John Broder’s spin job on Alan Carlin

In today’s New York Times, John Broder strains to belittle Alan Carlin, the “whistle blower” whose skeptical comments on EPA’s proposed endangerment finding the Agency tried to suppress. Most of the piece is larded with innuendo and spin.

Below is the text of Broder’s article and my running commentary in bold italics.

Behind the Furor Over a Climate Change Skeptic

WASHINGTON — Alan Carlin, a 72-year-old analyst and economist, had labored in obscurity in a little-known office at the Environmental Protection Agency since the Nixon administration.

Slant from the get-go. Why not be factual and say Carlin has worked at EPA since 1971, or since shortly after the Agency opened its doors? Why instead associate him with the tainted Nixon Administration? Also, what’s this bit about Carlin “laboring in obscurity”? That raises suspicion that Carlin is a disgruntled employee.

In June, however, he became a sudden celebrity with the surfacing of a few e-mail messages that seemed to show that his contrarian views on global warming had been suppressed by his superiors because they were inconvenient to the Obama administration’s climate change policy.

Broder hints that Carlin may be a “celebrity” seeker trying to break out of the “obscurity” in which he “labored.” Such cynical innuendo ignores an obvious fact: Carlin would never have come to anyone’s attention outside of EPA had the Agency not traduced its own professed commitment to “overwhelming transparency” in science-based policymaking.     

Conservative commentators and Congressional Republicans said he had been muzzled because he did not toe the liberal line.

Yup, they said that — because it’s true!

But a closer look at his case and a broader set of internal E.P.A. documents obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act paint a more complicated picture.

Actually, the New York Times set of EPA documents is “broader” by only one document, an email from Dr. Carlin to Dr. Al McGartland dated 03/13/2009 10:17 AM. It does “complicate” the picture somewhat, but in a way that undercuts the contrarian image of Carlin that Broder is trying to paint.

In this email, Carlin says, “I suggest you forward our comments, perhaps removing the name NCEE [National Center for Environmental Economics] from the cover page, to Paul and OAR [Office of Air and Radiation] with a note that at the very least this represents a summary of the principal viewpoints that OAR is likely to encounter to their TSD [Technical Support Document], and therefore would appear to be useful in revising the TSD to try to meet these arguments ahead of time.”

This email raises the distinct possibility that Carlin was attempting to strengthen EPA’s endangerment proceeding. As he goes on to explain: “It is unbelievable that John and I have been able to poke so many holes in the orthodox view in so short a time with so little manpower.”

It is true that Dr. Carlin’s supervisor refused to accept his comments on a proposed E.P.A. finding, since adopted, that greenhouse gases endangered health and the environment, and that he did so in a dismissive way.

Hold on there! Carlin’s superior (Al McGartland) did not merely refuse to “accept his comments,” he forbade Carlin to discuss endangerment with anyone outside their immediate office, refused to transmit Carlin’s comment to EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, and forbade Carlin to spend any more time on climate change.

But the newly obtained documents show that Dr. Carlin’s highly skeptical views on global warming, which have been known for more than a decade within the small unit where he works, have been repeatedly challenged by scientists inside and outside the E.P.A.;

There’s a whole lot of misinformation in this sentence fragment.

(1) The newly obtained documents say nothing about Carlin’s views being “repeatedly challenged.”

(2) Even if they did, so what? Most opinions about climate science and climate policy have been “repeatedly challenged” by someone. It is expected that people commenting on proposed agency actions will disagree on many issues big and small. That’s the reason for inviting public comment in the first place!  

(3) Nothing in these documents suggests that Carlin has been a skeptic for “more than a decade.” Carlin’s skepticism appears to be of recent vintage. For example, in a 2007 Penn Law Review article, Carlin argued that the most effective and efficient way to control climate change is with geo-engineering strategies, not emission-control regulations. The article presupposes that anthropogenic global warming is a serious problem.

that he holds a doctorate in economics, not in atmospheric science or climatology;

We needed newly-released “EPA documents” to find out that Carlin’s Ph.D. is in economics, not climate science? Nonsense. The documents say nothing about Carlin’s educational credentials. Besides, Carlin has never pretended to have a Ph.D. in climate science.

Broder overlooks several obvious points here.

(1) Carlin holds a B.S. in physics from Cal Tech. So, even if a science credential were a prerequisite for commenting on endangerment — it manifestly is not, since the vast majority of the 20,000 or so unique comments EPA has received were not submitted by scientists — Carlin meets that standard by virtue of his Cal Tech degree.

(2) Whatever happened to ‘lifelong learning’? Carlin has been analyzing environmental issues at EPA for 38 years. During at least 7 of those years Carlin did research in the physical sciences and supervised the production of reports similar to EPA’s Technical Support Document. Broder has no business suggesting that Carlin is unqualified to offer comment on the endangerment proposal.

(3) Most importantly, Carlin’s job at EPA is to analyze the economics of environmental issues. That means evaluating the costs and benefits of environmental policies. There is no way to evaluate the benefits of an environmental policy without understanding the relevant science.

For example, what are the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by X number of tons over Y number of years? The answer to that question depends on a host of assumptions about various scientific issues (e.g. climate sensitivity). A drone might accept somebody else’s assumptions as “settled science,” but a conscientious analyst with degrees in physics and economics would do exactly what Carlin did — try to provide the Agency with a genuinely independent assessment.

that he has never been assigned to work on climate change;

Actually, Dr. Carlin’s FY2009 performance standards, which were signed by Dr. McGartland, explicitly require work on climate change.

and that his comments on the endangerment finding were a product of rushed and at times shoddy scholarship, as he acknowledged Thursday in an interview.

Yes, of course, the product was rushed, and not ready for publication in an academic journal. Broder makes it sound as if Carlin confessed to an embarrassing fact in the Thursday interview. In fact, Carlin’s comment states that it was written in haste, does not meet normal scholarly standards, and was barely edited. Shame on Broder for suggesting that Carlin kept this hidden until the New York Times dragged it out of him, or that Carlin rather than the ridiculously short deadline (4.5 days) was to blame for the work’s defects.

Dr. Carlin remains on the job and free to talk to the news media, and since the furor his comments on the finding have been posted on the E.P.A.’s Web site. Further, his supervisor, Al McGartland, also a career employee of the agency, received a reprimand in July for the way he had handled Dr. Carlin.

Puh-leaze! Carlin remains free to talk because of the furor over his previous muzzling! EPA posted the comment to appease public and congressional anger at the comment’s being suppressed in the first place. Broder suggests that EPA damage-control efforts mean there was no problem in the first place. Is he a reporter, or a flak-catcher for EPA?

Dr. McGartland, also an economist, declined to comment on the matter. But top officials of the agency said his decision not to forward Dr. Carlin’s comments to the E.P.A. office that would be writing the final report had been his own and not directed by anyone higher up in the agency.

That top officials might be using McGartland as a scapegoat to protect their jobs, avoid a bigger scandal, and keep the endangerment proceeding on track is a possibility Broder never considers. 

Of course, McGartland may well have acted without the knowledge of his higher-ups. But that just raises another question: What is it about the political culture of EPA in the age of Gorethodoxy that prompted McGartland to suppress an analysis relevant to an important Agency action and censor a colleague at the NCEE? Broder does not seem at all curious to find out.

Adora Andy, the agency’s chief spokeswoman, called the accusation that Dr. Carlin had been muzzled for political reasons “ridiculous.”

But Carlin was, in fact, muzzled from March 12 through June 23, and although the reasons have never been made clear, the political points stated in McGartland’s email of 03/17/09 08:12 AM could be the reason: “The administrator and the administration has [sic] decided to move forward on endangerment, and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for this decision.”

“There was no predetermined position on endangerment, and Dr. Carlin’s work was not suppressed,” Ms. Andy said in an e-mail response to questions.

Preposterous. McGartland’s email of 3/12/09 02:40 PM specifically forbade Carlin to discuss endangerment with anyone outside of their office. Since McGartland later declined to submit Carlin’s comment with OAR, he did his best to send it down the memory hole.

“There was no predetermined position on endangerment, and Dr. Carlin’s work was not suppressed,” Ms. Andy said in an e-mail response to questions. “This administration has always welcomed varying scientific points of view, and we received much of it over this process.”

EPA’s proposed endangerment finding is nothing but a “predetermined position on endangerment.” The main point of Carlin’s comment is that EPA’s proposal and associated Technical Support Document do not even acknowledge data and scientific research inconsistent with EPA’s assumptions.  

Dr. Carlin said he was concerned less about how he had been treated than about what he described as the agency’s unwillingness to hear the arguments of climate change skeptics. He said there was an obvious “imbalance” between the billions of dollars the government had spent building a case for dangerous climate change and the lack of attention to a handful of skeptics like him.

Finally, some real reporting. Well, almost. The “handful” of skeptics comment is editorializing, and grossly inaccurate.

The affair began in March as the E.P.A. was rushing to document the scientific justification for its proposed finding that emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases endangered public health and the environment. The finding was largely an updated version of a similar report, prepared last year under the Bush administration, that came to the same conclusion. But the Bush administration never acted on the research or issued an actual finding.

The agency’s officials were acting in March under severe time constraints to prepare the finding for the E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, who was planning to issue it in mid-April, fulfilling a presidential campaign pledge by Barack Obama.

Broder neglects to note that these severe time constraints were entirely self-imposed, not ordered by the Supreme Court. Because the Agency was rushing to get its proposal out the door, Carlin had to rush to apprise the Agency of his concerns. So again, why bother mentioning that Carlin’s 93-page comment was in no shape to be published in an academic journal?

The finding set the stage for the government to regulate greenhouse gases for the first time, an initiative that will resonate through the economy for decades.

Dr. Carlin, long known as a skeptic on global warming, was not invited to submit comments on the document. But he was determined that his views be heard.

Two points here. (1) Earlier Broder said Carlin “labored in obscurity.” So how could he be “long known” as a skeptic? Also, as noted above, Carlin’s first published work on climate policy — in 2007 — assumes the seriousness of anthropogenic global warming. (2) According to Dr. Carlin, he attended a meeting where everybody in the room was “invited” to comment on the endangerment proposal.

He rushed out a 93-page report that cited a variety of sources in raising questions about global warming and the usefulness of government action to combat it. In an accompanying e-mail message to superiors, he said the belief in global warming was “more religion than science” and warned that regulating carbon dioxide would be “the worst mistake that E.P.A. has ever made.”

Hear, hear!

Agency officials and outside experts who reviewed his report as a result of the outcry over the episode have said they found it wanting in a number of ways. It included unverified information from blog posts, they found, quoted selectively from journal articles, failed to acknowledge contradictory information and may have borrowed passages verbatim from the blog of a well-known climate change doubter.

This misses the point. EPA shirked its duty, under Sec. 202 of the Clean Air Act, to exercise its “judgment” in deciding endangerment. Instead, the Agency uncritically accepted the judgment of two externally-produced literature reviews — the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report and the work of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (see the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s explanation of this problem). Carlin’s comment was designed to summarize data and research that EPA’s endangerment proposal and Technical Support Document did not even address. To call it “selective” is thus to take it entirely out of context. The comment was not meant to be a comprehensive overview of climate science but a corrective to EPA’s one-sided assessment.

In the interview Thursday, Dr. Carlin admitted that his report had been poorly sourced and written. He blamed the tight deadline.

“There are numerous problems with it,” he said. “I wouldn’t dream of sending it to a journal in its current form. It is totally unacceptable for that type of thing. But it was either do it in four and a half days or don’t do it. I had to take some shortcuts.”

Does Broder dispute that Carlin had 4.5 days to complete his comment? If not, then why bother comparing the comment to a scientific paper prepared for a refereed journal?  

According to e-mail messages that were among the documents obtained this week under the Freedom of Information Act, Dr. McGartland had earlier tried to discourage Dr. Carlin from filing comments on the proposed finding and told him that whatever he submitted was not likely to affect the final report, implying that the decision had already been made. After receiving Dr. Carlin’s comments, Dr. McGartland told him that he would not forward them to the office preparing the final report.

Two things to notice here.

(1) McGartland’s statement implying that EPA’s decision “had already been made” calls into question top officials’ denials that the outcome of EPA’s endangerment proceeding is “predetermined.” 

(2) McGartland did not merely imply that endangerment was a done deal, he also implied that people upstairs might be upset with comments that “do not help the legal or policy case for this decision.”

“The time for such discussion of fundamental issues has passed for this round,” he wrote on March 17. “The administrator and the administration has decided to move forward on endangerment, and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for this decision.”

Finally a relevant quotation, but Broder offers no analysis.

A few minutes later, he instructed Dr. Carlin to “move on to other issues and subjects.” He also told Dr. Carlin not to discuss climate change with anyone outside his immediate office.

The e-mail messages most embarrassing to the E.P.A. came to light in late June, when someone sympathetic to Dr. Carlin leaked them to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative group that regularly produces studies critical of research that advances a case for climate change and government actions to address it.

For the record, CEI is a free-market or libertarian public policy group. We also do not publish studies critical of climate change but of climate change alarmism.

The institute distributed the material widely, and a number of conservative commentators and Republican lawmakers seized on it as an example of what they called Democratic suppression of science.

Dr. McGartland was “counseled” by his superior “to assure that professional differences are expressed in appropriate and considered ways,” according to one of the newly released documents.

I do not find this statement in the documents linked to Broder’s column.

Dr. Carlin said he and Dr. McGartland had not spoken to each other since June.

The new documents linked to Broder’s column are not newsworthy. They do not advance public understanding of the issues one iota. I can only conclude that Broder published them in order to have a hook to engage in pro-EPA apologetics at the expense of a courageous and learned civil servant.