20%.

Cooney, now with Exxon Mobil Corp., came to the White House in 2001 after more than 15 years with the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry lobby group. His last post there was leader of the climate team.

Waxman quoted an internal API document that identified climate change as the group’s highest priority. He said a key API tactic was to spread doubt about climate change science, exaggerating scientific uncertainty and downplaying the role of humans in climate change.

“What bothers me is that you seem to take the exact same approach in the White House,” Waxman told Cooney.

Cooney, soft-spoken but increasingly red-faced as the hours went by, repeatedly stressed that his job was to align reports with administration policy, as reflected by a 2001 National Academy of Sciences report that indicated some doubt about climate change models.


He denied his aim was to sow doubt or that he had any loyalty to the oil industry, even as lawmakers pointed to some 181 changes he made to one document, which Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said “had the effect of emphasizing or exaggerating the level of uncertainty surrounding global warming science.”

“How is what you were doing ... any different than the work of the so-called scientists during the whole tobacco debate when they were sowing doubt about whether there was any link between tobacco and lung cancer?” Welch asked.


Republican rebuttals

Republicans, in turn, came down hard on Democrats and Hansen, often sparking verbal fisticuffs.

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) raised Hansen’s work on “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary on Al Gore’s global-warming efforts, as evidence of Democratic sympathies. Hansen is a registered independent.

Several Republicans criticized Hansen for comparing administration efforts to limit and monitor scientists’ speech with similar efforts in Nazi Germany.

Issa said he hoped Hansen wasn’t influenced by money tied to a prize named after John Heinz, a former Republican senator and deceased husband of Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).


Waxman turned to Issa, who sat beside him. “I think the gentleman’s smearing Dr. Hansen,” Waxman said.

Issa stared, started to speak, but Waxman cut him off, repeating himself.

“Are you recognizing yourself?” Issa asked, using the formal phrase to see if Waxman was allotting himself time to speak.

“Well, I recognize you,” Waxman shot back as the crowd laughed. “I think you’re smearing him. Do you want to comment on that?”

Issa offered his rebuttal, noting that Hansen “clearly disliked” the Bush administration and the lawmakers moved on.