Pots and Kettles

Pots and Kettles

Murray Op-Ed in Tech Central Station
August 12, 2003

"The Administration's political interference with science has led to misleading statements by the President, inaccurate responses to Congress, altered web sites, suppressed agency reports, erroneous international communications, and the gagging of scientists." So stand the charges leveled against the administration by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D.-Calif.) and the minority staff of the House Government Reform Committee's impressively titled special investigation division. Their 33 page report (found at PoliticsandScience.org) represents a litany of charges against the Bush administration for unwarranted political interference with science. Yet, the report, in its desperate attempt to score political points, is as guilty as its targets of confusing politics and science. Those who wish to see science defended need something better than this.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

 

To illustrate the tenor of the report, it might be worth looking at the three allegations it makes about the administration's approach to global warming science. The first actually has little to do with science or national politics and more with geopolitics, although you'd never know it from the report's description. The report alleges that the administration caused Dr. Robert Watson to lose his position as head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, implying that ExxonMobil lobbied the administration into stabbing a dedicated scientist in the back.

 

In fact, there are two issues that the report does not address, being as they are fatal to its case. First, Dr. Watson had not been entirely nonpartisan during his period in office. In an interview with the newsletter Global Change in 1997, his views were characterized thus: "In his work for the federal government and now the World Bank, Watson retains his involvement with science but can also influence directly and strongly the social issues that matter to him." Watson told the newsletter that he found his ability to influence policy, "An order of magnitude more rewarding, much more rewarding." He called the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Clinton administration's stance on climate change "absolutely admirable," and then revealed his own leanings in saying of Congress' opposition to his preferred policies, "Rather than moving things forward constructively, we've been trying to make sure that the things we've been doing were not undone" (emphasis added).

 

But perhaps more important than Dr. Watson's own political leanings was the actual procedure by which he was replaced as Chair of the IPCC. The report says, "In April 2002, lacking the support of his home country, Dr. Watson lost his position as chair." In fact, Dr. Watson collected 49 votes for his candidacy, mostly from Europe, but lost out to the Indian citizen Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, who gained 76 votes, mostly from developing nations. Those nations had felt betrayed by the Europeans when they refused to compromise with the United States over Kyoto, so dooming the treaty that many of them felt was important to their nations' futures. Even if the US had backed Dr. Watson's candidacy, it is likely that he would still have been defeated. The developing nations, not the US Administration, rejected Dr. Watson in favor of someone they felt would represent their interests and not those of western urban elites.

 

Secondly, the report alleges that the White House "suppressed scientific evidence of global warming." This allegation refers to the deletion of references to the National Assessment on Climate Change from a report drafted by the EPA after criticism from the White House. The National Assessment, however, does not rise to the standards expected of "scientific evidence." The assessment's dire claims about the future effects of climate change on the United States rely on the outputs of two models that are demonstrably outliers in the wide range of climate models, respectively predicting the highest temperature increase and the highest increase in precipitation of any of the models considered. Moreover, when tested with data from previous years to assess their predictability, neither model performed better than a table of random numbers. In other words, they are useless for their supposed purpose of predicting future climate. Far from suppressing science by deleting reference to this obvious instance of junk science, the White House was protecting its integrity.

 

The report also alleges that this process led to the sections' replacement "with a reference to a study funded by the American Petroleum Industry questioning climate change evidence." This is either sloppy or disingenuous. The study referred to--the now-famous study of paleoclimatology by Harvard's Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas--in fact received 90 percent of its funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The API provided only the small amount of funding necessary to finish the study and write it up for publication.

 

Finally, the report castigates the administration for refusing to let the EPA finish an analysis of the impact of the Climate Stewardship Act proposed by Sens. Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.) and John McCain (R.-Ariz.). Of course, the administration already had an analysis of the effects, undertaken by the Energy Information Administration. The EIA was founded to "provide policy-independent data, forecasts, and analyses to promote sound policy making, efficient markets, and public understanding regarding energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment." Given that the Lieberman-McCain bill is all about caps on energy production, the EIA is a perfectly respectable choice to produce the definitive analysis. It found costs of over $100 billion a year to the economy from the measures enshrined in the bill.

 

The unfinished EPA analysis, however, is said to have found costs of only $1-2 billion. Why an unfinished, preliminary analysis from an agency whose focus is the environment, not the nation's energy supply, should be preferable to the EIA analysis is anyone's guess. It does, however, smack a little of the idea that "our science is better than your science." To that extent, the report is just as partisan as the supposed tactics it attacks.

 

The Bush administration has, however, done itself no favors in its approach to the science surrounding global warming policy. It should have publicly repudiated the junk science of the National Assessment, and formally 'unsigned' the Kyoto protocols in the way that it formally unsigned the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, giving a full and clear statement of its reasons for these actions. Because it failed to do so, it has left itself open to this sort of sniping and insinuation.

 

For that is all the Politics and Science report represents, partisan jeering and name-calling with little regard to the true facts of the case. Science needs non-partisan champions. Clear, objective rules like the Daubert ruling from the Supreme Court and the Federal Data Quality Act will help in this regard. It is a shame that both are currently under attack from environmentalists and their allies. If the scientific process is to be rescued from the no-man's land of the political battleground, both sides will have to lay down their arms.