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 headed by a U.S. 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 request by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
The group 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 re-election are leading climate scientists including Ralph J. Cicerone, chancellor of the University of California, 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 IPCC 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 re-elect me," said Watson, who was the associate director for environment in 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 re-election. 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.
"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 reduce carbon dioxide emissions voluntarily.
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.
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