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Official White House policy documents on climate change were altered by a former oil-industry lobbyist to play down the link between greenhouse gases and global warming, it emerged yesterday.

Philip Cooney, the chief of staff for the White House council on environmental quality, altered several draft reports in 2002 and 2003, after they had been approved by government scientists, despite having no scientific background himself. Much of his editing made it into final versions of reports.

Many of the changes were very simple. For instance, in one case he added the words "significant and fundamental" before the word "uncertainties. In another, he added the word "extremely" to the sentence: "The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability is extremely difficult."

Others were more blatant. According to the New York Times, Cooney deleted an entire paragraph dealing with the impact of global warming on glaciers and the polar ice cap from a 2002 report that discussed the effect global warming might have on flooding and water availability. Cooney noted in the margins that the paragraph was "straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings."

In all cases, the amendments cast doubt on scientific results that are increasingly accepted as robust by the scientific community, and by the general populace.

Cooney is a lawyer by training, with a degree in economics. Before going to work at the White House, Cooney was the climate team leader at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade body that represents the oil industry's interests.

The documents came to light via a non-profit organisation that provides legal assistance to government whistle blowers. The Government Accountability Project is representing Rick Piltz, formerly a senior associate in the office that issued the reports. Piltz resigned from his position in March.

"Each administration has a policy position on climate change," he wrote in a document reported by The New York Times. "But I have not seen a situation like the one that has developed under this administration during the past four years, in which politicization by the White House has fed back directly into the science program in such a way as to undermine the credibility and integrity of the program."

White House officials deny that they are politicising science.

At a press conference this week, President Bush told reporters he believed America is at the forefront of research into climate change. Asked whether he thought climate change was caused by man, he replied: "I've always said it's a serious long-term issue that needs to be dealt with. My administration isn't waiting around to deal with it; we're acting. We want to know more about it. Easier to solve a problem when you know a lot about it."

Meanwhile, academics from 11 countries, including the US and Britain, distributed an open letter saying: "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action."

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has been in the US trying to persuade Bush to commit the US to reducing its greenhouse emissions. The president has called for voluntary measures, but has made no firm promises. ®

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