Watson, come here, I want to fire you

Angry at his predictions of global warming, the Bush administration and the energy industry strive to unseat a prominent scientist.

Published April 5, 2002 9:22PM (EST)

"I don't think we know the solution to global warming yet, and I don't think we've got all the facts." -- George W. Bush, second presidential debate.

So far, President Bush has practiced the skepticism that he preaches. Along with creating an energy plan widely perceived to be dictated by the energy industry, he's done little to increase automobile fuel efficiency and has rejected the Kyoto Protocol -- an international attempt to reverse global warming by cutting down on fossil fuel use and its attendant carbon dioxide emissions.

The administration's attempt to oust Robert B. Watson from his post as the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- as first reported by the New York Times on April 2 -- thus comes as little surprise. Since taking up his unpaid post six years ago at the IPCC -- an international conglomeration of 2,500 scientists who study climate change -- Watson, a forceful and articulate speaker, has overseen a series of influential annual reports that connect climate change to man's activities. Watson also suffers from the Clinton taint, having spent the early '90s in the White House's office of Science and Policy.

Some members of the energy industry would also like Watson to stand down. In a letter that ExxonMobil included in a package of documents sent to the White House last year, Watson was accused of leaking drafts of IPCC reports in order to further his personal environmental agenda. The letter also asked, "Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the U.S.?"

The Bush administration didn't return calls for comment. ExxonMobil says that the letter was not written by anyone at the company. "It was taken from a fax of third-party materials," says Tom Cirigliano, a spokesman for ExxonMobil, who also said the company has no idea who actually wrote the letter. "None of the attachments were written by ExxonMobil. We have no position on Watson or anyone else who might head up the panel."

ExxonMobil's denial of authorship notwithstanding, according to environmentalists, the letter and the Bush administration's rejection of Watson represent a new apex of energy industry gall and influence.

"This campaign by ExxonMobil went far beyond 'Here are some people to fill empty spaces,'" says David Doniger, a policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which released copies to the press April 3 after obtaining the letter through a Freedom of Information Act request. "This was an attempt to remove people who are not part of the [American] political process. It's transparently an effort to disrupt the organization and destroy its effectiveness. It's just another window into the mostly secret relationship between the big energy companies, who are the puppeteers, and the administration, who does what they tell them."

Even without American support, Watson could still retain his position. The IPCC allows for nominations to come from any country, and Watson maintains a high level of support internationally, says Doniger. It's also possible for Watson to share the chairmanship with the only other serious candidate nominated so far, Rajendra K. Pachauri, an Indian engineer and economist.

Salon caught up with Dr. Watson in a Bonn hotel room after midnight to discuss global warming and the Bush administration freeze-out.

When and how did you find out that the Bush administration didn't support you?

I've been hearing over the last couple months that they were making a decision about whether to support me or not, and I've known that because other governments from around the world have been actually coming to the State Department to show support for me, and each time they've been in, the U.S. government's position was that they hadn't made a decision.

Until yesterday. They never told me in person; I was phoned by a number of people once the news came out. I still haven't been told officially and don't expect to be told officially.

To what extent do you think the decision was based on pressure from companies like ExxonMobil?

To be honest, I'm not on the inside. This was a decision made by the U.S. government and they didn't consult me on it, and so the degree to which they made the decision based on lobbying, I really don't know. I have no idea.

So what happens next?

It will be interesting as it plays out because I know that there's a very significant number of both developed and developing countries that will support my reelection. And indeed, it's a one-country, one-vote election, so while I haven't got the U.S. vote -- quite clearly -- there are a large number of countries that will vote for me. I'm sure there will be a number of countries that vote for Dr. Pachauri as well, so I don't know which way the election will go.

Let's talk about your reputation as an advocate. Those who oppose your candidacy argue that you push an agenda of reducing fossil fuel use and that you leak information in order to further your cause. What's your response?

They're two totally different things; one is advocacy, one is the leaking of information.

On the advocacy point, it depends on what you mean by advocacy. Every one of my talks have been solidly based on IPCC material. In fact, I only use slides, tables, graphs, figures and quotations directly out of IPCC reports. Obviously, one can be selective, but I try to be very balanced.

Some people find me to be -- and this is not me being egotistical -- a forceful, strong speaker, and therefore they feel that I'm an advocate. But if anyone analyzes any of the speeches I've given, they can see that I make absolutely sure that my slides are available always to anybody by putting them on a Web site. So if anyone wants to check on what I say, they can cross-check it against the IPCC to see if I've gone beyond what the international science community has established.

So those who say I'm an advocate don't want to hear the message that indeed the earth is warming; that most of the warming of the last 50 years is attributable to human activities; that carbon dioxide is the key human-induced greenhouse gas and that most of it comes from fossil fuels. There are some people who clearly don't want to hear that message, but that is the message of the IPCC, and it's obviously the message I give when I speak. I also talk about the uncertainties as well, but if that's advocacy, then by that definition, I'm guilty.

But I've never advocated for a particular policy position. I'm very careful to say that it was the governments of the world that decided in Kyoto that the science was compelling, and that therefore, they needed to have reductions in greenhouse gases.

What I will say, which is a scientific statement, is that without reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, then we would project an increase in the earth's surface temperature of 1.5 to 1.8 degrees centigrade. That again is not a policy statement, it's a scientific statement.

Now, the second issue, and I swear this on a stack of Bibles, is one that's absolutely incorrect -- that I've ever leaked any information prior to the peer review process. It would be impossible for anyone to prove that I had. What some people argued in the industry -- and it's a small number -- is that there should never be an IPCC presentation until the document has been absolutely finalized, peer-reviewed and approved word by word by governments.

That is not the IPCC position. We write a document, we send it to 1,000-plus scientists around the world. Then we send it to experts and government, and they review it. And then we revise it and we send it to governments once again for the executive summary, or what we call the summary for policymakers.

I've been asked a couple of times, officially by governments, could I make a presentation at scientific bodies or in front of ministers. With each of these presentations, they've been based on IPCC documents, and in each case, they did occur before they were finally approved by government. But they were given after they had been sent to governments, so all government members in the room had already got the piece of paper in front of them; all of industry had the paper in front of them; and so had the academic community.

The bureau of the IPCC approved formally -- and that's the governments again -- each of the presentations. Their decision was that it was appropriate as long as the documents had been distributed.

How much strength do companies who oppose limits on greenhouse gases have over policy -- at the IPCC and in governments?

Exxon and others have clearly been opposing my chairmanship of IPCC. To what degree that they're influencing, say, American government, I don't know. The question that everyone's asking is to what degree they've influenced the Cheney energy report, but I have no idea. I have absolutely no inside information

But how has the worldwide political environment changed since Bush took office? Do you feel that the attempt to do something about global warming has been undermined?

Clearly when Bush was elected president, there was a very different message coming out of the White House. Clinton and Gore were pushing very aggressively a Kyoto-type protocol and arguing that climate change was a very serious environmental issue. Obviously, the Bush administration has a very different take on the science and the economics; however, in the U.S. there is also a lot of power held by the Senate. And in a bipartisan way, the Senate has always been skeptical about the climate issue.

So from that standpoint, what we see now is the Bush administration being very skeptical about the climate issue, along with a lot of people in the Senate. And before, we had a proactive administration but a still skeptical Senate. And that has played out in the policy arena with the U.S. pulling out of Kyoto.

I actually don't believe, however, that on the science there's been any influence. I believe that the Bush administration is equally committed to good science as the Clinton-Gore administration. I have seen absolutely no sign, in any way whatsoever, that the Bush administration has tried to influence the science or reduced support for it. In fact, they've made statements that the science is important, and I've seen no pullback in that.

Your candidacy is obviously one casualty of this increased skepticism, if not about the science then about the policy. But what other effects, if any, can be tied to it?

The U.S. is the most important country in the world, given that it has a huge use of energy and a very high level of greenhouse gas emissions, and like in many other issues, the world looks to the U.S. for leadership. Bush has said that the climate change issue is an important issue and that Kyoto is flawed, and that's their decision. It's perfectly fine. I don't play in the policy arena.

But in terms of the IPCC, I would hope that -- even though they've come out to support Dr. Pachauri -- if I were to be re-elected, I would hope that they continue their strong support of the IPCC.

The IPCC was started when Bush Sr. was president, and it got very strong support at that stage. The support continued under Clinton-Gore. And I would be optimistic and hopeful that the U.S. would continue to support the IPCC because it is a body designed to try to understand what we know about the science, technology and economics of climate change -- and the U.S. is very, very important in the IPCC.

The U.S. has been generous in its contributions to the trust funds which allow developing countries to take part in the IPCC process, by paying for their scientists to attend meetings. It has also been very, very important in the science. Many of the scientists that participate in the IPCC are American scientists. So I would hope that the U.S. government would continue its very strong support, independent of whether I'm the chair or Dr. Pachauri.

Now that you know it will be a contested election, what are you planning to do in order to ensure that you keep the chair?

The answer is nothing, except I will let people know that I definitely would like to chair the IPCC. I'm willing to commit an incredible amount of time to it. I'm willing to commit to being intellectually honest. I will strive to get a balance of participation from developing countries, academia, government laboratories and industry. In fact, I've given many speeches recently saying that I want more industry experts to participate.

I would also hate to see a divisive vote. The IPCC has always worked well by consensus, and I would actually be very, very comfortable if the world decided that we, Dr. Pachauri and I, were co-chairs. Most governments would prefer to see a single chair, but I think there's another possibility that at least should be given consideration -- and that is to have both the strength of my knowledge and Dr. Pachauri's knowledge, someone from a developed and developing country, in a joint leadership position.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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