A couple weeks ago, Rolling Stone unveiled a sixteen-page report on “The Climate Crisis,” following a long line of national magazines that have recently published special sections devoted to global warming.
Given the traffic in environmental reporting these days, it’s becoming difficult for publications to differentiate themselves with these special sections. Rolling Stone has three items in its report, two of which - a Q&A with Al Gore and a solutions essay by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. - are both predictable and by now generic. What stands out in “The Climate Crisis” is an investigative report by contributing editor Tim Dickinson on “the Bush administration’s secret campaign to deny global warming and let polluters shape America’s climate policy.”
Dickinson’s article, headlined, “Six Years of Deceit,” follows up on six years’ worth of media investigations that have used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and government whistleblowers to expose a deliberate White House campaign to cast aspersions on climate science and the threat of global warming. Dickinson brings some new information to light - including evidence that Karl Rove “vetted” spurious edits to government science reports - but a lot of his piece is elaboration on the previous investigations. Unfortunately, these reports go unmentioned in Dickinson’s article. But this is not the biggest journalistic sin. Over all, Dickinson adds helpful background to the stories upon which he piggybacks, piecing together a thorough chronology of events that has not come through in any of the individual investigative reports over the last few years. But failure to credit his colleagues in the press ultimately detracts, if only a bit, from an otherwise valuable piece of journalism.
Unraveling and understanding the complex machinations of the White House’s “do-nothing” approach on global warming has been a difficult job for reporters. A number of newspapers, The New York Times in particular, began to scrutinize the oil and coal industries’ influence on White House climate policy, and to unearth evidence that the Bush administration tampered with scientific reports about climate change, soon after the president’s first inauguration. Many details, however, such as key players and paper trails, have surfaced only recently, thanks to journalists’ perseverance.
Most of the White House’s tampering with climate science can now be traced to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). During the last six years, the council became the formidable policy arm of the Bush administration’s efforts to avoid climate-mitigation strategies such as reducing automobile emissions and creating economic incentives for renewable fuels. Reporters recognized the growing influence of the council in the first year of Bush’s presidency, but the real magnitude of the interference was not fully appreciated until June 2005, when The New York Times unmasked Philip Cooney. One of the council’s top deputies, but not a scientist, Cooney heavily edited a number of government climate reports to play up scientific uncertainties about global warming.
Dickinson starts his account shortly after Bush’s inauguration, with an anecdote from former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman, who has been increasingly vocal in the press recently, tells Rolling Stone that shortly after taking office, she asked the president if she would be free from CEQ supervision. “What’s CEQ?” Bush responded, obviously ignorant of what would soon become, as Dickinson calls it, “Cheney’s shadow EPA.”
In 2001, the vice president picked James Connaughton, a former lobbyist for the power industry, to head the CEQ, and oil and coals interests wasted no time capitalizing. Just two weeks after Bush’s inauguration, ExxonMobil’s top lobbyist, Randy Randol, wrote the council to demand that a number of its scientists be let go. The story broke a year later in The New York Times, on April 2, 2002. Dickinson follows up for Rolling Stone by uncovering an e-mail from Connaughton, his “first order of business,” which “echoed” Exxon’s call for terminations. Eventually, the council replaced all of the scientists that the oil giant had named.
In March 2001, a month after Randol’s letter, Whitman traveled to Italy to discuss climate with European allies. There she reaffirmed a campaign promise Bush had made to cap greenhouse gas emissions. Displeased, the heads of Exxon, Shell, and BP met secretly with two of the aides on Cheney’s furtive energy task force - Andrew Lundquist and Karen Knudson - to discuss the matter. Thereafter, Bush disavowed Whitman’s statement in Italy as well as his own pledge to cap emissions based on a memo drafted by the task force. Dickinson touts this document in his article, but he leaves readers with the false impression that it was uncovered by Rolling Stone. In fact, The New York Times first exposed the memo, as well as the sequence of events that culminated with Bush’s 2001 reversal on capping emissions, in October 2004.