White House Alters EPA Scientific Document on Climate Change

Published Apr 7, 2003

In recent years, the White House has often treated climate change less as a scientific issue than a political hot potato. In June 2003, the White House sought to override Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists' judgment on climate change when it tried to substantially alter the section on climate change in the EPA's draft Report on the Environment. The draft report, referencing numerous scientific studies, stated that human activity is contributing significantly to climate change.

As reported in The New York Times1, administration officials demanded significant changes to the substance of the report including:

  • The deletion of a temperature record covering 1,000 years in order to, emphasize "a recent, limited analysis [that] supports the administration's favored message."2
  • The removal of any reference to the 2001 National Academy of Sciences review that highlighted climate scientists' consensus that human activity is contributing to climate change.3
  • The insertion of a reference to a discredited study of temperature records funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute.4
  • The elimination of the summary statement—non-controversial within the science community that studies climate change—that "climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment."5

According to an internal EPA memo, White House officials from the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget demanded so many qualifying words, such as "potentially" and "may," that the result would have been to insert "uncertainty...where there is essentially none." 6

As former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) official Jerry Mahlman, who served as a reviewer for the EPA report, noted in an interview, "It was obvious that senior EPA officials felt compelled to water down the conclusions" of the report.7 In the end, in a political environment described by then EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman as "brutal,"8 the entire section on climate change was deleted from the version of the report released for public comment.9

According to internal EPA documents and interviews with EPA researchers, the agency staff chose this path rather than compromising their credibility by misrepresenting the scientific consensus.10Doing otherwise, as one high-ranking EPA official noted, would "poorly represent the science and ultimately undermine the credibility of the EPA and the White House."11

The EPA's decision to delete any mention of global warming from its Report on the Environment generated widespread criticism. Many scientists and public officials—Republicans and Democrats alike—spoke out against the administration's political manipulation of science in this case.

Notably, the incident drew the ire of Russell Train, who served as EPA administrator under Presidents Nixon and Ford. In a letter to the New York Times, Train stated that the Bush administration's actions undermined the independence of the EPA and were virtually unprecedented for the degree of their political manipulation of the agency's research. As Train put it, the "interest of the American people lies in having full disclosures of the facts."12 Train also noted that, "In all my time at the EPA, I don't recall any regulatory decision that was driven by political considerations. More to the present point, never once, to my best recollection, did either the Nixon or Ford White House ever try to tell me how to make a decision." 13

  1. Revkin, A., and K.Q. Seelye. June 19, 2003. "Report by the E.P.A. leaves out data on climate change," The New York Times, June 19. Accessed March 12, 2007.
  2. EPA internal memo . April 29, 2003. Reproduced in "Scientific Integrity in Policy Making," Appendix A, Union of Concerned Scientists, March 2004.
  3. Ibid. Deleted reference: National Academy of Sciences, Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, 2001.
  4. Revkin and Seelye, The New York Times. Discredited study: W. Soon and S. Baliunas. 2003. Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years. Climate Research 23(2):89-110. Study discrediting it: Michael Mann et al. 2003. On past temperatures and anomalous late 20th century warmth. Eos 84(27):256-257.
  5. EPA internal memo.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Mahlman, J. 2006. Interview with Tarek Maassarani in Boulder, CO, April 6. Jerry Mahlman was the Director (now retired) of NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.
  8. NOW with Bill Moyers transcript, September 19, 2003
  9. Revkin and Seelye, The New York Times.
  10. UCS interviews with EPA staff members. Names withheld on request.
  11. UCS interview with EPA staff member. January 2004. Name withheld on request.
  12. Train, Russell E. June 21, 2003. "When Politics Trumps Science" (letter to the editor). The New York Times. Accessed March 12, 2007.
  13. Ibid.