Bush Administration Misled Americans on Climate Change

The Bush administration has consistently misled the public about the threat of global warming, said scientists who testified yesterday before a US House committee hearing into political interference with climate change science.

Global warming also took center stage at a separate hearing in the US Senate yesterday, where the debate flared as senators offered their views and solutions regarding climate change. The White House’s refusal to hand over documents requested by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has also raised a recurring issue attending federal investigations into the Bush administration – the conflict between Executive Privilege and the need for Congress to be able to hold the President accountable. Executive Privilege is not named in the US Constitution but is implied by the Separation of Powers; it can be invoked to protect state secrets, national security and confidential discussions between the government and its advisors.

Committee chair Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he believes the public’s right to know, and their democratic right to hold the government accountable, must take precedence in the committee’s current investigation: “The committee isn’t trying to obtain state secrets or documents that could affect our immediate national security … 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 minimizing the potential dangers. I believe Congress is entitled to these documents.” Mr Waxman referred specifically to allegations that Philip Cooney, the Bush administration’s former head of the Council on Environmental Quality who now works as a lobbyist for ExxonMobil, had routinely imposed his own views on the reports of climate change scientists.

Dr Drew Shindell, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for 12 years, testified that his press releases about the findings of climate change studies had been “delayed, altered and watered down.” He cited one example where a study explained that Antarctica would warm considerably over the next century, based on projections of continued greenhouse gas emissions, which had clear implications for rising sea levels. He said the original press release had been “softened” to the extent that it raised almost no interest and delayed the study’s entry into the wider public discussion regarding the scientific understanding of global warming. Another witness, Rick Piltz, told the hearing that he resigned as senior associate with the US Climate Change Science Program in 2005 after White House officialsrepeatedly insisted that the language in official reports on global warming be weakened or deleted.  He cited one instance in which the potential consequences of climate change had been entirely deleted from a report to Congress.

Dr Francesca Grifo gave testimony on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project, which defends whistle-blowers. She said a survey of 279 scientists had revealed that nearly half the respondents had been pressured to delete the terms “climate change” or “global warming” from their reports, while one third of the scientists reported that officials had made public statements that misrepresented their findings.  Scientists who participated in the survey also complained that uncertainty had been injected into issues on which most scientists agree, and that they had been banned from talking to the media about their research, which Dr Grifo argued is a violation of their freedom of speech. “You don’t give up your constitutional rights when you become a federal scientist,” she said.

Meanwhile in the US Senate, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, conducted a hearing inviting Democrat and Republican senators to offer their views and solutions on climate change.  Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said his bill would cut greenhouse gases by 2 percent each year and reduce emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. “This is an issue over the years whose time has come,” said Sen. McCain. “I don’t think any time is too late, but I do believe if we don’t act fairly soon, we may have reached a tipping point where we may not be able to reverse this trend.”

The bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), said that the Bush administration’s lack of leadership had undermined global efforts to reduce emissions. “We were laggards on this issue. That has been giving excuses to some of the rapidly developing nations, like China and India, to say, ‘If the United States with all its wealth and its enormous energy consumption is unwilling to do this, why would we who are still trying to feed our people want to invest in dealing with this problem?’”  Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) complained that the hearing was being used by some senators to enhance their presidential ambitions, and gestured towards Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). He said capping carbon emissions would adversely affect the US economy and lifestyle. “We’re 25 percent of the world’s economy today, and, under today’s technologies, if you are 25 percent of the world’s economy, you are going to be the largest emitter,” said Sen. Craig. “We have the lifestyle to prove it, and all of us live that lifestyle, and none of us want to deny it to our citizens.”

As he walked out of the hearing, Sen. Clinton replied, “I’m sorry that Senator Craig is leaving the room, because I wanted to certainly express my very strong support for maintaining America’s lifestyle. As I recall, on my many trips to California, which has kept electricity use (low) for 30 years, the lifestyle is pretty good.” She also said, “This is a problem whose time has come.”   Former committee chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has called global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” repeated his claim that there is “no convincing scientific evidence” that human activity is causing global warming, “We all know the Weather Channel would like to have people afraid all the time.”

“I’ll put you down as sceptical,” quipped Sen. Boxer.  Despite the scepticism of some senators, Sen. Boxer said, “We have the feeling that there is critical mass here to be very serious about this, at long last”. At least 60 votes are needed in the Senate to overcome a potential filibuster that could prevent the passage of legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions. Sen. Boxer intends to first introduce measures to improve energy efficiency in federal buildings, which is supported by the White House.

President Bush recently referred to “the serious challenge of global climate change” in his State of the Union address. However, he remains opposed to mandatory caps on carbon emissions, which scientists consider critical in the fight against global warming. Even with bipartisan support for such legislation, there are concerns that Mr Bush will use his veto power to prevent its passage.

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