Science takes a hit with EPA climate report

The latest eco-buzz comes from criticism by the Office of Inspector General for the US Environmental Protection Agency about the agency's oversight of climate-related research. According to the inspector general’s report, technical information used by the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation for a report on climate-change impacts was a “highly influential scientific assessment,” and thus required a significant level of peer-reviewed evaluation.

EPA counters that the technical information used did not meet the definition of a highly influential scientific assessment, and thus they did not break any internal policies with their reduced level of oversight.

The findings in question are about the extent to which certain air pollutants—known commonly as greenhouse gases—are affecting public health. To make this determination, EPA used documents from three research groups: the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the National Research Council (NRC). EPA took reports from these groups and developed what is known in scientific-bureaucratic lingo as a “technical support document” or TSD. (Have you been keeping track of the acronyms? Welcome to the world of government.)

What the inspector general’s office claims is that this synthesized TSD is important enough to require specific levels of review, and EPA seems to have missed the mark, if only slightly. From the actual report, we read that
whether EPA’s review of its endangerment finding TSD met Office of Management and Budget (OMB) requirements for peer review depends on whether the TSD is considered a highly influential scientific assessment. In our opinion, the TSD was a highly influential scientific assessment because EPA weighed the strength of the available science by its choices of information, data, studies, and conclusions included in and excluded from the TSD. EPA officials told us they did not consider the TSD a highly influential scientific assessment. EPA noted that the TSD consisted only of science that was previously peer reviewed, and that these reviews were deemed adequate under the Agency’s policy. EPA had the TSD reviewed by a panel of 12 federal climate change scientists. This review did not meet all OMB requirements for peer review of a highly influential scientific assessment primarily because the review results and EPA’s response were not publicly reported, and because 1 of the 12 reviewers was an EPA employee.
EPA’s guidance for assessing data generated by other organizations does not include procedures for conducting such assessments or require EPA to document its assessment. EPA provided statements in its final findings notice and supporting TSD that generally addressed the Agency’s assessment factors for evaluating scientific and technical information, and explained its rationale for accepting other organizations’ data. However, no supporting documentation was available to show what analyses the Agency conducted prior to disseminating the information.
The details of this more-than-a-slap-on-the-wrist (which you can read in the report) may be no more than the nuances of inter-governmental politics, but they may be more than that. Either way, this all comes at a bad time for those in the scientific community who seek to build consensus about—and spur action to mitigate and adapt to—man-made climate change.

As a government environmental regulator, I would think that those developing such an important scientific document would have exhausted all steps to ensure its credibility. Climate change is, after all, the hot-button issue of our day. What concerns me is that in finding that the credibility of this report is slightly suspect, it is easy for some to diminish the credibility of climate change theories in general. And from there it is a small leap to question the credibility of science in general—and the results of that would be horrifying.

One need only review news items on this story to see the results thus far. Read here, or here, or here or here.

These are odd times. As I watch many today question the relevance of religion in our world—and as the abuses by some in the Catholic Church have led many to dismiss the entire Body of Christ as a sham—so now abuses in science (some small, some not-so-small) may be having the same effect to academia and the fields of natural research.

Let us pray that as this debate plays out, scientists will stick to true scientific principles. For the good of truth, and for thus the common good, all such research into the health effects of climate change must be considered to be highly influential, and should be checked, re-checked and checked again. Otherwise, the resulting loss of confidence in academia would very likely lead to a loss of confidence in civilization itself. And that scenario must not be allowed to happen.

May God help us, and may He guide all true searches of truth. Indeed, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,
The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.