Under George W. Bush, warming became a reboot. The same people, data, arguments—a cycle from the past fifty years. But with the speed cranked way up, so everything appeared and then reappeared fast again like background in a cartoon. Questions that had been settled reopened. A face you thought behind you waited around the next turn.
Climate changed the president into a White House version of Wile E. Coyote. Devices that looked perfectly reliable in the Acme catalog detonated at the worst possible moment. Jet skates blowtorched the presidential hindquarters. A rubber band drilled him snout-first into a mesa. President Bush announced America’s complete withdrawal from the Kyoto treaty in March 2001. (To Van Helsing applause from the deniers. “The Kyoto Protocol is like a vampire,” S. Fred Singer told the Times, advocating some Transylvanian police work. “You need to drive a stake through its heart.”)
The president gave as his reason the energy shortages then browning-out California. A few years later, it emerged that the crisis had been deliberately manufactured by Enron—coincidentally, the president’s largest corporate supporter. (During the campaign, George Bush had bummed rides on the Enron jet. In November, staffers boarded Air Enron to oversee the Florida recount that gave their boss the presidency.) CBS News got their hands on audiotape. Private conversations between Enron traders. In a corporate satire—something to make business seem foolish and sinister—you wouldn’t believe the dialogue.
“All that money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?” asks Enron Trader 1.
“Yeah,” replies Enron Trader 2. “Grandma Millie, man.”
“Yeah. Now she wants her fucking money back for all the power you’ve charged,” says Enron Trader 1. “Jammed right up her ass for fucking $250 a megawatt hour.”
In May 2001 the Bush White House charged the National Academy with a full review of climate science. The twentieth second opinion? The two-hundredth?
The response was delivered quickly and sooted the president’s face. (The administration had asked by mail. White House stationery is not encumbered by street data or zip code. It states, wonderfully and airily, the most intimidating return address in the world: The White House. Washington.) Their first sentence removed the matter from doubt. “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising.”
At the climate agencies, political appointees became a kind of universal mistranslator.
The White House had to send National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice creeping onstage with soft-soled pronouncements. “This is a President who takes extremely seriously what we do know about climate change,” Rice said. “Which is essentially that there is warming taking place.” Which didn’t fool anybody. Newspapers: “The report thus all but eliminates one reason the administration has been using to forestall any action on global warming.”
It was just another reboot. “They asked a string of questions that might have been appropriate in 1990,” one National Academy scientist complained to the Times. “Hello? Where have you been for the last decade?”
It had an aversive effect on the White House: ash-faced president. The coyote never orders the same product from the Acme catalog twice. “The President did not ask the Academy for advice about global warming again,” writes Jim Hansen, “during the remainder of his eight years in power.”
The plot had turned so hyper-circular that different actors kept delivering the same speeches, their episodes separated by years. It’s what happens when a TV series hangs around half a century. Every plot combination has been tried, every character has gotten enmeshed with every other character.
In 1989, Al Gore looked at the environment, and searched himself for a metaphor. You crunched on the slivery evidence everywhere you walked. The world was looking, Gore said in the New York Times, at “an ecological Kristallnacht.” Eighteen years later, Jim Hansen searched himself for a metaphor: The evidence crunched under every shoestep. “Can these crashing glaciers serve as a Krystal Nacht?” Hansen asked, in 2007, again in the New York Times.
In November 1990, English and American troops were on the verge of invading Iraq to overcome Saddam Hussein; the British prime minister rose to the podium.
“The threat to our world comes not only from tyrants and their tanks,” Margaret Thatcher said. “The danger of global warming is as yet unseen but real enough to make changes and sacrifices.”
In March 2003, English and American troops were on the verge of invading Iraq to overcome Saddam Hussein; the UN chief weapons inspector rose to the podium.
“To me, the question of the environment is more ominous than that of peace and war,” Hans Blix said. “I’m more worried about global warming than I am of any major military conflict.”
Blix took a media shelling on his position. “Who is this guy? And why are we still listening to him?” asked Joe Scarborough on MSNBC. “There’s still snow on the ground in New York City, one of the coldest years on record.” 2003 entered the record as history’s fourth-warmest year: in the blistering European summer heat wave, fifty thousand people lost their lives.
In 2004, the UK’s chief scientist, Sir David King, was still, without realizing it, doing the Thatcher material. “Climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today,” Sir David wrote in Science. “More serious even than the threat of terrorism.” The chief scientist sent a nudge across the Atlantic: “We and the rest of the world are now looking to the U.S.A. to play its leading part.”
Tall order. The US—where, as one EPA official told the Times, there was now “a complete paranoia about anything on climate.”
The second President Bush had taken a page from the first Bush’s playbook. You can’t stop the reports scientists kept sending the American public. And you couldn’t block the inboxes where voters and journalists opened them. But you could take control of the email server.
At the climate agencies, political appointees became a kind of universal mistranslator. Scientists said yes—and what came out was maybe, or no.
The style was sly. Not a lie, exactly. Just enough extra words to crowd out the truth. “There’s a bear outside the door,” might become: “A wide variety of animal life is often thought to reside in the vicinity of human dwelling places.” Research veterans had never seen anything like it. When the story broke, in 2004, the Times headline was Bush vs. the Laureates.
Science and the White House were “at war….Nowhere has the clash been more intense or sustained than in the area of climate change.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association might try to provide a warming update: “NOAA reports record and near-record July heat in the West, cooler than average in the East, global temperature much warmer than average.” This came out in the placid voice of drive-time radio. “NOAA reports cooler, wetter than average in the East, hot in the West.”
NASA’s watch-this-space anxiety—“Cool Antarctica May Warm Rapidly This Century”—was smoothed into a bland and forward-looking item from the school newspaper: “Study Shows Potential for Antarctic Climate Change.” Officials at the Department of the Interior would publicize research only after the words “climate change,” “warming climate,” and “global warming” were purged from the press release. As the Washington Post reported, there was now a full-on “battle over climate change.”
One NOAA scientist put the situation in terms of value for investment. “American taxpayers are paying the bill,” he said. “And they have a right to know what we’re doing.”
If you were a coyote, there was the long-running problem of Dr. Jim Hansen. In 2003, the scientist was ordered by NASA to maintain radio silence: no more public talk about the human influence on climate.
Jim Hansen went public anyway. (A decision he struggled with. Family again beat job. “I did not want my grandchildren, someday in the future, to look back and say, ‘Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.’”) In a November speech, Hansen said government inaction represented a “colossal risk.” At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Hansen warned that warming would result in “a different planet.”
NASA now upgraded its threat: continue, and there would be “dire consequences.”
So the White House put a minder on him. George Deutsch III, a twenty-four-year-old Texas A&M graduate with spiky hair and widely spaced eyes who’d interned on the Bush reelection effort. Deutsch looked like someone about to mount an erratic run for homecoming king: now this unlikely person had become the conduit between James Hansen—climate’s most influential scientist—and the world.
Deutsch kept Jim Hansen off NPR—“the most liberal news outlet,” he said, “in the country.” He told coworkers serenely that his job was to “make the President look good.”
Then it came out that George Deutsch III was ladling uncertainty over fairly certain things like Big Bang, insisting that room be made available for the Creator. (At-risk youth might turn to the agency in a moment of spiritual crisis. “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue,” Deutsch explained. “And I would hate to think that young people would be getting only half of this debate from NASA.”) Then it came out that the uncertainty extended even to his degree status. Deutsch had exaggerated his résumé; he’d never graduated from Texas A&M.
More singed fur on the president’s snout. Deutsch resigned—and Jim Hansen ran free again.
Philip Cooney has the look of Washington middle-management—soft body sealed inside dark suit, tight Republican skullcap of hair. (Democratic hair is more catch-as-catch-can.) An air of cultivated invisibility.
Cooney graduated from the University of Richmond in 1981, headed north to Villanova Law, then signed on with the American Petroleum Institute. There followed fifteen years of lawyering and lobbying on behalf of oil. Junior attorney; senior attorney; then leader of the Petroleum Institute’s Climate Team.
Here is the Petroleum Institute on warming’s importance. From a 1999 strategy document, when Phil Cooney ran the team: “Policies limiting carbon emissions reduce petroleum product use. That is why it is API’s highest priority issue.”
Then Phil Cooney, with his air of not especially wanting to be noticed—when you are stepping many times a day into the vault filled with power and money, two things people limitlessly crave, it’s best to look as though you have no drives at all—went into government.
He arrived in summer 2001, a mid-level hire. Here’s the Wall Street Journal, their first sentence a wry smile. “Climate-change treaty foe Philip Cooney is the new chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality…At the American Petroleum Institute, he helped develop the oil lobby’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.” The Times described Cooney as a member of Washington’s phantom powerful. The toadstool successors of Jim Tozzi—workers who emerge in the moonlight, handle the necessary, are gone with the dew. Officials who “hold less visible jobs in the administration and agencies that allow them to make far-reaching policy and regulatory changes.”
Phil Cooney is the man who rewrote the climate reports. He’d get a paper from the EPA, from the United States Climate Change Science Program, then set to work dismantling it. He was the dreamy humanities professor who is able to pick apart a poem, see through its surface sense, mine the rich seam of ambiguity below. Under Cooney’s pen, yes was replaced by maybe, potentially nudged aside will.
From the government scientists, Cooney would receive “Many scientific observations indicate that the Earth is undergoing a period of relatively rapid change.” And with a sprinkle of wording, a snip of edit, Philip Cooney changed the weather. “Many scientific observations point to the conclusion that the Earth may be undergoing,” he’d write.
Incoming would be, “Reduce the causes or effects of human-induced climate change.” And outgoing would be much the same—but with human-induced deleted. Presto. In a sense, problem solved. People no longer changed their climate.
Some stuff he just cut. “Energy production contributes to warming”—gone. “Use of fossil fuels”—gone. He was, loyally, the former leader of oil’s Climate Team. Other stuff he’d slip in. “The uncertainties remain so great as to preclude meaningfully informed decision making.” Left alone, this mild man grew the bravery of a conquistador.
Sometimes his changes were so bald-faced as to be fun. “Delete ‘disaster reduction,’ ” he’d write, “replace with ‘opportunities.’… Delete ‘famine,’ replace with ‘impacts.’…Delete ‘human actions.’ …Delete ‘knowledge.’ ”
In 2002, Phil Cooney’s former boss at the Petroleum Institute faxed over a backslap: “You are doing a great job.” In a call with the Exxon-sponsored Competitive Enterprise Institute, Cooney revealed the mysteries of his process. “We’d take the text from the EPA,” Cooney explained. “And then we’d add a sentence like, ‘We don’t really know if this is really happening.’ ”
With any art, proficiency leads to ambition. Cooney had the warming chapter from an EPA pollution report stripped. As the House Committee on Oversight later marveled, Cooney’s Council on Environmental Quality “went beyond editing and simply vetoed the entire climate change section.” To another report—with the briskly cheerful title “Our Changing Planet”—Cooney made 110 edits. Scientists protested; Cooney scribbled the budge-free word No in the margin. One scientist later told the Times the changes had “a chilling effect.”
Another study was due: the EPA’s overall “Report on the Environment.” Cooney yanked the sentence “Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment.” (Though without this, what was a report’s point?) The agency quoted the killer first line from the National Academy: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere as the result of human activities.” Cooney replaced this with an every-which-way of his own devising: “Some activities emit greenhouse gases and other substances that directly or indirectly may affect …” Phil Cooney now outranked the National Academy of Sciences. He’d become—with scissor and inserts—the most powerful literary editor in the world.
EPA debated the merits of ditching the climate material entirely. “Uncertainty is inserted (with ‘potentially’ or ‘may’),” an official complained, “where there is essentially none.” So that the study “no longer accurately represents scientific consensus on climate change.” EPA head Christine Whitman felt Cooney’s changes would denigrate the report as a whole—so “Report on the Environment” was simply never published. Presto. Problem solved. Four days later, Christine Whitman recognized a similar exit door for herself, and resigned from government.
On a report detailing the nation’s entire climate science program, Cooney and his staff made 294 edits. To, by the House of Representatives’ count, “exaggerate or emphasize scientific uncertainties” and “deemphasize or diminish the importance of the human role in global warming.”
Scientists were now leaking documents. Phil Cooney was “someone who had no scientific training,” explained the Times climate writer Andrew Revkin. “And also with, essentially, a vested interest for years in not accepting the science on global warming. That he was doing that kind of revision was horrifying to scientists within the government. And that’s why they came to me with the documents.”
Intimidation is a numbers game with a fixed outcome. Eventually, you run across the person willing, at the cost of salary and career, to end it.
That person was named Rick Piltz. He’d spent ten years with the US Climate Change Science Program; he resigned in early 2005 over the Cooney edits.
A documentary crew was shooting a piece about warming and politics. Piltz, who now had time on his hands, led them on an old haunts tour: Good nine-to-five footage, the pleasures of the day when not at the bidding of the clock. He toured them past the Council on Environmental Quality, a plum-colored townhouse on Jackson Place—Phil Cooney’s office.
“I sort of felt when he was there,” Piltz said, “that Exxon-Mobil was in the room,” Piltz said.
It is an illustration of the ancient wisdom against speaking of the devil. At that moment, Philip Cooney stepped through the townhouse door.
It was spring and brisk. Piltz wearing a Saturday jacket, carried a Starbucks coffee in its stiff brown paper cummerbund. Cooney was sealed within his suit-and-tie armor. The camera records a fascinating confrontation. What you see is a whistleblower, at the precise moment of bringing whistle to lips.
You can hear his anxiety. The oil man comes down the steps. “There’s Phil Cooney right there,” Piltz whispers.
This was perhaps the only video of Phil Cooney then available—until he was called to testify by the House Investigation on Political Interference with Climate Change Science. (Because of Piltz’s actions, the committee would find, “The Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science, and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.”) Never acknowledging the film crew, Cooney veers coolly left. His face registers as a pink blur. “He doesn’t like publicity,” Piltz whispers.
Under Cooney’s pen, yes was replaced by maybe, potentially nudged aside will.
The producer can’t hear. “He does not like publicity,” Piltz repeats. “If you Google on him, you will not find much. He’s a behind-the-scenes guy…”
At the end of the block, Cooney fishes in his pocket. Out comes the cell phone.
“Did he see you?” the producer asks.
On Sixty Minutes a year later, Piltz would explain, “I mean, even to raise issues internally is immediately career-limiting. That’s why you will not find too many people in federal agencies who will speak freely.”
Piltz laughs to himself in shock. “So now he knows that someone is sticking a microphone in my face and I’m looking at his office.”
And you see the whole thing register on his face. Piltz takes a sharp step back from the film crew, as you would from a barking dog or hot stove.
Piltz had preserved Cooney’s edits. Each time Phil Cooney noodled out a “shown that,” a “confirmed that,” and replaced them with data pasta, information linguine. Piltz turned this material over to the Government Accounting Project.
Seventy-two hours later, Phillip Cooney was on the covers of the newspapers. Forty-eight hours after that, the lawyer resigned. “Phil Cooney did a great job,” said a White House spokesperson. “We wish him well.”
And then Phil Cooney’s life took a turn. The publicity-shy attorney had to suffer the sink-or-swim worst case for those with a media phobia, and hear his name batted around on CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, NPR, on Meet the Press. If he’d had the stomach, he could have read about himself in England, France (Agence France Presse: “Philip Cooney…often would subtly alter documents to create an air of doubt about findings few scientists dispute”), Germany, Glasgow (“Philip Cooney…is not even a scientist”), as far away as Qatar, and Australia’s Northern Territory News (“White House Man Bites Dust”). Or he could catch it in the USA Today on the rug outside the hotel room door. “Oil Industry Lobbyist Philip Cooney…talk about the modern-day equivalent of the Flat-Earth Brigade.” The piece pointed an accusing finger up Jackson Place toward the Oval Office. “Yes, Globe Is Warming, Even if Bush Denies It.”
That same pile-on week, the world’s science academies released a joint statement: Climate change was real, with humans at the burner. “The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.”
A week after the story broke, ExxonMobil offered Phil Cooney a job. He’s been based in Houston ever since, his title another bit of soft comedy: corporate issues manager. This could be the label on the generic can that, opened and upended, would pour out Phil Cooney.
Senator John McCain engaged in some Casablanca banter on one of the Sunday shows. “I am shocked, shocked,” the senator said. “He immediately went back to work with Exxon….Maybe he should have waited a month or two.”
Four weeks after that, George Bush, whiskers singed again, finally spoke the words every canceled press release, rejected interview request, and edited report had been designed to insulate him from. Unescorted by Phil Cooney’s potentially, maybe, or no. Just a president with a fact.
“Listen, I recognize that the surface of the earth is warmer,” Bush said. “And that an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans is contributing to the problem.”
Scientists persist. Deniers rotate out. Phil Cooney hasn’t been heard from since. The classic story: He steps into the warming process, makes (or deletes) his mark, becomes one more figure we see through a car window at the commuting hour. Men like Phil Cooney thrive best in twilight.
Except for the hearing. The House Oversight Committee summoned Phil Cooney to Washington two years later. Captured on a live feed at last, he wore the accused’s most persuasive expression: a slight buffering shield of polite incomprehension. If all these people were unhappy with him, there must be some mistake.
James Hansen was also called. He sat right next to Phil Cooney at the witness table. He seemed to enjoy himself immensely: correcting the corrections. “Mr. Hansen, you are one of the nation’s leading experts on climate change,” the committee chair began. “What is your view of the changes made by Mr. Cooney and his staff at the White House?”
Hansen depressed the button on his mike, and told the Representatives, and perhaps also his grandchildren, “I believe that these edits, the nature of these edits, is a good part of the reason for why there is a substantial gap between the understanding of global warming by the relevant scientific community, and the knowledge of the public and policymakers.”
Hansen speaking was one of the few times Cooney broke format: his mouth hangs open, dazed to find a scientist right there beside him to edit the edits. On paper he was able to command these changes must be made. Moments later—a beautiful sight on that pouch of a face—Jim Hansen incrementally smiled.
Excerpted from The Parrot and the Igloo: Climate and the Science of Denial by David Lipsky. Copyright © 2023. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.