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Politics vs. Science at EPA: The Carlin Matter Revisited

[Editor note: For more background and the likely consequences of EPA's endangerment finding, see Marlo Lewis, "CO2 Regulation under the Clean Air Act: Economic Train Wreck, Constitutional Crisis, Legislative Thuggery"]

In their recent draft of an endangerment-finding technical support document (TSD), scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conclude that carbon dioxide emissions are a public health hazard and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Federal law requires that regulations be based on scientific information that is “accurate, clear, complete, and unbiased”; the most recent available; and collected by the “best available methods.” The EPA’s TSD on carbon emissions violates all of these requirements.

Staff researcher Dr. Alan Carlin, given just a few days to review the draft TSD, took EPA to the woodshed because the report offered little more than a bibliography of out-of-date reports and research rather than a rigorous scientific inquiry into the subject. The Carlin report’s preface clearly shows that the EPA abdicated its position of scientific authority on the subject: “Our conclusions do represent the best science in the sense of most closely corresponding to available observations that we currently know of [and] are sufficiently at variance with those of the IPCC, CCSP, and the Draft TSD that we believe they support our increasing concern that EPA has not critically reviewed the finding by these other groups.”

Both of EPA’s recent attempts to regulate additional pollutants under the Clean Air Act have had poor results. The TSD for the Clean Air Interstate Rule (vacated, reinstated, waiting for a “fix’ by EPA) and the Clear Air Mercury Rule (vacated, EPA wondering what to do next) took many years to prepare. The shortcut science exhibited by the EPA’s Draft TSD on carbon dioxide illustrates that perhaps the EPA is now incapable of conducting unbiased and rigorous scientific inquiry.

Rush to Judgment

Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator, gave her staff only a few weeks to prepare a TSD for carbon emissions. It should have taken a year or two at least. The TSD is the technical documentation that must be finalized before the EPA can promulgate carbon regulations, hence the haste.

To put the enormity of the task into some perspective, the TSD for the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) took about four years to prepare before it was released in early 2005. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated CAIR on July 11, 2008, because it “had more than several fatal flaws.” However, that same court issued a reversal of its earlier decision on December 23, 2008, allowing CAIR to remain in effect while EPA “fixes” the rule.

The short schedule to prepare the TSD forced EPA staff scientists to pick between two poor choices. Their first choice was to maintain the required scientific checks and balances but miss Jackson’s directive to release the TSD by April 2, the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision allowing EPA to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act. Their second choice was to compromise their internal scientific review processes and meet the schedule. They chose option two.

The EPA working group that authored the TSD circulated its draft in mid-March for an internal review. Staff researcher Dr. Alan Carlin, a 38-year EPA veteran, was given less than five days to prepare his comments. Carlin prepared a blistering 98-page report that was extremely critical of the TSD’s scientific rigor because EPA “decisions [were] based on a scientific hypothesis that does not appear to explain most of the available data.”

Action, Meet Reaction

The EPA’s overreaction was immediate when Carlin’s report went out within the agency. The EPA’s director of the National Center for Environmental Economics (NCEE), Al McGartland, first worried about the inevitable political fallout in a March 17 e-mail: “The administrator and the administration has decided to move forward . . . and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for this decision.” But McGartland obviously missed Jackson’s January memo promising to keep politics out of scientific inquiry: “I will ensure EPA’s efforts to address the environmental crises of today are rooted in three fundamental values: science-based policies and programs, adherence to the rule of law, and overwhelming transparency.”

McGartland’s next knee-jerk response was to issue a gag order: “Please do not have any direct communication with anyone outside of (our group) on endangerment. There should be no meetings, e-mails, written statements, phone calls, etc.” In an interview with CBSNews.com, Carlin said, “I was told . . . not to work on climate change.”

The EPA’s final comments were simply outrageous—they seek to discredit the messenger. In a written statement in response to media questions about Carlin’s report, the EPA noted that “The individual in question is not a scientist and was not part of the working group dealing with this issue.” The EPA completely ignores Carlin’s credentials (a BS in physics from CalTech and PhD in economics from MIT), yet he was sufficiently qualified to be part of the internal review team of the draft TSD and to work at the NCEE for many years. Carlin suddenly became unqualified when he asked hard questions and was unwilling to rubber-stamp the TSD.

Three Categories of Errors Found

In its first section, Carlin’s report outlines six specific reasons for believing that the scientific basis for the TSD is flawed; the second section cites “critical inconsistencies between the Draft TSD and data concerning the causes of global warming”; the third section presents “data showing continuing increases in US health and welfare despite increasing GHG levels.” Section 4 provides general comments on the Draft TSD. The report is persuasive and is certainly worth reading.

Carlin succinctly summed up the TSD’s flawed science this way: “Until and unless these and many other inconsistencies . . . are adequately explained it would appear premature to attribute all or even any of what warming has occurred to changes in GHG/CO2 atmospheric levels.”

Carlin pointed out that the EPA used science short-cuts to buttress the endangerment findings. Much of the TSD is based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) studies and models rather than on independent research and studies conducted by EPA scientists, as has been its historical practice. “These inconsistencies are so important and sufficiently abstruse that in our view EPA needs to make an independent analysis of the science of global warming rather than adopting the conclusions of the IPCC and the CCSP [Climate Change Science Program] without much more careful and independent EPA staff review than is evidenced by the TSD,” he wrote.

Carlin also pointed out that “there is an obvious logical problem posed by steadily increasing US health and welfare measures and the alleged endangerment of health and welfare discussed in this draft TSD during a period of rapid rise in at least CO2 ambient levels. This discontinuity either needs to be carefully explained in the draft TSD or the conclusions changed.”

The EPA has yet to respond to the concerns raised in Carlin’s critique of the TSD since it was made public.

The Essence of Science

Carlin wrote in his critique that the bedrock principle of good science is determining the correctness of an hypothesis by comparing empirical data with real world data. “We do not believe that science is writing a description of the world or the opinions of world authorities on a particular subject, …[it] is not a statement of belief by scientific organizations.” It’s also not about the new and improved EPA being dismissive of contrarian views that aren’t in synch with their leadership’s political agenda.

Here’s my critique of the TSD: It’s EPA’s scientific integrity that is endangered.

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Portions of this article appeared in POWER magazine.

8 comments

1 John Droz { 08.06.09 at 7:31 am }

Good article.

What this situation points out is that there are profound differences between reports issued by scientists, and scientific reports.

Scientific reports employ the elements of scientific methodology — which includes a healthy dose of skepticism.

Kudos for Dr. Carlin for speaking out, and for Robert and others to publicize the politicalization of critical technical areas.

2 Richard W. Fulmer { 08.06.09 at 6:29 pm }

The fact that Ms. Jackson gave her staff only a few weeks to prepare the technical support document (TSD), which according to Mr. Peltier should take years to compile, suggests that the report’s conclusion was predetermined. McGartland’s statement that “The administrator and the administration has [sic] decided to move forward … and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for this decision,” supports this suspicion.

According to the press accounts I read, the EPA claimed that it was not Dr. Carlin’s job to review the TSD suggesting that Carlin, in doing the review, was pursuing his own personal agenda. Mr. Peltier’s article implies that Carlin’s actions fell within his job description. Is this correct?

3 Noblesse Oblige { 08.07.09 at 12:16 am }

What we see here is science used as a politcally expedient instrument of policy. Dr. Carlin believed that the EPA had a resonsibility to conduct an independent audit of the science, in the pursuit of scientific truth. The EPA had no intention of doing that. Its only intention was to issue the polically expected result. The truth — or not — of the underlying scientific claims were irrelevant to the policy.

It is one more data point on our hopelessly dysfunctional and dishonest federal government.

4 S. Fred Singer { 08.07.09 at 5:57 am }

I suspect that the EPA is correct on one point, a rather small one: “that it was not Dr. Carlin’s job to review the TSD” But I also suspect that EPA avoided asking Carlin to participate in the review — precisely because he was known to be critical of the IPCC conclusions that form the basis of the TSD.

5 Bob R Geologist { 08.07.09 at 6:04 pm }

Unfortunately this mangled situation clearly shows that our Government is only interested in policy, science can go to Hell.
I suggest that this situation is likely the result of far too many lawyers in high governmental positions who have no understanding of the scientific method. And, our unrelenting search for the truth in all things concerning the natural world.
It doesn’t appear that the this attitude has a high priority in the legal profession.

6 Tom Stacy { 08.07.09 at 8:41 pm }

This article breathes hope into the ideal of a separation between science and state. If science as vast as classifying and prioritizing climate influences shall be hurriedly placed on a post-it note to further political cause, then all manner of fanciful claim shall win the heart of politicians and the keys to the treasury.

7 Carbonicus { 08.08.09 at 10:52 am }

This situation is analogous to an old story; one that is instructive, as we now know how it played out.

My ancestor and quasi-namesake, Copernicus, and Galileo determined, then proved, the heliocentric reality of our planetary system. The church had taught for years that the earth was the center of the universe and all – including the sun – revolved around Gaia.

When science conflicted with policy, science be damned, Galileo was actually jailed, and the ideology continued for quite some time.

Now, oh, about 400 years later, the church apologizes to both scientists.

Now don’t get wound up about the church, here folks, for this was the days before America and the church WAS the state. The church is only relevent in this analogy for its place as the center of politics in that era.

The difference is, this time, none of us skeptics is going to jail (…yet, maybe to re-education camps at some point, though…), and information, data, truth flows much more freely and expeditiously in the current era.

Please lay it on your U.S. senators from now until they vote on Wacky Marxism American Carbon Elimination and Serfdom Act. It will do nothing for planetary temperatures, will kill the economy, will tax consumers, redistribute wealth, hurt the world’s poor, and ultimately hurt the environment (see environmental Kuznets curve).

8 Richard W. Fulmer { 08.08.09 at 4:26 pm }

So Obama broke his promise to not let politics overrule science. No surprise. It was a promise no one could have kept. Once the government started funding scientific research all those decades ago, politics became inserted into science automatically.

Congress controls the purse strings and decides where and how research money will be spent. Congressmen and Senators are politicians who make decisions based on what will get them reelected. Politics strings are therefore unalterably attached to government money.

But even ignoring the role of politicians, government funds are inherently corrupting. Once a lab is set up to study problem “X,” the funds will only continue to flow as long as “X” continues to be perceived as a problem. It is in the interests of the researchers, therefore, to bolster such perceptions.

Research funded by industry does not suffer from such problems – research that does not produce practical results gets cancelled. However, industrial research is limited by its very nature. Suppose, for the sake of argument, global warming is truly a serious problem that must be addressed. What incentive does any company have to research the problem and to develop solutions? Conceivably, insurance companies might fill the gap, but there would be a huge free-ridership problem. The fact is that the only companies that have a vested interest in studying global warming are those involved in carbon-based industries, and they want the problem to go away.

Consumer/taxpayers are stuck in the middle. We’re paying for the government research through our taxes, and we’re paying for the carbon industry’s research through higher prices. The first has a vested interest in proving that global warming is a problem, the latter in proving that it is not.

What is our vested interest? What do those of us who are footing the bill want out of all this? Well, if global warming is a problem, we want it fixed, but not at the price of destroying the economy. And we certainly don’t want expensive fixes that will accomplish nothing. On the other hand, if global warming is not a problem, we don’t want scarce resources spent to “solve” it. In short, our interest is best served by knowing the truth.

So what is the best that we can hope for in this battle of special-interest science? The best is that in the give and take between competing interests and competing scientists, the truth (or a good-enough approximation of the truth) is discovered.

The worst that could happen is that the government uses coercion to shut down any research that doesn’t toe the government line. It is in our interest that both sets of research continue, and that through free and open communication, scientists figure out what is going on. In the meantime, we must resist all attempts to declare that “the science is settled,” and to shout down honest questions and dissent.

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