Everybody is jumping on a report out of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, which suggests — in, I think, a fairly well-documented fashion — that the administration of Florida Gov. Rick Scott had an aversion to the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” And it appears that the message about not using these words filtered down to state agency employees and officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Scott himself has expressed skepticism about the science of climate change in the past, and more recently, retreated to the “I’m not a scientist” position of many GOP politicians.
But for agency employees who study and try to protect the environment, not talking about climate change is pretty hard to do. For these staffers — especially in Florida – climate change is in many ways the Ur story underlying almost everything that they encounter and work on. And you want them not to talk about it?
No wonder, then, that this story blew up in the media — with Scott administration officials denying the story’s accuracy to the Post’s Terence McCoy. Still, it seems clear from the original report that, at minimum, a number of agency employees perceived that they weren’t supposed to talk about climate change or global warming.
McCoy also spoke with another researcher, Elizabeth Radke, who told a similar story about running into problems with the phrase “climate change” in review of a scientific paper by a branch of the Florida state government, in this case, the Florida Department of Health.
What I find amazing about this story, though, is the short memory of today’s media, most of whom aren’t mentioning where this type of problem originates. In terms of trying to control the “message” about climate change as conveyed in government documents and agency communications — and thereby generating a media scandal — the pioneer was the administration of George W. Bush.
In October, this paper ran an obituary for Rick Piltz, a whistleblower who left the Bush administration after exposing, as our obituary put it, “how top-level George W. Bush administration officials edited scientific reports to minimize the link between human activity and climate change.” Piltz’s whistleblowing memo, dated June 1, 2005, is still online — and still a scathing indictment, precisely because it is logical and careful, and yet also uncompromising in taking a stand against political interference with science and scientific communications.
It’s required reading for any student of the politics of science, in the United States or anywhere else.
Here’s an excerpt, describing why Piltz left the U.S. Climate Change Science Program:
I believe the overarching problem is that the administration…does not want and has acted to impede forthright communication of the state of climate science and its implications for society….The problem is manifested especially at the points at which the key scientifically based assessments of climate change touch on the arenas of policymaking and research planning. The administration will not accept and use appropriately the findings and conclusions of the national and international climate assessments, and it hinders and even prevents the climate science program from doing so.
Thus, the story of political figures exerting control over the discussion and presentation of climate change, in official expert agency communications and actions, is really a very old one. The chief difference with the Scott story, though, is that since 2005, the science of climate change has gotten more and more certain and well established — making attempts to muffle it seem more and more egregious and out of touch.
In the year in which Piltz was writing — 2005 — the most recent scientific assessment by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had come out in 2001. In that report, the critical sentence about whether global warming was human caused read thusly: “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” “Likely,” in IPCC parlance here, meant a 66 to 90 percent scientific confidence in the judgment.
But Scott has the benefit of two additional assessments since then, both of which have upped the scientific certainty about this key conclusion significantly.
In 2007, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report concluded that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” — where “very likely” means a greater than 90 percent expert confidence in the conclusion.
Then in 2013, the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report bumped the certainty level up yet again. This time, the report said, it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” “Extremely likely” means a confidence level of 95 percent or greater. Not many scientific conclusions get this tag from the IPCC.
So in sum, what can we say about the Scott administration climate scandal?
At least two things. First, given the prevalence of climate change skepticism in the Republican Party over the past two decades, it’s safe to say that if a GOP politician ends up in an executive post (governor, president) overseeing a variety of science-focused agencies, then attempts to control climate science communications can clearly happen. We’ve seen that dynamic with George W. Bush, and we’ve seen it with Scott.
And we’ve also seen that government scientists and other officials bristle under this kind of interference and eventually, tell the media (and the world) the story. It’s a pattern.
And second: The main difference between now and 2005, when the Bush administration climate science scandals really blew up, is that the argument for taking climate change seriously today is massively stronger. Back in 2005, the Bushies could rightly point to a roughly 1/3 chance that scientists were wrong about this whole human-caused global warming. Still bad odds — and still no justification for interfering with the communication of science. But hey, at least it was a colorable argument.
Today, in light of the IPCC assessments above, Scott has, at best, a 5 percent chance of being right and all the world’s scientists wrong about climate change (and I’d call that very generous). And this, most of all, is why the current news out of Florida is troubling indeed.