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Last Updated: Monday, 12 January, 2004, 23:13 GMT
Scorching world of climate politics
By Roland Pease

The White House's top climate advisors are like foxes "guarding the chicken coop", an anonymous source at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has told the BBC.

Bush energy launch
George Bush questions some of the science of global warming
The criticism comes just days after the UK Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, condemned the Bush administration for "failing to take up the challenge of global warming".

The EPA source was responding to questions from the BBC's Climate Wars programme about the way the White House's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) censored passages on global warming in a major EPA report last year.

Claiming that senior members of the council had close ties with the oil industry - one as a former lawyer who had represented the industry, another as a former executive of the American Petroleum Institute - the insider said there was a mind-boggling conflict of interest.

They basically wanted to sow confusion into the debate
Jeremy Symons, National Wildlife Federation
A private row between the Council and the EPA came to light last summer when a leaked memo revealed that the CEQ was trying to force a rewrite of EPA advice on climate change in its annual report.

"The White House has made major edits to the climate change section of the EPA's Report on the Environment, indicating that 'no further changes may be made'," wrote the memo's author.

According to Jeremy Symons, a former EPA climate adviser whose current environmental organisation - the National Wildlife Federation - received the leaked memo, the CEQ's intention was to include controversial new research undermining claims about global warming, and to remove text approved by the US National Academies of Sciences reinforcing those claims.

"They basically wanted to sow confusion into the debate," Jeremy Symons told the BBC.

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Although the sceptical report, by two Harvard astronomers, has found favour in Washington political circles, reportedly all the way up to the Oval Office, it is widely rejected by climate scientists.

Meanwhile, James Connaughton, the director of the CEQ plays down the significance of last summer's debate with the EPA.

Citing the "hundreds and hundreds of pages" published elsewhere by the US Government on climate science, James Connaughton says "this issue turned over differences of opinion over one or two sentences about how to summarise what the scientists have to say," adding "that's the give-and-take of the governmental process."

The BBC's source at the EPA argues that the agency should never have succumbed to the White House pressure.

"Any sense of political controversy and there's a reticence to talk about it. People fear for their jobs... I think it comes down to that."

'Quality' data

In the end, the EPA chose to say effectively nothing on climate warming, in a 450-page report that covered just about every other conceivable threat to the environment.

The episode marks a historical low in EPA staff morale, according to Jeremy Symons.

Our lawsuit contended that the national assessment was based on non-objective, biased, and laughably inadequate science
Myron Ebell, Competitive Enterprise Institute
"EPA staff objectives are really quite simple - to get good information out. That's been in conflict with the spin the White House has wanted on environmental measures."

But it is not just in political circles that climate science has come under the spotlight.

The threat of a court case has led to the partial repudiation of a second official document, The National Assessment On Climate Change, which now carries a "health warning" on its online version.

The warning, which says the report was not subjected to "data-quality" guidelines, was part of an out-of-court settlement the US administration reached with a conservative think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).

According to the CEI's Director of Global Warming, Myron Ebell, the lawsuit against the study was based on new legislation, the Data Quality Act, intended to prevent government agencies from publishing sub-standard science.

'Laugh test'

The climate change assessment wouldn't "pass the laugh test!" he told the BBC. "Our lawsuit contended that the national assessment was based on non-objective, biased, and laughably inadequate science."

Professor Eric Barron, of Pennsylvania State University, one of the report's authors, says that neither he nor his colleagues were consulted about the out-of-court settlement, reached late last year, or about the wording of the health warning.

Although finding the web statement more of an irritant (and even somewhat comical in effect) than a serious affront, Professor Barron does see a darker side.

"You do have to worry when you get to the point where [people] don't want to know something, and don't want it to be investigated because [they're] worried about the answer. What the CEI was attempting to do was very much in that scope."

With the CEI threatening further suits, former EPA staff predicting more leaks over internal arguments, and the US administration becoming increasingly isolated over international climate policy, the science of global warming looks set to grow politically ever hotter.

Climate Wars, with reporter Gerry Northam, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, on Tuesday 13 January, at 2002. It is repeated on Sunday 18 January at 1702.

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