James Hansen's struggle to tell the truth

Issue 

Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen & the Truth of Global Warming

By Mark Bowen

Dutton, 2008

324 pages, $49.95 (hb)

When the Earth's 2005 temperature was taken, Dr Jim Hansen's life was in for a shake-up.

Hansen, a leading climate scientist at NASA's premier climate research centre, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), had found that 2005 was the warmest year on record, making six of the last eight years the warmest ever, as were 18 of the last 25 years.

US President George Bush's White House was alarmed, not at this latest evidence that global warming was seriously with us, but at the possibility that news of this evidence, and the need to rein in the fossil-fuel industry, might get out to the public.

Their answer? Censorship.

Mark Bowen's Censoring Science documents the attempted gag orders, bureaucratic obstacles, career threats and messing with science that were deployed against Hansen and other government scientists at NASA. The attack dogs in NASA's Washington headquarters were political appointees in the public affairs arm of the agency, rabid Republicans who saw it as their job "to make the president look good", as one of them, George Deutsch, so aptly put it.

These political guardians delayed the posting of the temperature data on the GISS website and denied media requests for interviews. Sotto voce threats of "dire consequences" were made by management to Hansen if he so much as breathed the dreaded phrase "anthropogenic climate change" (the overheating of the planet due to human-released greenhouse gases) or mentioned any critical "tipping point" beyond which all control would be lost.

Against the scientific consensus on global warming, by now beyond all but the flimsiest doubts from the kookiest denialists, a range of censorship weapons were deployed — there was monitoring of every move and utterance of GISS scientists and, in particular, Hansen, its director for the last 25 years. Their speaking engagements, media interviews, scientific papers and website content were required clearance and be monitored.

There was a special "review" process for all climate-related media releases, all the way up to the White House, where the Office of Technology and Science Policy and Vice-President Dick Cheney's, Council on Environmental Quality edited them into an approved shape. This, writes Bowen, "invariably muted the danger of fossil fuel emissions or amplified the uncertainty of greenhouse science".

Much of the new censorship culture was bureaucratically subtle rather than crudely autocratic, but still highly effective at prompting pre-emptive self-policing. The lengthy "review" process meant that, as Hansen put it, "if we want to get anything through quickly, we had better make sure that it is not offensive". Tedious delay was as good as a veto — stale news is no news.

NASA bosses would also sometimes anticipate what might upset the White House and decide to err on the side of caution. There was also caution about linking all the dots, for example a scientific paper might tie retreating sea ice to global warming but the latter would not be linked to human activity — "I don't want to have that fight", explained one scientist.

The real genius of this censorship campaign was that none of these new restrictions were committed to paper as written directives — it was all done orally, so no allegations of censorship could be backed up. Until, that is, Bush's man, Deutsch, made the mistake of leaving an email trail, which found its way via Hansen's whistle-blowing into the New York Times in January 2006.

Deutsch was subsequently made the fall guy by NASA bosses for his careless oversight (though technically he was removed for lying on his resume about his graduate qualifications).

Like a bad fish, NASA, too, rotted from the head. NASA boss, Michael Griffin, portrayed the removal of Deutsch as ridding the agency of the source of the problem and that scientific Glasnost would now break out in NASA. This, however, simply provided cover for Plan B — massive budget cuts to NASA's Earth science budget. The system of Earth-observing satellites, which measured key indicators of global warming, were placed at risk of collapse. As Hansen wrote, "one way to avoid bad news" about, for example, Greenland's shrinking ice mass, was to "stop the measurements!".

At the same time, NASA's mission statement — whose first line ("to understand and protect our home planet") was much cited by Hansen — was quietly altered by Griffin to now read "to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research". The tightening budget and explicit change of priorities away from Earth observation and towards missions to the Moon and Mars was a major change of direction for NASA — away from studying the planet that matters, the one we live on.

Things were no better at the government's Climate Change Science Program, which coordinates $2 billion of climate research. In 2006, Rick Piltz, a former employee, leaked documents that showed a comprehensive effort by White House officials to spin and doctor the scientific underpinnings of climate-related reports by a number of federal government agencies, to downplay the facts and danger of global warming. Draft reports were hand-edited by Philip Cooney, a lawyer of no scientific training and a former oil industry lobbyist, all attributes that well-qualified him for a climate science post at Bush's White House, from where he slickly glided back to ExxonMobil after his exposure.

Hansen led the fightback against the government censors, his example drawing other government scientists out from the woodwork. His long-standing and innocent optimism that the facts of global warming would speak for themselves had been bruised by the power and money of the coal and oil industry lobbyists and their willing White House sponsors. Hansen became a whistleblower and an activist, taking his scientific message and censorship revelations public.

"Special interests have been a roadblock wielding undue influence over policy-makers", wrote Hansen in frustration. "The ones with the power", he added angrily, "the ones with the ability to make a difference, with the ability to change our course, the ones who will live in infamy if we pass the tipping points, are the captains of industry, CEOs in fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil, automobile manufacturers, utilities, all of the leaders who have placed short-term profit above the fate of the planet and the well-being of our children".

Hansen, a cautious scientist of forty years painstaking expertise in measuring, observing and modelling Earth's climate, is happiest working eighty-hour weeks doing science. He is by temperament more reclusive than outspoken and he describes himself as a "moderate conservative", so it is the more telling that his call for the necessity and urgency of tackling global warming points squarely to the necessity and urgency of tackling the capitalist heart of our planet-destroying world.

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