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Charges Fly Over Science Panel Pick

April 04, 2002|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is pushing for an engineer from India to take over the helm of an influential international science panel on global warming that is now headed by an American atmospheric chemist who has been criticized by the energy industry.

Energy lobbyists have accused Robert T. Watson, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of promoting his own agenda. In a memo to the White House a year ago, a senior Exxon Mobil Corp. official urged the administration to push him out.

"Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the U.S.?" asks the memo, which was obtained from the White House through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

The council accuses the Bush administration of turning its back on solid science and bending to industry wishes by supporting Watson's challenger, Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri. In an election later this month, the 100-plus member countries of the climate panel will have one vote each on the chairmanship.

"It's bad enough that Exxon Mobil controls White House energy and climate policies," said Daniel Lashof, science director of the NRDC Climate Center. "Now they want to control the science too."

Also promoting Watson's reelection are leading climate scientists such as Ralph J. Cicerone, chancellor of UC Irvine and chairman of a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed global warming issues for the Bush White House.

Bush administration officials said they decided to support Pachauri because his background as an engineer and an economist prepares him to determine the global implications of climate science. They said the administration also believes that a chairman from the developing world would signal that global climate change is a problem for the whole world, not just for wealthy nations.

Environmentalists and Watson say the administration's decision reflects its discomfort with having Watson on a prestigious platform for broadcasting to the world the seriousness of global climate change resulting from the burning of coal, gas, oil and other fossil fuels.

"There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities," the climate change panel concluded last year in its third comprehensive assessment under Watson's chairmanship.

"I've been hearing over the last month or two that a small vocal part of the energy industry has been putting a lot of pressure on the U.S. government not to reelect me," said Watson, who was the associate director for environment in the White House Office of Science and Technology during President Clinton's first term.

Watson said he believes he still has a good chance to win reelection. Officials from many countries have told him they will support his candidacy because of his ability to organize thousands of scientists to review documents and develop coherent analyses of the complicated problem.

Watson said he hopes the Bush administration does not believe energy lobbyists' claims that he advocates tough government regulations of industries that emit carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas produced from human activity.

"My advocacy is for truth in science--that we do get the very best scientists from around the world," Watson said. "The argument that I'm an advocate for regulations against the oil industry is incorrect."

President Bush's climate change policy calls on industry to voluntarily reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan disputed the claim that the Exxon Mobil memo influenced the White House decision on the IPCC chairmanship. The memo "was faxed to an individual who had no involvement with IPCC leadership issues and took no action on the memo," he said.

Neither he nor any official provided by the Bush administration to comment on the issue flatly denied that industry influence played a role in the State Department's decision to side with Pachauri.

Energy industry lobbyists met Tuesday with State Department officials before the decision to support Pachauri was announced. But a Bush administration official said the decision already had been made.

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