Climate Change Crusader Heats Up Renewable Energy Fair
Q&A with Rick Piltz, formerly with the U.S. government's Climate Change Science Program
Rick Piltz worked for 10 years as a senior associate within the U.S. government's Climate Change Science Program, which coordinates the research efforts of multiple federal agencies. In March 2005, he left the program in protest of the Bush administration's suppression of critical climate-change data. Soon after his resignation, with the help of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project (where he now heads up watchdog group Climate Science Watch), Piltz obtained internal documents for The New York Times uncovering how a White House official and former oil-industry lobbyist has repeatedly edited government climate reports to downplay links between greenhouse-gas emissions and global warming. Now Piltz is featured in the new film Everything's Cool which follows seven so-called global warming messengers from diverse backgrounds on their long-term missions to sound the alarm about the climate crisis. He was in Austin a couple of weeks ago en route to Fredericksburg for the eighth annual Texas Renewable Energy Roundup & Green Living Fair, where he screened the film and served as a keynote speaker. We caught up with him, and here's what he had to say:
AC: Describe your feelings around the time you resigned in 2005 and the mood within the Climate Change Science Program office.
Rick Piltz: It was having a pretty corrosive effect on my morale. The people I worked with were public servants. They're serious people; some are real lab-oriented scientists. They don't like politics. They want to steer clear of them and just want to do their technical work. Some of them are just time-serving bureaucrats who keep their head down and don't rock the boat. And some took it as more of a mission to make [climate-change awareness] happen, and there was a lot of frustration there. So I know for a fact that what I said was representative of the thinking of [a] much larger group of people who didn't feel free to speak publicly, and I heard that from a lot of people. I get a lot of support.
I was dealing with something that had been going on throughout the administration. As early as 2001, there were clear signs of political interference with communication on climate change, not with what the scientists were publishing in the journals but with communication to a wider audience. I'd been in that program for five years when the new administration came in, and I had always tried to protect it from political influence. So by the time I finally said, "That's it. That's enough. There's no more I can do here," anyone really interested in communication was bumping up against something that really wasn't right. I kept saying, "Why hasn't someone covered this story?" and finally the obvious occurred to me: They don't see it, and they won't see it unless you talk about it.
AC: You testified to Congress in January of this year that "politicization of climate-science communication by the current administration was undermining the credibility and integrity of the Climate Change Science Program in its relationship to the research community, to program managers, to policy-makers, and to the public interest." Specifically, you said the administration sought to essentially bury the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, published in 2000, what you called in a previous interview "to this day the most systematic effort that's ever been undertaken to assess the potential consequences of climate change for the U.S." What was so scary about that document to the Bush administration?
RP: Of all the billions of dollars that had been spent on this research program since the late Eighties, the National Assessment was the first time the program had ever put out something that addressed the question, "What are the implications of climate change for the United States – region by region, state by state, coast to coast, looking at agriculture and public health?" When you do that sort of vulnerability assessment, you start to identify a pretty wide range of likely harmful consequences to society and the environment. If that became the national discussion, the administration was rightly afraid that it would've generated more public and political pressure for stronger policy to reduce emissions. And that's a conversation that the Bush administration and its key allies didn't want to have.
So the global warming denial machine, an industry-funded advocacy group [The Competitive Enterprise Group], filed a lawsuit accusing the National Assessment of being in violation of certain legal technicalities. The lawsuit was withdrawn after literally being tossed out of court, but the administration behaved as though the denialists had won, and they told all the federal agencies not to do any more of this kind of work and not to even refer to the existence of these reports. It's a total scandal.
AC: How have things changed since 2005?
RP: At the beginning of the president's second term, there was a sense that things were going to get worse rather than better. I think with the strong communication from the science community and whistle-blower-type people pushing back against this stifling of communication, the administration's credibility is pretty much shredded on global warming science. They've had to back off some of their most obscure rhetoric. But they're still not really acknowledging the seriousness of likely impacts and not getting behind meaningful solutions to reduce emissions. ... But at least the issues are being raised in Congress. For years they simply wouldn't look at anything that was politically difficult. Now there's at least a push. It's not all monolithic. I support all the grassroots efforts under way, but it's hard to see them adding up unless you can get a stronger national policy.
AC: Talk a bit about your role in the film Everything's Cool.
RP: The filmmakers started shooting in 2004 and approached me about the time I was resigning from the Climate Change Science Program, before I went public in The New York Times. ... It's not fiction, but it has characters. It's not like Al Gore's science lecture. It follows people related in various disparate ways trying to communicate the global warming problem and the impediments we've faced: mainly, the great gap in how the scientists understand the climate-change problem and how the public understands it. They followed me up until the point where I testified in front of Congress at the beginning of this year. It was an official selection in the Sundance Film Festival. It's got a lot of human interest, and it says something about the role citizens can play.
AC: On the film's website, it says the filmmakers' ultimate challenge was to show audiences how urgent this situation really is – and still leave them optimistic and willing to do something. Having heard feedback from viewers, does the film succeed?
RP: I think it might. There's sort of an arc to the narrative. It picks up on everyone at a point when we're all discouraged about what we're seeing, and by the time the thing comes around to the beginning of this year, there's an uptick of hopefulness about what can be done. But it leaves that question very much open. It hasn't had a real general public release yet. But if you're part of a global warming disinformation campaign, you'll probably just hate it.