Report: Bush Official 'Softened' Global Warming Data

A report in Wednesday's New York Times alleges a Bush administration science policy official altered government reports on climate change to "soften" words and phrases linking greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, to global warming. The official, Philip A. Cooney, was once a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and has no scientific training. Madeleine Brand speaks with the author of the report, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West and Slate magazine online, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, violent street protests shake the South American nation of Bolivia.

But first, to the global problem of climate change. Today's New York Times reports that a senior Bush administration official has repeatedly edited government reports to soften the links between greenhouse gases and global warming. And yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried unsuccessfully to convince President Bush to sign on to the Kyoto agreement reducing emissions, but the president says his administration is tackling the problem.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: My administration isn't waiting around to deal with the issue; we're acting. I don't know if you're aware of this, but we lead the world when it comes to dollars spent, millions of dollars spent on research about climate change. We want to know more about it. It's easier to solve a problem when you know a lot about it. And if you look at the statistics, you'll find the United States has taken the lead on this research.

BRAND: Joining me now is Andrew Revkin. He's the reporter who wrote today's article about the White House and climate change in today's New York Times.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ANDREW REVKIN (The New York Times): Thanks for having me on.

BRAND: First of all, tell us about the official accused of playing down this connection. Who is he?

Mr. REVKIN: Phil Cooney is a lawyer, has an economics bachelor's degree. He worked for about a decade, a little more so, at the American Petroleum Institute, which is the main lobby entity for the oil industry in Washington. And his role there in the late '90s was essentially to run a campaign opposing the idea that greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, should be restricted.

BRAND: So he's not a scientist.

Mr. REVKIN: No. And his role--he came to the White House in 2001 as chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which is a policy shop. Basically, it helps devise policies--the Clear Skies forest policies, that kind of thing, and climate policy, too--for the president, and to ensure that agencies' actions kind of hew to the policy template.

BRAND: And what are the reports that he edited?

Mr. REVKIN: There's been a series of reports that have come out over the last few years. One of them is sort of--it's almost like an annual report; it's required by Congress since 1990. It's called Our Changing Planet, and it's a yearbook of sort of what's the government been doing the past year on climate, what are some of the new findings and what are we doing next year.

The other one was a pretty big deal. In 2001, the president gave his first speech on climate and said he wanted to put a renewed effort into addressing the uncertainties about what's going on and whether humans are driving warming. And he wanted to revamp government climate research. And they created a strategic plan, a 10-year-plan for the next 10 years, to show how they're going to solve the riddle. And that document was another one that Phil Cooney edited.

BRAND: Can you give us an example?

Mr. REVKIN: There was a sentence in the Our Changing Planet report from the draft from October 2002. There was a sentence that said, `The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological change to climate change or variability is difficult.' That's the original sentence. And it was changed to read, `The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability is extremely difficult.' And that says something, especially to scientists. And the scientists who wrote these reports were very unhappy about this kind of thing because when a scientist says an uncertainty is significant, that's a very different thing than just saying it's uncertain.

BRAND: And what does the White House say, or Mr. Cooney himself say, about why this editing took place?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, the White House denied me access to Mr. Cooney himself. I would love to talk to him about this. You know, actually, some scientists who've worked on these reports say that the White House does offer good ideas, too; it's not all problematic. But I wasn't able to discuss this because he's not put on the record by the White House. And then they just sort of read a standard statement saying, `This is the normal course of affairs. These are big, complicated reports, and there's input on how to change them or improve them from every agency you can imagine. And things are rejected and accepted; it's just normal.'

BRAND: Andrew Revkin is a reporter for The New York Times. His story on the Bush administration's editing documents on climate change is in today's paper.

Thanks very much.

Mr. REVKIN: Thank you for having me on.

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