Remembering Rick Piltz – Whistleblower and Climate Science Advocate

by Connor Gibson

October 20, 2014

Last weekend, the country lost a public servant and altruist named Rick Piltz.

Mr. Piltz was a government whistleblower who documented how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency systematically misled the public, downplaying the certainty of climate change in U.S. science reports.

He produced a rare, detailed case study in how the fossil fuel industry turns our government against the public in order to make more money for itself. Himself an employee of the U.S. EPA during the George W Bush administration, Mr. Piltz worked among industry lobbyists who were placed into regulatory position overseeing their former employers.

These lobbyists included people like Jeff Holmstead, who continues lobbying against climate regulations for the coal industry, and Phil Cooney, who was plucked from the American Petroleum Institute and placed into the Bush EPA.

Rick Piltz exposed Cooney’s hand-written manipulation of the U.S. government’s climate change science reports. This scandal forced Cooney out of the EPA and back into the oil industry as an employee of ExxonMobil. Piltz’s actions earned him the 2006 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.

After leaving EPA, Rick Piltz created Climate Science Watch, which allowed him to counter campaigns to deny climate science and promote scientifically valid viewpoints on global warming.

He died early last Saturday morning, October 18th, after a fight with cancer.

Rick Piltz did what too few in government are willing to do, withstanding immense social and professional pressure to show taxpayers that their government was working for private interests, against the public, on public funds.

Piltz’s bravery embodies some of the core principles that Greenpeace strives to uphold in the best of our work. It takes guts to stand up to political and financial juggernauts, to be willing to subject oneself to great discomfort and personal pressure in order to reveal the truth.

Without Piltz’s proof that fossil fuel foxes were running the hen house, we would not be where we are today in holding companies like ExxonMobil accountable.

Mr. Piltz’s work gave immense leverage to Greenpeace’s ExxonSecrets project, which documented how Exxon spent millions on people and groups who lied to the public about global warming, by constantly downplaying the seriousness of the issue, if not denying climate change entirely.

Today, even ExxonMobil no longer denies the science of climate change, though Exxon isn’t being proactive in addressing the problem (CEO Rex Tillerson suggests a do-nothing-and-adapt approach and lobbyist Ken Cohen sneers at the fossil fuel divestment movement).

But even unpopular Big Oil brands like Exxon have discontinued funding some of the more flamboyant climate policy obstruction groups, like The Heartland Institute and Competitive Enterprise Institute. This is a sign of the slow but steady progress of truth. The actions of Rick Piltz have hastened that progress.

Greenpeace offers its condolences to Mr. Piltz’s family and friends, and its appreciation and gratitude to Rick himself as we reflect on his contributions to his country.


Via Rabbett Run, here is Rick describing his work in his own words, in response to media reactions to the People’s Climate March:

“I did my graduate study in political science and my undergraduate in experimental psychology, at Michigan, long ago. I listen to leading climate scientists, I know leading climate scientists. I would never pass myself off as one.

I have been focused first and foremost on the problem of global warming and climatic disruption since Jim Hansen testified in 1988. I came to that interest, as with other environmental, natural resource, and energy issues I have worked on for the past 35 years, primarily from the policy side. I spent four years on the professional staff of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and 10 years in a senior staff position in the U.S. Global Change Research Program Coordination Office here in Washington (that’s the $2 billion multiagency program that supports the research and observing systems on climate and global change).

During those years I became very attuned to what I came to refer to as the “collision” between the world of climate science and the realities of Washington politics. I saw how politicians in Washington used, misused, and denied what scientists were telling them, and how difficult it was to make this essential communication channel function productively.

So at this point I know considerably more science than most people in the arena of policy and politics, and more about the latter than most scientists. My project, and whatever contribution it makes, is primarily aimed at government accountability in national policymaking. I have an analysis and an approach for doing that, and Climate Science Watch is the vehicle via which I and various collaborators express that.

At this point, I think the discourse about climate change, certainly at the power elite level, is shifting, or has shifted, from what we might call the science-policy nexus, toward questions about economics, business, politics, energy policy, national security planning, and so forth. I can deal with that and that’s where our attention is moving, I think.

Of course there are many important scientific questions about the physical climate system to research, and I spent quite a few years doing what I could to encourage bipartisan support for a strong research program, regardless of people’s policy disagreements. But this is not a science education and debate site, and the discourse about unresolved research issues on the physical climate system are well-argued in many other venues by people with serious qualifications.

But when Rupert Murdoch and the Wall Street Journal put out a piece with a “take no action” slant on the eve of a big UN climate summit and climate movement rally, I take what the WSJ is doing as essentially a political gesture. They print only ‘skeptic’ or ‘contrarian’ pieces, there’s no real balance in their coverage, they are trying to frame a political narrative for the corporate elite. When there’s an opportunity to post something with an alternative view, that raises questions about what they’ve published, I can do that. I don’t have to be able to resolve the science issues in order to do it.”

Thank you, Rick. Rest in Peace.

More on Rick Piltz be watched and read in Andrew Revkin’s obituary for the New York Times, D.R. Tucker’s Washington Monthly post, and on Piltz’s website, Climate Science Watch.

Rick Piltz - Photo Courtesy Climate Science Watch.

Rick Piltz – Photo Courtesy Climate Science Watch.

Connor Gibson

By Connor Gibson

Connor Gibson is a former member of Greenpeace's Investigations team. He focused on polluting industries, their front groups, and PR operatives, particularly on the Koch Brothers.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.