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By W. Gardner Selby May 11, 2010

Attorney General Abbott says EPA's endangerment finding based on outsourced science from scandal-plagued group

Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general seeking re-election this year, announced a state challenge in February to a judgment that greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide endanger the health of Americans. At a Feb. 16 press conference, Abbott also said the Environmental Protection Agency, which issued the endangerment finding, "outsourced the scientific basis for its greenhouse gas regulation to a scandal-plagued international organization that cannot be considered objective or trustworthy." We saw his statement in a press release issued that day by Gov. Rick Perry, who attended the news conference with Abbott.

We wondered if Abbott's salvo, echoed at an April forum by a delegate for Perry's campaign, accurately captured the EPA’s approach.

Some background: The EPA’s finding, issued in December, came out after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered by the federal Clean Air Act and that the agency must determine whether or not emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution which may endanger public health or welfare.

The EPA said its scientific conclusions were based on work by three groups: the U.S. Global Climate Research Program, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Research Council, which synthesize thousands of studies, conveying a consensus on what scientific literature shows about climate, according to the agency.

"No other source of information provides such a comprehensive and in-depth analysis across such a large body of scientific studies, adheres to such a high and exacting standard of peer review, and synthesizes the resulting consensus view of a large body of scientific experts across the world," the agency said. "For these reasons, the (EPA) administrator is placing primary and significant weight on these assessment reports in making her decision on endangerment." The report adds that EPA scientists previously gave "significant input" to the groups.

The state’s 38-page petition for the EPA to reconsider its finding says that rather than do its own assessment, the agency's "administrator outsourced the actual scientific study, as well as her required review of the scientific literature necessary to make that assessment."

"That is, EPA’s conclusion depended on summaries of existing reports that were provided by third parties," the petition states, "rather than on an analysis that was within EPA’s own quality control." Also, the petition says, the groups that the EPA cites for scientific back-up interweave; two have quoted the third, which is misidentified in Abbott's petition as the United Nations International—it’s actually Intergovernmental—Panel on Climate Change, which we delve into below.

First, we tried to ask the EPA about the outsourcing descriptive. Spokeswoman Catherine Milbourn pointed us to an EPA website that calls the science behind greenhouse gas pollution "settled"; it says too the finding drew upon the works of "highly respected, peer-reviewed sources" around the globe plus hundreds of thousands of public comments.

So the EPA acknowledges leaning on others' existing research, which it considers tip-top sound.

What of the second part of Abbott’s statement--that EPA leaned on a scandal-plagued international organization that cannot be considered objective or trustworthy?

He’s referring to the Geneva-based IPCC, which became the leading international body for the assessment of climate change after its formation more than 20 years ago by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization to "provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences," the panel says online.

In 2007, the panel shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, the former vice president with a long interest in global warming. The Norweigan Nobel Committee said the panel created "an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming. Thousands of scientists and officials from over 100 countries have collaborated to achieve greater certainty as to the scale of the warming."

Its 2007 review of research, cited by the EPA, was its latest look at climate science over all. Another is due in 2014.

The Fox News Channel has reported that the panel's "reputation for accuracy and fairness, to a large degree, was responsible for building a consensus around the world that global warming was both real and a potentially devastating phenomenon largely caused by man."

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Of late, however, the panel has drawn fire, mainly from skeptics that the planet is rapidly heating. The latest outcry emerged after e-mails surfaced last year involving scientists including researchers at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, many of whom have participated in IPCC work.

The e-mail back story (detailed by PolitiFact here): On Nov. 20, more than 1,000 e-mails and 3,000 documents came to light. Dating as far back as March 1996, they include exchanges between scientists indicating shaky practices, intentions to withhold public information and even, in one instance, a desire to punch a critic. Over all, though, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change found the e-mails largely routine and innocuous, writing: "Although a small percentage of the e-mails are impolite and some express animosity toward opponents, when placed into proper context they do not appear to reveal fraud or other scientific misconduct."

In December, PolitiFact rated False a statement by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, saying the hacked e-mails debunked the science behind climate change. At a hearing, Inhofe later asked Lisa Jackson, the EPA’s administrator, about the agency leaning on flawed science from the IPCC. Jackson disagreed the panel was discredited, according to video posted online by C-SPAN. "It’s important to understand that the IPCC is a body, that it follows impartial and open and objective assessments," she said.

The state's petition for reconsideration mentions the e-mails, noting that Phil Jones, director of the Anglia-based climate research center, was the lead author of the IPCC's 2007 report's "Summary for Policy Makers," and his research is cited 39 times (in 21 chapters) in the panel's report. The petition says the Anglia center is the primary provider of temperature readings used in the IPCC report.

So what? So, the state says, the panel's conclusions are flawed because they rely on data from scientists with an agenda, some of them exposed in the e-mails. "Dr. Jones and his colleagues were far from objective," the petition states. "To the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence of outcome-oriented conduct that severely undermines the objectivity of their scientific research." The petition specifies scientists whose impartiality the attorney general questions.

To plumb Abbott's point, we reviewed news and opinion articles about the panel and its 2007 report shared by his office. Some highlights: The report misstates the year by which Himalayan glaciers are expected to melt (an error, for which the panel offered a correction this year, that looks like a typo); incorrectly overstates how much of Holland rests below sea level; doesn't support an assertion that global warming could soon cut rain-fed north African crop production in half; and includes a statement about rain forests in South America shrinking for lack of rain that might not be proving out.

Broadly, critics including some American scientists have called for the panel to open its next report to doubts about the science and to scientists who point out uncertainties. Separately, an arm of the United Nations agreed in February to review the panel; a report is expected in August. Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme's Governing Council, was quoted in The Telegraph newspaper saying the IPCC faced a crisis of public confidence.

Amid the hubbub, there's no sign of nations forsaking the panel.

Two leading British and American scientists have been among onlookers to stress that nothing has undermined the panel's 2007 conclusion that human activities are almost certainly contributing to global warming. Robert Watson, environment minister for the British government and a former head of the IPCC, was quoted by The Telegraph saying: "It is concerning that these mistakes have appeared in the IPCC report, but there is no doubt the earth’s climate is changing and the only way we can explain those changes is primarily human activity." Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academies of Science and chairman of the National Research Council, wrote in Science magazine that the exposed e-mails "raised concern about the standards of science and has damaged public trust in what scientists do." Yet his "reading of the vast scientific literature on climate change is that our understanding is undiminished by this incident."

Later, Cicerone was quoted telling scientists they need to redouble their efforts to share the implications of climate change with the public. "A lot of what we need to do," he said, "is translate basic information into terms the public can understand." At the same meeting, Jerry North, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, was quoted saying there "has been no change in the scientific community" in the consensus that global average temperatures have been steadily climbing since the mid-20th century.

John Nielson-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, recently told us he believes about 95 percent of what the panel concludes. "It’s probably as good as it gets in terms of a comprehensive analysis done by scientists of a comprehensive... far-reaching issue," he said. "If you're going to rely on something external, that’s the document to rely upon."

Where does all this leave Abbott's statement?

True, instead of producing on its own research, the EPA instead relied on the work of three other entities.

But calling it "outsourcing" is highly misleading because it suggests the agency was shirking its duties. It wasn't. In choosing to use the work of those agencies, particularly the IPCC, the EPA was relying on a large international group of scientists that has reached consensus from thousands of studies. That's a far more comprehensive review than anything the EPA could have done.

Abbott also overreaches saying the panel is scandal-plagued and can't be considered objective or trustworthy. Yes, the stolen e-mails have raised questions about a small number of scientists, but the e-mails have not undercut the validity of the panel's main findings.

Bottom line: There's a small bit of truth in Abbott's claim, the part that the EPA is relying on outsiders. But his statement is misleading because he implies the EPA has shirked its duties when in fact it is relying on three groups that have synthesized thousands of scientific studies -- almost certainly far more work than the EPA could ever do itself. And yes, the e-mails have raised questions about the work of a clutch of scientists, but they have not put a significant dent in conclusions reached by the IPCC.

We rate Abbott's statement Barely True.

Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

Greg Abbott, attorney general of Texas, "Petition for Reconsideration of Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases Under Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act," submitted Feb. 16, 2010; Links to news and opinion articles re. the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, May 5, 2010

American Association for the Advancement of Science, press release, "Science Community Stands Behind Evidence for Climate Change, Top Scientists Say at AAAS" Feb. 19, 2010 (accessed May 6, 2010)

The Associated Press, news article, "Texas challenging EPA's greenhouse gas finding," Feb. 16, 2010 (Nexis search)

Austin American-Statesman, news article, "Texas sues to stop EPA from regulating greenhouse gases," Feb. 16, 2010 (accessed April 29, 2010)

Ralph Cicerone, president, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, editorial, Science magazine, Feb. 5, 2010 (summary) (accessed May 6, 2010)

C-SPAN, testimony of Lisa Jackson, administrator, Environmental Protection Agency, to U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, response to Sen. James Inhofe on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1:52:31 mark) February 23, 2010, (accessed April 29, 2010)

E-mail, Catherine C. Milbourn, senior press officer, Office of Media Relations, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (response to interview request by PolitiFact Texas re. statement on endangerment), May 3, 2010

Fox News Channel, "U.N. Climate Panel to Announce Significant Changes," Feb. 24, 2010 (accessed May 6, 2010)

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, web pages, "Climate Change 2007," reports, organization contact information, history, organization, "WGII Contribution to the IPCC AR4: Issues since publication," accessed May 6, 2010

John Nielsen-Gammon and Barry Lefer, Atmo.Sphere blog posts, "By the way, there will still be glaciers in the Himalayas in 2035," Dec. 22, 2009; "Update on the IPCC 2035 error," Jan. 27, 2010 (accessed May 3, 2010)

The Norweigan Nobel Committee, press release, "Nobel Peace Prize for 2007," Oct. 12, 2007 (accessed May 7, 2010)

Gov. Rick Perry, press release, state website, "Texas Takes Legal Action Against Federal Government Over EPA CO2 Mandates," Feb. 16, 2010 (accessed April 29, 2010)

The Pflugerville Pflag, news article on political forum, "White takes on right at PfCONA forum," April 15, 2010 (accessed May 3, 2010), "Inhofe claims that e-mails 'debunk' science behind climate change," Dec. 7, 2009 (accessed April 30, 2009)

Radio Netherlands Worldwide, "A United Nations report wrongly claimed that more than half of the Netherlands is currently below sea level," Feb. 4, 2010 (accessed May 6)

The Telegraph, news articles, "India forms new climate change body," Feb. 4, 2010; "New errors in IPCC climate change report," Feb. 6, 2010; "IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri to face independent inquiry," Feb. 26, 2010 (accessed May 6, 2010)

The Times of London, "Africagate: top British scientist says UN panel is losing credibility," Feb. 7, 2010 (accessed May 6, 2010)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "EPA’s Endangerment Finding, Legal Background," Dec. 7, 2009; statements on greenhouse gas finding of December 2009, "Information on EPA Endangerment Finding; Statement on Litigation on EPA Endangerment Finding" with other information posted Feb. 22, 2010 (accessed May 5, 2010)

The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, "Anatomy of IPCC’s Mistake on Himalayan Glaciers and Year 2035," Feb. 4, 2010 (accessed May 3, 2010)

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Attorney General Abbott says EPA's endangerment finding based on outsourced science from scandal-plagued group

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