Remembering Rick Piltz, climate change whistleblower

Antarctic penguins

Photo by Vassil Tzvetanov (FlickrCC)

Rick Piltz, a familiar face in the whistleblower community, died October 18 of cancer at a Washington, D.C., hospice. A policy analyst and climate change whistleblower, Piltz leaves behind a legacy of principled activism, a wife, Karen Metchis, and a daughter, Shayne Piltz. He was 71.

Rick Piltz was working as a senior associate in the U.S. Global Change Research Program when he blew the whistle on manipulation of climate science reporting by the Bush administration. He discovered that a draft scientific report sent to the Bush White House for review was heavily edited by Phil Cooney, a lawyer and former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute.

“He was obviously passing it through a political screen,” Piltz later told 60 Minutes. In protest, he “sent a scathing memo to senior officials at a dozen agencies,” resigned his position in March 2005, and provided evidence to the New York Times for a June 8 story.

 A White House official who once led the oil industry’s fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents. (New York Times)

Piltz testified before the U.S. Congress and received the Ridenhour Prize for Truthtelling in 2006. After leaving his government position, he founded the nonprofit organization Climate Science Watch, sponsored by the Government Accountability Project. CSW describes itself as “a nonprofit public interest education and advocacy project dedicated to holding public officials accountable for using climate research effectively and with integrity in dealing with the challenge of global climate disruption.  As CSW’s director, Piltz continued to speak out about climate change in the face of heavy opposition from industry. Some whistleblowers will remember him from events like Washington Whistleblower Week.

Even internal whistleblowing is not for the fainthearted, Piltz recognized.

“Even to raise issues internally is immediately career limiting,” says Piltz. “That’s why you will find not too many people in the federal agencies who will speak freely about all the things they know, unless they’re retired or unless they’re ready to resign.” (60 Minutes

Prominent publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Scientific American noted Piltz’ passing. The Government Accountability Project described Piltz’ impact on the world around him.

He founded GAP’s Climate Science Watch blog and website, which monthly logs 30,000 visitors and over a million page views, mostly from government employees, academicians, scientists and environmental activists. He was a regular contributor to television, radio and other media outlets. Media experts have cited Piltz’ whistleblowing revelations as one of the key events of 2005 and 2006 that changed the reporting on climate change away from a squabble between contrarian experts toward an acceptance of scientific certainty, given the overwhelming consensus that now exists within the scientific community.

In the New York Times, Douglas Martin described Piltz’ early life, from his birth as Frederick Steven Piltz in Detroit on July 29, 1943. Piltz graduated from the University of Michigan with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science, taught at the University of Texas, and worked for the Texas agriculture department and the House Science Committee before joining the Global Change Research Program in 1995. (NYTimes)

Andrew Revkin, of the Times, credited Piltz with “meticulously and methodically” compiling “a critical paper trail.” He  described the whistleblower as “a bearish, soft-spoken and bespectacled man with an intensity and focus that took one by surprise.”

Photo credit:  

Penguins in Antarctic by Vassil Tzvetanov, Flickr Creative Commons lic.