WASHINGTON — Federal scientists have been pressured by the White House to play down global warming, advocacy groups testified this week at the Democrats' first investigative hearing since taking control of Congress.
The Jan. 30 hearing focused on allegations that White House officials for years have micromanaged the government's climate programs and have closely controlled what scientists have been allowed to tell the public.
"It appears there may have been an orchestrated campaign to mislead the public about climate change," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. Waxman is chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a critic of the Bush administration's environmental policies, including its views on climate.
Climate change also was a leading topic in the Senate, where presidential contenders for 2008 lined up at a hearing called by Sen. Barbara Boxer. They expounded — and at times tried to outdo each other — on why they believed Congress must act to reduce heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases.
"This is a problem whose time has come," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., proclaimed.
"This is an issue over the years whose time has come," echoed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said "for decades far too many have ignored the warning" about climate change. "Will we look back at today and say this was the moment we took a stand?"
At the House hearing, two private advocacy groups produced a survey of 279 government climate scientists showing that many of them say they have been subjected to political pressure aimed at downplaying the climate threat. Their complaints ranged from a challenge to using the phrase "global warming" to raising uncertainty on issues on which most scientists basically agree, to keeping scientists from talking to the media.
The survey and separate interviews with scientists "has brought to light numerous ways in which U.S. federal climate science has been filtered, suppressed and manipulated in the last five years," Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the committee.
Grifo's group, along with the Government Accountability Project, which helps whistleblowers, produced the report.
Drew Shindell, a climate scientist with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that climate scientists frequently have been dissuaded from talking to the news media about their research, though NASA's restrictions have been eased.
Prior to the change, interview requests of climate scientists frequently were "routed through the White House" and then turned away or delayed, said Shindell. He described how a news release on his study forecasting a significant warming in Antarctica was "repeatedly delayed, altered and watered down" at the insistence of the White House.
Some Republican members of the committee questioned whether science and politics ever can be kept separate.
"I am no climate-change denier," said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the top Republican on the committee, but he questioned whether "the issue of politicizing science has itself become politicized."
"The mere convergence of politics and science does not itself denote interference," said Davis.
Administration officials were not called to testify. In the past the White House has said it has only sought to inject balance into reports on climate change. President Bush has acknowledged concerns about global warming, but he strongly opposes mandatory caps of greenhouse-gas emissions, arguing that approach would be too costly.
Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado who was invited by GOP lawmakers, said "the reality is that science and politics are intermixed."
Pielke maintained that "scientific cherry picking" can be found on both sides of the climate debate. He took a swipe at the background memorandum Waxman had distributed and maintained that it exaggerated the scientific consensus over the impact of climate change on hurricanes.
Waxman and Davis agreed the administration had not been forthcoming in providing documents to the committee that would shed additional light on allegations of political interference in climate science.
"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 minimize the potential danger," said Waxman, adding that he is "not trying to obtain state secrets."
At Boxer's Senate hearing, her predecessor as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., had his own view of the science.
There is "no convincing scientific evidence" that human activity is causing global warming, declared Inhofe, who once called global warming a hoax. "We all know the Weather Channel would like to have people afraid all the time."
"I'll put you down as skeptical," replied Boxer.