Obama Administration Muzzling Its Climate Scientists

Yves here. The fact that Team Obama is gagging its climate scientists should come as no surprise. First, the Administration is obsesses with secrecy and image-management, as its extremely aggressive posture on classifying records and prosecuting leakers attests. Second, Administration climate policy is founded on a Big Lie. As Gaius Publius has written at length, its greenhouse gas measures exclude methane, the most potent greenhouse gas. That omission favors fracking, which fails the “clean green” test when you factor in methane releases. And that’s before you factor in contamination of water supplies.

By Steve Horn, a freelance investigative journalist and past reporter and researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. Originally published at DeSmogBlog

In recent years, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has come under fire for disallowing scientists working for the Canadian government to speak directly to the press.

An article published in August by The New Republic said “Harper’s antagonism toward climate-change experts in his government may sound familiar to Americans,” pointing to similar deeds done by the George W. Bush Administration. That article also said that “Bush’s replacement,” President Barack Obama, “has reversed course” in this area.

Society for Professional Journalists, the largest trade association for professional journalists in the U.S., disagrees with this conclusion.

In a December 1 letter written to Gina McCarthy, administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the society chided the Obama administration for its methods of responding to journalists’ queries to speak to EPA-associated scientists.

“We write to urge you again to clarify that members of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) and the twenty other EPA science advisory committees have the right and are encouraged to speak to the public and the press about any scientific issues, including those before these committees, in a personal capacity without prior authorization from the agency,” said the letter.

“We urge you…to ensure that EPA advisory committee members are encouraged share their expertise and opinions with those who would benefit from it.”

NGOs: Muzzling Policy Impacts

Harper maintains similar procedures, with scientists unable to speak directly to the press without prior authorization from public relations higher-ups.

Unlike the Harper rules, EPA Science Advisory Board members do not work directly for the U.S. government. Instead, they serve as advisors for U.S. environmental policy, but almost all members work full-time at U.S. universities, corporations or environmental groups.

Critics say muzzling of these scientists, which includes climate scientists, matters because they make policy decisions with real-world impacts on society.

“Federal advisory committees are generally composed of experts outside the federal government who provide advice to policymakers on a broad range of issues,” the Society for Professional Journalists, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society of Environmental Journalists and others wrote in an earlier August letter.

“Very often, their advice carries great weight and is reflected in final rules, especially when statutes require that regulations be developed based solely on the best available science.”

Muzzling Fits into Broader Trends

Due to National Security Administration (NSA) surveillance of electronic communications and the U.S. Department of Justice subpoenaing phone records of the Associated Press’ newsroom, the Committee to Protect Journalists — which generally only covers the media of other countries — wrote an October 2013 report about Obama’s press treatment.

The committee’s report concludes that the AP subpoena and NSA electronic surveillance has gone a step further than the EPA‘s procedure to route journalists to PR spokespeople for comment. That is, they also want to control and know who journalists are talking to off-the-record or confidentially, which the report concludes has had a chilling effect for both sources and reporters.

“I worry now about calling somebody because the contact can be found out through a check of phone records or e-mails,” R. Jeffrey Smith, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, said in a statement to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “It leaves a digital trail that makes it easier for the government to monitor those contacts.”

Due to the report’s findings and other related issues, investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill has said on multiple occasions that the Obama Administration has launched a “war on journalism.”

Stop Spin, Let Sunshine In

A July letter written by many free press and open government organizations called on the Obama Administration “to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.” 

“You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government,” they wrote“You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”

These groups also demanded the Obama administration reverse course and issue a new, press-friendly policy.

“We ask that you issue a clear directive telling federal employees they’re not only free to answer questions from reporters and the public, but actually encouraged to do so,” they continued. “We believe that is one of the most important things you can do for the nation now, before the policies become even more entrenched.”

To date, there is little indication a policy shift from Obama is in order in this sphere, though.

So for now, not only do Canada and the U.S. have a shared bond in that record amounts of Alberta’s tar sands now flow into the U.S, but also that the muzzling of scientists, and by extension the press at-large, is a threat to democracy in both countries.

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  1. pretzelattack

    his administration’s long waffling on keystone told me all i needed to know, not to mention the kid gloves treatment of bp in several areas, the persecution of one scientist for pointing out polar bear deaths, the increased drilling, etc.

    1. pretzelattack

      We write to urge you again to clarify that members of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) and the twenty other EPA science advisory committees have the right and are encouraged to speak to the public and the press about any scientific issues, including those before these committees, in a personal capacity without prior authorization from the agency,” said the letter.

      1. Luke The Debtor

        The USGS and NOAA fall under the Department of Interior and Department of Commerce, respectively. What does the EPA have to do with climate research? More spin, more misdirection.

  2. Jef

    Again this has nothing to do with Obama, Harper, or any administration.

    Climate change by definition anti-business, anti-fossil fuels (the biggest business in the WORLD), anti-growth and therefore no politician can allow serious, genuine climate change information/mitigation to come out. The first country that does is the first country to tank and what is going on right now in world politics is making certain that you are not the first country to tank. In fact everything is being done to be the last one standing. Who ever that is gets to dictate what happens for the rest of the world…or so they think.

    To pretend that this is not the case is disingenuous at best and more like disinformation. It is denial just as bad as climate denial because it keeps any real discussion from occurring.

    1. James Levy

      Your argument makes no sense to me. It would be like saying “the ship is sinking; the first man into the lifeboat is dead, but the guy who holds on until the ship is 9/10ths under water is golden!”

      How does it help Japan, or France, or Germany, or India, to pretend that the hydrocarbon economy is going to go on forever and climate change isn’t happening? How does it help China, with most of its population living along the coast or its two great rivers (which have a nasty tendency to flood)? The man who has cancer and pretends he has no problem and need do nothing about it is an idiot. How is it different for nations?

      1. James

        If I may. Extend and pretend is the only realistic option remaining, in that the so-called “green solutions” being marketed currently aren’t actual “solutions” at all, and for the most part aren’t even particularly “green” either. Having painted ourselves into a corner of our own design with exponential growth, carbon based fuels, and environmental and now climatic degradation, there simply are no realistic solutions other than more of the same, at least not if we want to continue to support the current ~7.2B of us currently breathing air, so that effectively the first society to throw in the towel on all that will be the first one to tank. Yes, they’ll all tank eventually anyway, but why rush the inevitable? A classic dilemma, and an existential one at that. I’ve long held that eventually the incentives would flip from conservation to “burn it while we’ve got it,” and I think current world events would support the case that we are living in those times now.

        1. James

          I was paraphrasing a larger “doomer” world view there, but one which I also, somewhat reluctantly, mostly agree with.

    2. legendary bigfoot

      There is a huge fallacy of composition inherent in the premise that climate change solutions are anti-business. What policies to mitigate climate change do threaten is the hegemony of hydrocarbon fuel producers over a vast scope of the world economy. Petroleum has been the key to control of the planet since World War I.
      Included among those who rely on the value of hydrocarbons is the United States Government, which owns vast tracts of mineral lands which it leases out, often at a loss and knowing that it will be cheated by leaseholders. Who owns the coal lands of the west and the offshore oil fields? Who owns the National Petroleum Reserves? Department of the Interior, an executive branch agency, with the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (formerly BOEMRE, formerly Minerals Management Service).

      What switching to solar, wind, wave/tide and other energy sources does is change the existing balance of corporate, political and strategic power. There is a giant fusion reactor in the sky for at least a few hours every day and all energy on earth came from it. Who wins and who loses in the shift to more direct use of this power?

  3. susan the other

    We are left to speculate about just how bad it is. How far beyond very bad has it gone? There are two basic possibilities: one is that global governmental decisions have been made to limp along causing the least damage possible which in turn requires a semblance of business-as-usual; the other is that the situation is so critical that drastic measures are being taken now and they’ve gotta keep it quiet or everyone will panic. The funniest reaction to global warming is the one where we human nitwits think we can “bug out” and drive to the cabin with lotsa canned food. We really do need to all get real. So whether or not our dear leaders are keeping things secret because they are very bad or because they are virtually hopeless, it is reasonable to assume the minimum – that things are very bad. And also that the government will never just come right out and tell us. Stay tuned.

  4. financial matters

    Like financial/economic and healthcare activists, climate activists are fighting entrenched systems with deep pockets. The oil and gas industry is spending $400,000/day lobbying Congress and government officials.

    But we should be clear about the nature of the challenge: it is not that ‘we’ are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is (unless it’s for a campaign contribution). (This Changes Everything)

  5. Bart Fargo

    Clicking through the links in the post, it seems the comparison between the Canadian and American governments’ current efforts to “muzzle” environmental scientists is a little off base. For example, the New Republic article had this anecdote:

    “In 2012, Ottawa Citizen’s Tom Spears contacted both NASA and Canada’s National Research Council in 2012 to request information for a story about snowfall. A report from the Environmental Law Center documents how NASA responded within 15 minutes, but it took eleven Canadian federal employees 50 emails to decide whether the journalist’s story would be “positive/informative.” Eventually, the reporter received “approved lines.”

    The article also linked to a Nature editorial from 2012 that reads:

    “In December [2011], agencies including the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued guidelines that promote openness with the press. For instance, NOAA and NSF-funded scientists and staff are free to speak to journalists without first seeking the approval of a public-affairs officer. The NSF’s policy states that researchers are free to express their personal views as long as they make clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the agency. And scientists also have right of review over agency publications and press releases that claim to represent their expert opinions. Such policies may not be implemented successfully in all cases, but they show that attitudes have evolved encouragingly since 2006, when charges that then-president George W. Bush’s administration had silenced US government researchers made front-page news.

    Over the same period, Canada has moved in the opposite direction. Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won power in 2006, there has been a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers. Researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak. Canadian journalists have documented several instances in which prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature. Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.”


    That editorial refers to policy changes at NOAA and the NSF, while the post above is primarily about the EPA’s efforts to control the media interactions of scientists who serve on its advisory boards. However, their letter to Gina McCarthy describes the upshot of the most recent (Nov 2014) EPA communications policy as “to narrow the restrictions on [federal] advisory committee (FAC) members’ speech to the period when the committees are actively developing their advice for the agency.” That is indeed what the policy says, and it also includes this passage:

    “The Agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy also states that government employees…are to “freely exercise their right to express their personal views provided they specify that they are not speaking on behalf of, or as a representative of, the agency, but rather in their private capacity.” (SI Policy
    , p. 6)


    So the EPA’s restrictions are, at least on paper, limited to advising that “FAC members should not discuss the work of the FAC during the deliberative phase”, while the Canadian government stymies the ability of its environmental scientists to discuss even their own published results with the public. While I have no doubts that the Obama administration would like to suppress science exposing the true consequences of their climate and fossil fuel policies, isolating scientists from the media in the manner of the Canadian government doesn’t seem to be their method of choice at the moment. That’s not to say there aren’t any other subtle disincentives to keep US gov’t scientists from communicating too frankly with the public (although the post didn’t bring any of these to light), and so of course I’m sure there’s still room for improvement.

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