Rick Piltz, founder of Climate Science Watch and revered whistleblower who exposed political interference in climate science, succumbed to cancer over the weekend. He took a brave and unusual path from civil servant to scientific integrity advocate and climate activist that inspired many of us. His memory will continue to motivate me and many others to work tirelessly for a better world where science more freely informs public policy.
I first met Rick in 2005. A senior official with the U.S. Global Change Research Program, he had grown tired of working in an environment under the Bush administration where political interference in the work of climate scientists had become routine. He resigned from government service and the Government Accountability Project agreed to represent him as a whistleblower.
He came to the UCS offices to talk about everything he knew about the politicization of climate science. Quite frankly, the amount of information he shared exhausted me. We talked for more than three hours. He was completely open with what he knew, and very interested in exploring strategies for bringing attention to what was happening.
Rick became a minor celebrity when Andy Revkin at the New York Times published an article based on documents Rick provided showing that a high-ranking Bush administration official and former American Petroleum Institute lobbyist had rewritten government scientific reports to downplay the link between human activity and climate change. The official, Phil Cooney, quickly left the administration to work for ExxonMobil. (Yup, sometimes you can’t even make this stuff up).
“Rick was one of the few people brave enough to speak on the record about the distortion and suppression of climate science during the Bush administration despite the possible repercussions for him and his work,” said UCS senior writer Seth Shulman, who investigated many cases of the abuse of science at the time. “Speaking out the way he did still took a lot of courage because he was uncertain about his future in the field. I greatly admired him for that.”
Indeed, it takes a ton of courage to become a whistleblower. You risk your livelihood and often take a big financial hit. You (and your family) often become subject to attacks by powerful interests. You may enjoy some protection from retribution, but even then, the deck is often stacked against you. But Rick soldiered on.
“Rick was a public servant in the truest sense, both while he was in the government and after he made the principled decision to resign and to start up Climate Science Watch,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for UCS.
For the next decade, Climate Science Watch paid close attention to the use and misuse of science in government and attacks on climate science and scientists. I knew that whenever I called on Rick, the answer would be an enthusiastic YES. He helped us conceptualize the extensive UCS report on political interference in climate science that was the subject of the House Committee on Government Reform’s first hearing on the topic in 2007 (and testified at that hearing). He contributed ideas that helped us write Federal Science and the Public Good, which remains our basic blueprint for restoring scientific integrity to federal policymaking. He would always be willing to join me to a meeting with an administration official, or meet for coffee to give advice, or send an email to make sure I was aware of a new challenge.
While some deprioritized work on scientific integrity once President Obama took office, Rick knew, personally, that the system that allowed for such rampant abuses of science was still in effect. He did not shy away from criticizing the Obama administration on all kinds of issues when he felt that it was failing to meet the president’s pledge to “restore science to its rightful place” (see here, here, here, here, and here for just a few recent posts).
Rick also saw the danger of attacking the work of climate scientists through criminal statutes and open records requests and public defamation. His organization signed on to numerous letters pushing back on such attacks, and he blogged regularly about developments.
Once he stood up, Rick Piltz never again sat down. He never took his eyes off of the prize, which for him was a world responsive to the consequences of climate change, and a democracy that respected the work of experts who devote their lives to public service.
“He has been such a guiding light for truth as we all have been navigating through calm and stormy waters,” UCS’s Brenda Ekwurzel wrote to me this morning. “I can think of no better way of honoring Rick than by continuing the fight he so bravely met head on.”
Those of us who knew him will always remember his soft-spoken manner, his methodical approach, his wry sense of humor, and his strong sense of justice.
So long, Rick. So many of us will miss you, and do our best to carry your passion forward.
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