Rolling Stone Breaks Climate News!

Well, sort of ...

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.

The White House solidified its ties to the fossil fuels industries in June 2001 when undersecretary of state for global affairs Paula Dobriansky told the American Petroleum Institute that Bush had rejected the Kyoto Protocol “in part, based on information from you.” Dickinson has a FOIA request that “reveals” Dobriansky based her speech on a conservative climate action plan drafted by industrial polluters, although the The Guardian published the story first on June 8, 2005. That article appeared the same day that Andrew Revkin, at The New York Times disclosed that Philip Cooney, Connaughton’s top deputy at the council, had been editing government climate reports since May 2002.

Dickinson writes, however, that, “Although some of Cooney’s edits were revealed in a New York Times story in June 2005 that led to his departure, the full extent of his interference has never been reported.” This sentence, though technically correct, does not give enough credit to preceding investigations upon which the Rolling Stone article is founded. For the most part, Dickinson elaborates on Cooney’s meddling, placing him within a longer narrative of events; his one significant (and novel) contribution, however, is a letter linking Karl Rove, Bush top adviser, to tampering at the CEQ.

In May 2002, when his name was still unknown to the media, Cooney attempted to play up scientific uncertainties in an EPA report to the United Nations that warned about the threat of climate change. Nonetheless, an article in the Times called the document a “stark shift for the Bush administration.” Cooney, according to Dickinson’s story, was “frantic” and wrote a letter to the newspaper denying that the president had changed course on climate. “But this time,” Dickinson writes, “Cooney’s editor was not just Connaughton, but Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove.” Dickinson obtained a copy of the letter, with Rove’s signature of approval. “From then on,” he writes, “Cooney wielded a heavier pen when editing official reports on global warming.”

Cooney’s “commissarial coup,” according to Dickinson’s story, came in April 2003, when he made significant revisions to the EPA’s Draft Report on the Environment. While Dickinson enumerates many of the changes, he completely ignores a June 2003 story in The New York Times that first made the same revelations. The only thing that the Times did not have was Cooney’s name.

Dickinson’s article also takes premature credit for exposing the council’s influence outside of the EPA. “Internal documents uncovered by Rolling Stone reveal that Cooney did far more than edit scientific reports to the administration’s point of view,” Dickinson writes. “Cooney steered industry-sponsored junk science on global warming to Cheney.” He reports that “the most egregious example of cooked intelligence was a study underwritten in part by the [American Petroleum Institute].” The paper claimed that the twentieth century was not, contrary to mainstream scientific consensus, unusually warm.

Again, Dickinson’s information is correct, but he is piggybacking off earlier investigations by the media. The editors of the German journal where the industry-funded study was published soon retracted the paper, and the media covered the controversy extensively. In June 2003, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution labeled the study “dubious” and exposed the authors’ ties to the energy industry. Still, Dickinson does deliver an appreciated follow-up in Rolling Stone, reporting that Connaughton, testifying before the House Oversight Committee just last March, is still touting the study as a “new and major piece of science.”

Dickinson concludes his article with a Cooney’s departure from the CEQ and a look at the Bush administration’s current policy on global warming. Dickinson mentions the White House’s attempt to muzzle NASA climatologist James Hansen - a story that also first appeared in The New York Times last year - as well as Bush’s new climate mitigation plan, unveiled last month at a Group of Eight meeting in Germany. Here, Dickinson doesn’t have a lot of paper with which to condemn the White House or CEQ, but his skepticism, thankfully, is undiminished. “Even when Bush proposes what looks like a plan, it’s designed to stall real progress on global warming,” he writes.

Hopefully, if the press continues to investigate American climate policy as diligently as it has in the pass, we will soon have the documents to substantiate that opinion as well.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.