Rick Piltz passed away last Saturday. He spent decades working in the federal government and state government in Texas, and was a prominent whistleblower during the Bush administration. He later founded Climate Science Watch.
I first met Rick Piltz after reading a 2005 New York Times story exposing a concerted effort by the Bush White House to down play links between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The story was a blockbuster and featured leaked documents with the actual handwritten edits of White House officials. I eventually figured out the leaker was Rick Piltz.
I was working for a science journal and called to ask if he would do a Q&A with us. At that time, I was beginning to realize that the White House was trying to bury and deny scientific evidence that harmed corporate products or was at cross purposes to Republican party ideology. This effort extended to EPA chemical regulations and FDA approval of birth control. That’s why I wanted to interview Piltz. I wanted the view of a veteran government expert to explain to scientists how scientific policy really happens. Not the theory, but the actual practice.
We met at a bar close to the White House in the late afternoon. I wanted a casual discussion in a relaxed environment so I could get him to be as honest as possible. I figured hanging out at a bar over a couple of beers would be best. This was his first time speaking up since he had left the government.
Piltz was nervous and stressed during the interview. He had just left a secure job, because he could no longer take what was happening in the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the federal group created to help the nation address global warming. He didn’t know what he was going to do next in his career.
The main White House perpetrator, he told me, was Philip Cooney, a former employee at the American Petroleum Institute, who the White House had hired to coordinate the nation’s reports on climate change. Within days of the New York Times article, Cooney resigned from the White House and was then hired by Exxon Mobil, a company that had a long track record of disseminating disinformation on climate change.
During our talk, Piltz made it clear that the White House was doing everything possible to create confusion on climate change. “With all these arcane debates about climate models and cost–benefit economic models, the general public can’t get their arms around climate change,” he said. What the administration didn’t want was for people to start learning about what was going to happen in their communities: how climate change was going to affect grain farmers in the Midwest, people living on the Gulf Coast, and New Yorkers dealing with a subway system that could get flooded by storm surge.
When you stop discussing arcane scientific algorithms, he said, you create a national discussion. “[Y]ou start talking about real things that affect people.”
What Piltz said nine years ago has come into sharper focus. The year after Piltz went public, hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and devastated New Orleans. Some scientists say it was made more powerful by climate change. In a moment of recent irony, the Secretary of Energy visited Houston, Texas, to warn locals that the city’s petroleum infrastructure—including the Ship Channel and refineries—are vulnerable to climate change. The politics have also evolved. Corn growers in Iowa are worried now that global warming will harm agriculture and formed a political action committee to oppose a politician who denies climate change. Piltz was even right about hurricanes affecting Manhattan subways, something that I thought was absurd at the time. After hurricane Sandy wracked New York City, Lloyds of London stated that the storm surge from sea level rise caused 30 percent of the economic loss. That’s $8 billion in New York alone.
Piltz later founded Climate Science Watch, a program with the Government Accountability Project. He didn’t want another government job, he told me, because he was tired of working for other people and moving their agenda forward. It was time for him to go it alone.
Exposing how the White House was manipulating government reports on climate change spurred congressional investigations and coverage by 60 Minutes and several documentaries. The issue of scientific integrity became so acute that one of President Obama’s first directives after he was elected concerned restoring integrity to the scientific process.
Unlike many in the environmental community, Piltz did not quickly jump on the Obama bandwagon. He knew that the problems dealing with scientific integrity was ingrained in both parties, and he never yielded from criticizing the new President.
Created in part by financially conflicted think tanks and their academic compatriots, a new meme has emerged: scientists who speak out are no longer scientists; they are “activists.” The point is to discredit a scientist who does not sit quietly on the sidelines, publishing research in academic journals that most citizens will never read. Nowhere is this more rampant than in climate science, an area where experts with incredible math skills find their research torn apart by attorneys who probably couldn’t pass a course in differential equations at a local community college.
I honestly have no clue what this term “activist” means. If my doctor, for instance, tells me to eat better or risk cardiovascular disease, I would listen and try and make dietary changes. I wouldn’t think that, by giving medical advice, my doctor was a crusader against cattle ranchers and the potato chip companies.
Piltz spent decades in science policy and had a clear understanding of how science can get distorted, buried and misused if it inconveniences people in power.
“Scientists see politics as beneath them,” he said. “So they don’t learn how to engage policy makers. You can’t just drop some journal article over the transom and hope for the best.”
The danger for scientific experts isn’t just in speaking up. The danger is also remaining silent.
Rick wasn’t afraid to speak up. He will be missed.