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Columns > Mashup

Exposing Big Oil’s red pen

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Whistleblower Rick Piltz exposed the White House Council for Environmental Quality’s plot to maximize doubt about climate change by aggressively editing scientific reports on the topic. Since resigning a federal research job in 2005, Piltz founded Climate Science Watch, a public-interest watchdog group dedicated to monitoring the politicization of climate science. He comes to Fredericksburg this weekend as the keynote speaker for the 8th Annual Renewable Energy Roundup & Green Living Fair.

First of all, I’d like to ask you a riddle.

[Laughter.] All right.

What’s worse than appointing an American Petroleum Institute lobbyist head of the White House Council of Environmental Quality?

Putting people with obvious political agendas in between the scientific experts and what society needs to hear is pretty damnable … But it was the communication to wider audiences, that’s when the political gatekeepers would step in. You know, talking to the media. Who can talk to the media? You can’t talk to the media. How to spin something in congressional testimony. Which reports to misrepresent; which ones to suppress; which ones to ignore; which funding to cut. They did whatever they needed to do to try to prevent a strong, clear message about the global-warming problem from coming through.

My answer was giving them a pen.

That’s a much better one.

But it sounds like giving them a date book is a bigger problem.

I was so amazed when we put this story out and [former White House CEQ Chief of Staff and API lobbyist Phillip Cooney] resigned two days later. I thought, “Wow. That’s amazing.” Usually these guys try to appear impervious. You cannot influence them. They’re not going to change their minds. They are hard over. Then when the guy accepted the job at ExxonMobil, I thought, “That’s more like it. There’s the old boot-in-the-face.” … He was carrying out a strategy I call the Global Warming Denial Machine that was worked out under the auspices of the American Petroleum Institute about 10 years ago.

Was this in tandem with what was happening inside the tobacco industry?

Well, the tobacco industry kind of pioneered the strategy, I think. The strategy is, as far as the science, to manufacture an exaggerated sense of the amount of scientific uncertainty in an attempt to ward off regulation they didn’t want … Then they would find scientists who were outliers. They would cherry-pick the outliers, fund them, and promote them, and use their political influence to conjure up the sense that there was this huge debate about human-driven global warming.

People expect this when it comes to groups like API, but they don’t expect this when it comes to their government.

For one thing, scientists have a lot of integrity about acknowledging where they’re uncertain. In fact, they always tend to talk about the next question they’re trying to answer … And if you have a predatory relationship with that uncertaintly you can fool people. The media, to achieve balance, would quote one person who represented the entire mainstream of the science community and then someone else who was an outlier … The mainstream scientists in their labs tend to be kind of defenseless against this. They don’t like politics. They aren’t very savvy about the media. They think, “Well, these guys. Who cares what they think? I mean, we took care of that in the Journal of Geological Research.” But you’re getting your chops busted up here on Capitol Hill, you know?

How big of a deal is it when you have a government that appears to be encouraging folks like Cooney to bring the denial machine into play.

It’s a huge issue. Society does need to deal with this problem … Changing the energy system is no joke. It’s going to be extremely difficult. So if you can’t even have an honest conversation among the political leadership of the country to characterize the problem and tell the public what’s needed for a solution – You can do a lot of stuff at the grassroots … but it doesn’t aggregate all by itself, it needs from the top-down national leadership. So this is a huge setback when the government misrepresents the intelligence.

As far as voters, citizens, what they can do to get national policies in place that are progressive and in line with the need, what’s your advice?

I think elected officials need to hear from voters that this is an issue they’re concerned about and that they want action on. This may actually be an election where climate change is on the radar screen. That would be a first. And then hold public officials accountable. When you see someone that is just obviously totally representing special interests and flying in the face of what you know the mainstream scientists are saying. There has to be some penalty for that. That’s going to be hard to put into place. People just have to be citizens.

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APPEARANCE
Rick Piltz
1-2pm Sat, Sep 29
Renewable Energy Roundup & Green Living Fair
Fredericksburg
theroundup.org

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