March 30, 2007 The Pump Handle 0Comment

For those who’ve been following the investigations into how the Bush Administration interfered with government climate science, the news about political interference into Interior Department science had a familiar ring.

Chris Mooney sums it up well: “Substitute for Philip Cooney an Interior Department official named Julie MacDonald, and it’s basically the same story as it was with climate change: A political appointee, friendly with industry, overruling the determinations of agency scientists.” (Cooney was chief of staff on the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality – previously with the American Petroleum Institute – who altered government climate science reports.)

Viewed next to the details that came out of the latest hearing into the politicization of climate science, though, MacDonald’s misdeeds are less appalling.

According to the New York Times and Washington Post articles, an Inspector General’s report found that MacDonald – the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks – sought to alter the agency’s scientific reports to ease their impact on landowners, and she shared internal agency documents with the property-rights group Pacific Legal Foundation and two individuals with “” email addresses.

Specific instances include this one, reported by Felicity Barringer in the New York Times:

The report, citing a lawyer in the Sacramento office, noted that Ms. MacDonald lobbied for a decision to combine three different populations of the California tiger salamander into one, thus excluding it from the endangered-species list, and making the decision legally vulnerable. A federal district judge overturned it in 2005, saying the decision was made “without even a semblance of agency reasoning.”

Juliet Eilperin in the Washington Post cites an example of MacDonald telling field personnel to change the nesting range of the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher from 2.1 miles to 1.8, and writes:

The IG noted that MacDonald “admitted that her degree is in civil engineering and that she has no formal educational background in natural sciences” but repeatedly instructed Fish and Wildlife scientists to change their recommendations on identifying “critical habitats,” despite her lack of expertise.

Meanwhile, in Congress …
On Wednesday, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing into “how big business and science agencies conspire to distort science.” The fact that politics has interfered with U.S. climate science is hardly breaking news, of course, but the hearing shed some light on techniques used in the process.

Dr. James McCarthy represented the Union of Concerned Scientists, which recently published the report “Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science.” Just as the tobacco industry spent decades and countless dollars manufacturing uncertainty about tobacco’s harmful health effects, ExxonMobil and other companies who rely on our fossil-fuel dependence have labored to create an appearance of uncertainty about the existence and effects of climate change. As Dr. McCarthy explains in his written testimony:

Like the tobacco industry in previous decades, ExxonMobil has:
* Raised doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence;
* Funded an array of front organizations to create the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate change contrarians who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings;
* Attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for “sound science” rather than business self-interest; and,
* Used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming.

Sheldon Rampton of the nonprofit SourceWatch shed some light on how industry groups can buy an aura of credibility for their claims:

Clear scientific evidence showing the link between smoking and lung cancer first emerged in the early 1950s. Public recognition of the extent of this hazard was delayed for decades due to aggressive public relations by the tobacco industry, and even today the industry is involved in rearguard efforts to downplay the dangers of hazards such as secondhand smoke. A few years ago, for example, documents came to light regarding an industry-sponsored campaign in the early 1990s to plant sympathetic letters and articles in influential medical journals. Tobacco companies had secretly paid 13 scientists a total of $156,000 simply to write them. One biostatistician received $10,000 for writing a single, eight-paragraph letter that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Another received $20,137 for writing four letters and an opinion piece to the Lancet, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and the Wall Street Journal. These scientists did not even have to write the letters themselves. The tobacco industry’s law firms did the actual drafting and editing.

Terek Massarrani of the Government Accountability Project recently completed a report, “Redacting the Science of Climate Change,” that describes how actions by the federal government have complemented industry efforts to promote the uncertainty agenda:

My report demonstrates how policies and practices have increasingly restricted the flow of scientific information emerging from publicly-funded climate change research. This has affected the media’s ability to report on the science, public officials’ capacity to respond with appropriate policies, and the public’s grasp of an environmental issue with profound consequences for our future.

The investigation found no incidents of direct interference with climate change research. Instead, unduly restrictive policies and practices were located largely in the communication of “sensitive” scientific information to the media, the public, and Congress. In this context, “sensitive scientific information” is meant to signify that science which does not support existing policy positions or objectives in research dealing with the effects of climate change or greenhouse gases on hurricanes, sea levels, Arctic ice loss, marine life, and human society.

The changes MacDonald made to agency documents are stark: one salamander population instead of three, 1.8 miles instead of 2.1. Her lack of qualifications to make such changes is obvious.

On the other hand, the efforts to create uncertainty about tobacco and climate change have been subtle and heavily disguised. Opponents of tobacco and CO2 regulation cite competing studies and testimonials by scientific experts, without mentioning that they have paid for many of those studies and testimonials, or funded the think tanks where these experts work. There is an entire industry devoted to manufacturing and promoting uncertainty.

While MacDonald’s interference was no less wrong or worthy of exposure than the interference with climate change, her wrongdoings will be far easier to correct (which is not to say there haven’t already been some irreversible consequences). In the case of climate change, industry-affiliated groups and government officials have successfully sold the “climate change controversy” idea to a significant portion of the public, and dispelling that belief is an arduous process.

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