environment, politics

Feeling Uncertain? Searching for Answers? Maybe You’ve Got a Case of Politics.

The following is a dual entry on this blog and today’s Sierra Club Compass blog, for which I originally wrote it. I’m surprised they let me go on as long as I did (which is as long as I usually do)…

Here in San Francisco last December, at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union, NASA scientist James Hansen told the assembled, “The Earth’s climate is nearing, but has not passed, a tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences.”

Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a 39-year NASA veteran, is high on the list of credible voices on global warming, and no shrinking violet when it comes to sharing the conclusions of his research. He may have single-handedly made global warming a household issue when he told a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” It helped that his testimony coincided with the hot, dry summer of 1988 when a severe drought settled in the Midwest and Yellowstone was on fire. (Though Hansen was then careful to point out, as scientists still are, that it’s not possible to blame any specific event like a severe drought or giant hurricane solely on global warming, just the increased likelihood of those events).

But there was a problem with Hansen’s San Francisco speech. The problem wasn’t one of science so much as it was one of politics. As the New York Times’s Andrew Revkin puts it, Hansen “said that significant emission cuts could be achieved with existing technologies, particularly in the case of motor vehicles, and that without leadership by the United States, climate change would eventually leave the Earth ‘a different planet’.” (Emphasis added.) Since making those remarks, Hansen claims the Bush administration has tried to interfere with his efforts to communicate with the press and to post data on his site.

Need an example? How about “NASA officials tried to discourage a reporter from interviewing Hansen for this article and later insisted he could speak on the record only if an agency spokeswoman listened in on the conversation.” So writes the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin in her article “Debate on Climate Shifts to Issue of Irreparable Change.

Or maybe: “George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen. . . ” A career public affairs officer tells Revkin that Deutsch “said his job was ‘to make the president look good’…” In a follow-up article, Revkin describes Deutsch as “a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the ‘war room’ of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign.” (Deutsch also ordered the word “theory” to be appended to every mention of the Big Bang in a Web presentation for middle-school students, adding, “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue.”)

In light of the controversy, the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday published an editorial calling on the Bush administration and Congress to stop the muzzling of experts and ensure politics does not interfere with scientific integrity. It ends by noting, “As long as government scientists are under siege, they’ll be tempted by better-paying private-sector jobs or early retirement. The country is better served with unmuzzled Jim Hansens, sharing knowledge freely.” Or, as the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach writes, “I don’t know what the truth is about climate change, but since my tax dollars are paying Hansen’s salary, and he’s one of the world’s experts on the subject, I’d like to hear his thoughts. The president’s science adviser says we’re spending $2 billion a year studying climate change. Does that include the resources spent trying to keep Hansen from speaking his mind?”

That might be a yes, if the government counts the salaries of people like Deutsch or Phil Cooney as part of those $2 billion. In the current issue of Sierra Magazine, Paul Rauber’s Decoder shows how Cooney, a former oil lobbyist, suppressed global warming science by editing scientific reports as chief of staff of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. “Red-lining,” is what climatologist Stephen Schneider calls it, in an interview I conducted with him for the Planet the week after Cooney’s interference was revealed. Schneider piled on Cooney and Exxon, which hired Cooney soon after his resgnation:

These are guys who I put in the incorrigible and untrainable category. And it’s because they’re not evidence-based, they’re ideology-based. [Phil Cooney] sure landed on his feet. Probably got a big salary raise. I can’t believe that Exxon, after all the money they’ve spent on greenwashing, came out within a week and hired this guy. Their PR people must have just gone nuts, like “We’ve worked so hard to show that we actually think there’s a problem! We’re acting responsibly! Now we hire the chief White House red-liner with no scientific credentials who distorted the science.” What does it make Exxon look like? I think they were stupid for doing that. But they don’t seem to care. They felt that he should be rewarded for his loyal service.

If you or your friends are feeling a little uncertain about global warming and want to know why, check out the Schneider interview here.

The whole issue of science and policy reminds me of something the physicist Freeman Dyson wryly told me in an interview a few years ago: “…I do advise the government. Occasionally they may take my advice, but you never know. If something good happens, then the whole point is you give them the credit for it. The ideal thing is to make the president believe that he thought of it himself.”

So that’s all we’ve got to do to change America’s climate policy for the better: make the president think it was his idea. Plus, it would make him look good.

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