Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott was “highly misleading” and “overreach(ing)” in his claim that federal officials “outsourced” their finding that greenhouse gases are dangerous “to a scandal-plagued international organization that cannot be considered objective or trustworthy,” the Austin American-Statesman’s new fact-checking initiative concluded this week.

PolitiFactAbbott made that declaration on Feb. 16 when he, Gov. Rick Perry and other Texas officials announced the state’s formal challenge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusion that heat-trapping gases including carbon dioxide warrant regulation.

The “outsourced” charge was scrutinized by the American-Statesman’s W. Gardner Selby for PolitiFact Texas, a truth-verification partnership that was launched in January by the Austin newspaper and PolitiFact.com, a website run by Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

On Monday, PolitiFact Texas published Selby’s findings, which included these key points:

  • It was “highly misleading” for Abbott to assert that the EPA had “outsourced” its finding to others, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), because that wrongly suggested the federal agency was “shirking its duties.”
  • Abbott “also overreache(d)” in alleging the IPCC was “scandal plagued” and was not “objective or trustworthy,” because recent disclosures about the organization have not undermined its main conclusions, including the finding that humans’ greenhouse emissions are changing the climate.

In scoffing at the IPCC’s credibility, the attorney general cited stolen and publicized e-mails by some IPCC scientists, which gave rise to much news coverage and blog commentary when they came to light last November. Some critics alleged that certain e-mails showed efforts to manipulate scientific findings.

Selby noted that in December, however, the Florida-based PolitiFact had examined and rated as “false” a statement by Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, that the hacked e-mails had “debunked” the IPCC’s conclusions.

He also quoted scientists standing by the IPCC’s conclusions, including Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academies of Sciences and chairman of the National Research Council.

John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor at Texas A&M University and the Texas state climatologist, told PolitiFact Texas that the IPCC’s 2007 report is “probably as good as it gets in terms of a comprehensive analysis done by scientists of a comprehensive … far-reaching issue.”

After laying out his detailed analysis – which deserves to be read in its entirety by anyone interested in the intersection of the science and politics of climate change – Selby presented this concluding passage:

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 [the IPCC, U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program and National Research Council], 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. …

We rate Abbott’s statement Barely True.

PolitiFact’s ratings for the public statements it examines include “True” on one end and “Pants on Fire!” on the other. In between are “Mostly True,” “Half True,” “Barely True” and “False.” So Abbott at least managed to avoid being tagged with either of the two findings of falsehood.

In his conclusion about the EPA’s reliance on outside scientific bodies, Selby echoed interview comments to Texas Climate News by Larry Soward, a former commissioner at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, who disagrees with the state’s opposition to the EPA’s finding about the dangers of greenhouse gases.

Soward told TCN:

[Abbott’s petition] complains that EPA relied too heavily, if not exclusively, on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which I don’t think is true. And if you really dig into it, you see that there are studies from NASA and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], there’s all kinds of other studies that have been woven in either EPA’s review or through the IPCC. So to say they relied solely on that I think is wrong.

And of course they complain the EPA is not supposed to do that, they’re supposed to do their own independent assessment. Well, the way governmental agencies do assessments is they rely on the existing science, they pull it all together, and they review it, assess it, make their policy decision, which is what I think EPA did.

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: PolitiFact