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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2009

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Researching Climate Change: Trends in US Government Publications Distributed By the Government Printing Office

Kari Kozak
Science Education and Outreach Librarian
University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa

Laura Sare
Government Information Librarian
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas

Copyright 2009, Kari Kozak and Laura Sare. Used with permission.


The U.S. government is a major sponsor and publisher of scientific data and interpretative research. This study looks at government publications on climate change distributed by the Government Printing Office's (GPO) Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) between 1970 and 2007. These publications were grouped according to their issuing agency, author, and date of publication, and then evaluated on how they addressed the topic of climate change. An unusually large percentage of these publications are of Congressional origin. Regardless of their source, the publications examined imply a greater awareness of climate change in the 1990s, decreasing at the turn of the century and increasing again in recent years.

Publications were analyzed by agency, author, and publishing dates. Additionally, publications were evaluated based on how the issue of climate change was addressed. Areas covered included the causes of or solutions for climate change.


Global climate change is a prominent scientific topic. ISI Web of Science indexed 39,177 publications related to climate change and global warming between 1970 to 2007.; This study looks at documents published by the federal government during the same time listed in the Government Printing Office's online Catalog of U.S. Government Publications (CGP).

The federal government distributes much of its publicly available material through GPO's Federal Depository Library Program. Selected publications are cataloged and disseminated physically or electronically at no charge to over 1250 depository libraries across the nation.

Recent news articles have argued that there is bias in what the federal government publishes about global climate change (Eilperin 2006). The present study reviewed government publications to see if there was any evidence of bias in the publications distributed through the FDLP. To do so, we studied the written content of the publications to test the veracity of the argument. We also investigated which agencies published the most on global climate change, which administrations produced the most documents, and what solutions were offered to mitigate global climate change from FDLP government publications.

Climate change in government publications has been researched in a variety of ways in the past. A review of literature showed that other articles have discussed science and politics in general, but without a focus on information distributed to depository libraries (Keiser 2002). Additional articles focused on both governmental and non-governmental web sites (Vaughan 2001). Several papers focusing on climate change resources gave detailed descriptions and analysis of each resource (Keiser 2002; Stoss 2000). Other articles have taken a more political viewpoint. One of these articles used the issue of climate change as a case study to discuss the politicization of science (Budd 2007). In contrast, the present study focuses specifically on federal agency publications listed in GPO's Catalog of U.S. Government Publications.

Our understanding of climate change has increased steadily since the 1970s. In 1976, studies showed that CFCs and the hole in the ozone made a serious contribution to the greenhouse effect. The World Climate Research Programme was established through the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) by 1980 (World Meteorological Organization 2005). International action on climate change occurred in 1987 with the Montreal Protocol which imposed international restrictions on emission of ozone-destroying gases.

President William J. Clinton wanted the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which called for more drastic emission control. In spite of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report declaring a "signature" of human-caused greenhouse effect warming, the U.S. Senate passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution (S. Res. 98) stating the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol that did not include developing nations as well as industrialized nations. Therefore, Clinton never sent the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification.

By 2001 the IPCC's third report declared the evidence for man-made global warming to be incontrovertible although the effects on the climate are hard to pin down. President George W. Bush questioned scientific consensus on global warming, and did not submit the Kyoto Protocol for ratification claiming it too expensive for the U.S. economy. Finally, awareness of climate change is heightened by former vice-president Al Gore's 2006 movie "An Inconvenient Truth" helping move global warming up the U.S. political agenda and earning Gore and the IPCC the Nobel Peace Prize for services to environmentalism the following year.


For this project, we focused on completing a content analysis of GPO's United States government publications relating to climate change and global warming. Content analysis is a research tool used by the social sciences to determine the presence of certain words or concepts within texts or sets of texts. Researchers quantify and analyze the results, then make inferences about the messages within the texts about the writer(s), the audience, and even the culture at the time of publication. Articles such as those by Kademani, et al. (2006a, b) were used to gather information on different analysis techniques. These articles analyzed citations on a specific topic, for example Bose-Einstein Condensation or Thorium by reviewing characteristics such as years of publication, most prolific authors, and keywords. We built on these ideas to use a content analysis approach.

A start date of 1970 was selected for several reasons. First, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were both created in 1970, and secondly, the first Earth Day, to raise awareness of human impact on the environment, was held in 1970, making it an appropriate starting date.

GPO's CGP was used to determine which documents to include in the study. For decades, the primary way for the general public to access government information was through depository libraries and their print collections, which contain information products from all three branches of the government. Currently, access to government information is changing as more government information is published online. To note this trend, agency web sites themselves were not analyzed, but documents posted on them were used provided the documents were indexed in GPO's catalog.1 Additionally, other indexes and sources for government information were not used, such as the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) or the EPA Publications Bibliography because most publications listed in these are not distributed to depository libraries.

Keyword searches were used to locate document citations. The first search on "climate change" provided 380 document citations and a second search on "global warming" NOT "climate change" a search to avoid duplicates, provided 106 documents. Since GPO's online catalog begins in July 1976, the print index Monthly Catalog of United States was used to locate documents spanning the time 1970 to June 1976 and five additional publications were found relating to climate change. This made a total of 491 potential documents for review. Out of those 491 records, 54 were either duplicates or out of scope, in that the terms were the same, but different meaning. For example, one Department of Education document was about change in the learning climate (See Table 1).



Duplicate/Out of Scope

Not Found


Climate Change





Global Warming





Monthly Catalog Index







Table 1: GPO FDLP Publications Reviewed

Each document was examined for several points of information. First, the year of publication was established. The publication date was then used to determine the presidential administration. The administrations ran from Richard M. Nixon to George W. Bush. Some documents overlapped, in that they were produced during one presidency but published in another, and those were attributed to both administrations. Then, the type of document (i.e., Congressional hearing or report), publishing agency, and the Library of Congress subject headings were gathered. The subject headings were used to see what nomenclature described the topics covered in the documents. This information was obtained from the bibliographic records of each document found in GPO's Catalog of U.S. Government Publications, OCLC's WorldCat database or the title page of the document if there was no online bibliographic record available.

Next, each individual document's content was examined in detail. The researchers recorded whether climate change was disputed or denied in the publication. Specific information about climate change covered in each document was also noted including: the greenhouse effect of global warming, causes listed for climate change, and recommendations for the future if provided. Two types of causes were recorded: the first related to the specific causes of climate change, the other was whether the administration was blamed for not doing anything or enough to combat climate change. Of particular interest was to see if the findings produced evidence of preconceived notions from the popular media, i.e., that the Clinton Administration was more environmentally conscious than the prior or following Bush administrations (Revkin 2004). Finally, the documents were analyzed as a whole and their publication years were compared to those indexed in ISI's Web of Science.

As the review of GPO's CGP documents progressed, because Al Gore was pivotal in so many publications, his appearance or authorship was tracked and he occurred directly 24 times in the government documents analyzed. Indirect references to Al Gore or his An Inconvenient Truth presentation were not counted.

Additionally, the researchers uncovered three dead URLs to documents that previously were found online and no new link could be found, (1.76%) of the total available online documents of 170. A surprising number of the online documents were historical (documents not born digital) and available via the Internet through the NASA Technical Reports Server (, and the GAO's Reports and Testimonies (, along with many of the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service publications.


Our first observation showed that the number of publications per year varied greatly and was probably heavily influenced by events of the time (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Publications by Year Related to Climate Change indexed by GPO

The administration was determined by publication year and the resulting timeline was quite interesting. During the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years, all the documents were looking at climate change very broadly, emphasizing the greenhouse effect and a possible global cooling period. Because of the broad and varied results, more climatic studies were implemented by the government during that time. By the Reagan Administration, the preliminary data from studies completed in previous administrations plus growing concern over the ozone layer and the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987 sparked an increase in climate change publications. During the first Bush Administration, funding for more studies to better understand climate change was the main topic of many documents. With Clinton, the number of publications distributed through the FDLP peaked with results from the studies and the Kyoto Protocol controversy. Finally, the second Bush Administration at first showed a decline in publications during the first term, but the second term shows increasing momentum in publications, which may have been influenced by Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth documentary film in 2006 and implementation of the Montreal Action Plan (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Publications by Administration related to Climate Change indexed by GPO

Next, the number of published documents for each agency was tallied. We were surprised to discover that the Congress and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were the most prolific publishers of climate change information distributed through GPO's Federal Depository Library Program. The assumption before the study began was that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency would be the primary publishing agencies. Further investigation showed that the EPA and NOAA publications were more likely to be distributed via other methods such as through National Technical Information Service (NTIS), a clearing house for government-funded scientific, technical, engineering and business related information. (See Figure 3).2

Figure 3: Agencies publishing documents related to Climate Change indexed by GPO3

The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) from the publication's bibliographic record were also compiled to see what subjects were assigned to these documents. Many of the words used were the same with only slight variations. "Climatic Changes" overshadowed "Climate Change" as a term, followed by "Global Warming," "Greenhouse effect, Atmospheric," and "Greenhouse Gases" (See Figure 4).

Figure 4: Library of Congress Subject Headings in publications related to Climate Change indexed by GPO

Next, the documents were studied in detail to see whether they denied the phenomenon of climate change. The vast majority of documents by government agencies upheld that global climate change was either occurring, or would occur in the future.

While none of the agency documents reviewed directly denied that climate change was occurring, many hearings included a few congressional representatives and invited speakers who spoke or testified expressing doubts about climate change and global warming. Most of these individuals downplayed the effects climate change could make, and the purpose of most of the testimony was to prevent legislation that would hurt fossil fuel energy producers. These speakers did not doubt the scientific theory itself, but rather focused on the lack of "scientific consensus" on the forecasting of climate change. The fact that scientific data differed on the severity, location, and time when global warming would occur was seized upon by congressmen who wanted to avoid funding additional research or the creation of legislation that might slow economic growth due to higher energy costs. Ironically, this same argument was used by environmentalists to request more funding, citing a need for more data. Therefore about 12% of the congressional hearings had speakers both downplaying man's role in climate change and citing man's role as a primary cause. This is due to the fact that congressional hearings provide a forum where facts and opinions from witnesses with varied backgrounds, including members of Congress, government officials, interest groups, and academics, as well as citizens possibly affected by the potential legislation.

The next statistic gathered was whether the concept or theory of global climate change was explained in the Federal Depository Library documents. This depended on the intended audience of the publication. The majority of documents provided some background explanation about global climate change, specifically the greenhouse effect. Those documents that did not either assumed the audience knew and accepted the theory of global climate change or global warming. Most of these were technical scientific publication or congressional documents, dealing with budgetary issues. With the Clinton Administration publishing the largest amount of documents included in this study, we reviewed the nature of these publications. While some of the Clinton era publications focused on education or research about climate change, a significant percent of these documents were congressional hearings dealing with the controversial Kyoto Protocol and its strong opposition by Congress. (See Figure 5).

Figure 5: Percent of FDLP documents that explain the concept of Global Climate Change

A large percentage of documents offered causes of climate change. Those that did not assign reasons either were statistical analyses of climate data, or historical studies where research results were published, but not analyzed or inferred.

We compiled a list of the causes of global climate change provided in the documents, both naturally occurring such as cow methane and man-made such as deforestation. Of these, the most common were Man, Fossil Fuels, Natural Causes, Greenhouse Gasses or Nothing (See Figure 6).

Figure 6: Causes of Climate Change mentioned in Study Documents

Causes of were also broken down by presidential administrations, to see if any administration was especially admonished regarding the government's roll with climate change. Only .01% of the documents citing some probable cause of global warming blamed the administration. Of these, Reagan and George H.W. Bush were criticized for not doing enough global warming prevention or climate change research. George W. Bush, and more specifically his Council on Environmental Quality, was also listed for not doing enough climate change prevention or research. One hearing in particular, titled Shaping the Message, Distorting the Science: Media Strategies To Influence Science Policy (U.S. House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Committee on Science and Technology),focused on administration officials manipulating scientific information. While the Clinton Administration received its share of criticism, most of it focused on whether or not the United States should sign the Kyoto Protocol, and did not charge the administration with suppressing climate change information or research.

While most FLDP documents listed causes of global climate change, many also recommended solutions. The majority of documents focused on the need to reduce CO2 emissions, the need for further research and funding, the need for policies on how reducing CO2 would be governed, and on whether to join the Kyoto Protocol. Many of these publications were outcomes of studies conducted by various government agencies. Surprisingly only thirteen educational documents for the public were found (See Figure 7).

Figure 7: Recommended Government Action from GPO Indexed Documents

The last statistic gathered for this study compared the number of publications by agencies through the federal depository library program to the articles published in the scientific community. Our study shows that the bulk of climate change information is not disseminated through the depository program, but rather published in scholarly journals or government repositories such as NTIS even though the government is one of the major studiers of climate change. There are several possible reasons for this. First, not all publications by federal government agencies are distributed through the FLDP. Title 44 of the U.S. Code stipulates that GPO will disseminate documents that are of public interest or educational value. A second reason is agencies are not required to use GPO as a printer for their publications, and while GPO maintains contact with agencies to find "in scope" documents, sometimes documents fall through the cracks becoming gray literature. Finally, more and more agencies are now placing publications directly online creating both a cataloging and preservation issue for government information available online that is in the FDLP scope. GPO is addressing this trend with its web harvesting pilot project and its upcoming Federal Digital Information System (FDsys), a system that will enable GPO to manage government information in digital form (GPO 2007, 2009)(See Figure 8).

Figure 8: Federal Depository Library Publications vs. Web of Science Articles


In conclusion, the results of this study showed a vast mix of information that was both expected and unanticipated. Several of the assumptions the researchers made found to be supported included the fluctuation in number of publications per presidential administration and that the GPO's FDLP program is not the primary publisher for information on climate change compared to those published elsewhere as indexed in Web of Science or in NTIS. The other expected assumption was more opposition to the belief of human influence on climate change, yet the documents analyzed showed the most prevalent causes stated were human-generated.

The unexpected results revolved around the nature of the publications in our study. This includes how most of the publications were congressional hearings and how none of those reviewed denied the theory of global climate change. Topics such as increasing research, reducing emissions, funding, and the Kyoto Protocol were heavily discussed in the publications. It was not anticipated that funding and the Kyoto Protocol was going to be discussed in so many documents with result that Congress was one of the most prolific producers of climate change information in the FDLP program. The researchers had assumed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be the leaders.

Finally, the study revealed the changing nature of the federal depository program as more government information is born digital and how GPO is adapting to still provide free public access to government information to all Americans.


1 Many of the files available on federal agency web sites are not considered "in scope" of the Federal Depository Library Program and therefore were not analyzed in this study. For an explanation of "in scope" documents see 44 U.S.C. 1902.

2 Searching the CSA NTIS database for "climate change" or "global warming" as keywords and "EPA" or "environmental protection agency" as source resulted in 385 publications and same keywords but "NOAA" or "national oceanic" resulted in 104 publications.

3 Regarding the agency review, we noted that the General Accounting Office became the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2004. Documents from both agencies were merged into one data set. Additionally, if multiple agencies published one document, they were listed together as a single publishing entity, i.e. EPA/NOAA/NASA.


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