Science, Denied, Again. Interior Department Adds Inaccurate Climate Change Info to Reports

March 3, 2020 | 9:27 am
Photo: BLM/Flickr
Maria Caffrey
Former Contributor

The New York Times reported this week that a senior employee at the Department of the Interior (DOI) is pressuring scientists to include inaccurate information about climate change in agency reports. So far at least nine different reports have been affected in what may be violations of the department’s scientific integrity policy. And this isn’t the first time that DOI’s science and technology policy analyst Indur M. Goklany has interfered with scientific reports. In 2018 he was linked to attempts to add a pro-warming slant based on his own flawed hypotheses to a USGS report on the impact of climate change on Montana’s shrinking glaciers.

According to emails obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute under public-record laws, Goklany repeatedly called for changes in reports from the Bureau of Reclamation—a federal agency assigned to manage water resources within DOI—to emphasize statistically unlikely outcomes of climate models. He also made edits that suggest increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is beneficial. Neither position is supported by the broad scientific consensus concerning global warming.

Goklany’s climate change denying edits are so well known within the department that they have earned the nickname of “Gok’s uncertainty language.”

Déjà vu

Unfortunately, this new reporting about scientists being pressured to alter their reports is not surprising to me. Just over a year ago I was forced to pack up my National Park Service office after my own fight with senior officials to stop them from removing mentions in one of my reports about how humans are the cause of climate change. Last year I testified to Congress that senior officials pressured me to make changes that I felt were part of an effort to mislead the public about the scientific evidence of our changing climate.

I know all too well the dilemma of wanting to be transparent and honest in your work, but not risk losing your job in the process and hurting your family or others that rely on your income. Goklany’s “edits” weakens the case for policy changes to address climate change even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that such policies are needed. Some of the reports he influenced concern future water resources in the western US, particularly in California and Oregon.

In places like California’s Central Valley, “Gok’s uncertainty language” has been used to describe global warming as beneficial through increased plant water efficiency. But that interpretation of the evidence has been soundly  rejected by scientists because it overlooks the future water needs of plants as temperatures rise.

What can we do about this?

Let’s make one thing clear. Senior officials have no business telling scientists how to write their reports. That is specifically part of the department’s scientific integrity policy.  For an official to repeatedly try to make such edits is deeply unethical. Last year Rep. Tonko introduced the Scientific Integrity Act (bill H.R 1709) to protect federal scientists, but it still has not been passed . But there are other things we can do:

Finally, if you are a government scientist who has been pressured to alter a report in a way that you think might be in violation of your rights or could mislead the public then please reach out to UCS. You will find secure ways to communicate with us and protect yourself. My experience has shown me how important it is to protect you and your work.

These efforts on the part of senior officials to mislead the public on issues like climate change are deadly serious. As someone who has spent my life researching climate change I can assure you that we do not have another four years to continue denying climate science.

This is not only an environmental issue, but also a public health issue that we and our descendants will be paying for over the next century and beyond. We need our elected officials to start working for us to protect our best interests.

It’s time to stop denying reality.