Climate Skeptic: “I Was Hoping People At EPA Would Pay Attention” To My Work

July 1, 2009 4:43 a.m.

Conservatives are jumping up and down over a report by an EPA analyst expressing skepticism about climate change, which, they claim, was suppressed by agency brass because it didn’t conform to Obama administration orthodoxy on global warming. The story has sparked explosive claims, on Fox News and other right-wing outlets, that the EPA censored scientific data for political reasons. And Monday, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) called for an outright criminal investigation into the matter.

But it’s hard to blame EPA for not paying much attention to the study. And it’s more than a little ironic that DC Republicans have chosen its author as their new standard-bearer in the defense of pure science against politics. Because the author, EPA veteran Al Carlin, is an economist, not a climate scientist. EPA says no one at the agency solicited the report. And Carlin appears to have taken up the global warming topic largely as a hobby on his own time. In fact, a NASA climatologist has called the report — whose existence was first publicized last week by the industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) — “a ragbag collection of un-peer reviewed web pages, an unhealthy dose of sunstroke, a dash of astrology and more cherries than you can poke a cocktail stick at.”Still, the report’s author, veteran agency economist Al Carlin, doesn’t sound happy with the way things played out. In an interview with TPMmuckraker, Carlin talked of the extraordinary effort he put into the study, and lamented the fact that, over the years, a series of skeptical climate-change reports he has produced — on his own initiative, he said — have consistently been overlooked by higher-ups at the agency. “I was hoping that people at EPA would pay attention” to the studies, he said. “I haven’t seen too much evidence of that.”

Carlin, who said he joined the EPA three months after its founding in 1971, explained that, despite working as an economist for EPA’s National Center for Environmental Economics (NCEE), he’d been doing research on issues of climate-change science for the last five or six years on his own initiative. He said that much of this work — which can be found on his personal website — advocates an approach to addressing global warming which he calls “stratospheric geo-engineering.” “It would actually work, and it would cost three to five orders of magnitude less” than regulating carbon dioxide, he said.

True, the studies he’s produced were “not specifically commissioned by the EPA,” Carlin conceded. But he said his boss at the agency was aware of them, and added that they’ve been published, though “not all in academic journals.”

The recent controversy first emerged last week, when CEI released emails exchanged between Carlin and his bosses, concerning a report Carlin had authored in response to an EPA document on global warming. Carlin explained to TPMmuckraker that EPA had circulated a draft of an “endangerment finding” on the issue. The finding concluded that global warming is indeed a danger to mankind and should be regulated, and, in keeping with standard procedure, requested feedback from agency staff.

It’s unclear whether Carlin was supposed to be a member of the working group of staffers whose input on the document was actively solicited. He says he thought he was, since he was included on emails about the document, and invited to meetings on the issue. But the EPA subsequently said he wasn’t.

The topic at hand also may have strayed a bit from his core expertise. Carlin described the report he ultimately produced as “85-90 percent science and 5-10 percent economics.” Carlin is an economics PhD, but he described himself as “somewhat unique, in that I have a background in both economics and also in physical sciences,” citing an undergraduate degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology. “I’ve always sort of been on the boundary between science and economics,” he said.

Asked whether it was common for EPA staffers to prepare reports on subjects outside the area for which they’re officially responsible, Carlin allowed that “it’s not normal.” But, he said it is done. And he added: “The important thing is from a federal bureaucratic viewpoint, I’m equally well-qualified in both fields.”

In any case, Carlin felt strongly when he saw the draft document that it was on weak scientific footing. But he said he only had four days until the deadline to submit comments. “This is not what I normally do,” Carlin explained. “I normally write research papers and reports, which take six months to a year. So I was faced with the problem of how to prepare thorough comments within a few days.” Ultimately, Carlin — who declined to give his exact age, but suggested he’s around 71 — pulled out all the stops to produce his study questioning the finding. “I worked very hard,” he added.

But Carlin was soon told by a colleague coordinating responses to the draft that there were “reservations” about including Carlin’s comments in the finding. Soon afterward, NCEE director Al McGartland informed Carlin that his comments would not be included. McFarland then told Carlin via email not to have any further contact with other EPA staff on the issue of climate change, and not to do any more work on the issue. Those emails and several others were leaked to CEI.

Carlin indicated that the incident was in keeping with his prior experience at the agency, suggesting that his labors of love on global warming have never received the attention they deserve. That was the case, said Carlin, even before the Obama administration took over. “To the best of my knowledge, the Bush administration never followed up on my ideas,” he said.

Carlin stressed that he wasn’t CEI’s source for the emails, saying the first he heard about the story becoming public was when a reporter called him last week asking him to verify the emails. In fact, he said, he was chagrined that a hastily produced draft of his work was being circulated before he had had a chance to polish it up. “I was concerned that, heaven knows, I didn’t have time to fix all the problems — and they still aren’t fixed,” he said, adding that an updated version of his report had subsequently been put out.

In fact, he said, he’d only been speaking to reporters at all out of a basic belief in openness and transparency. “I could find lots of other things I would rather do,” he said. But as a government employee, he added, “I don’t think it’s appropriate — for reporters or taxpayers — to [tell reporters], ‘go away.'” Soon after speaking to TPMmuckraker, he appeared on Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News, armed with a chart to demonstrate his view that warming isn’t happening.

Before hanging up, Carlin made sure to caution that during our interview, he hadn’t been speaking for his employer. “The views I expressed are my own, not the EPA’s,” he said.

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