An Eloquent Letter About the So-called Debate

This is the best thing I’ve read lately about the fundamental facts and the fictional “debate” about global warming, the latter of which, as I’ve pointed out before, is actually a public relations war. The letter was written by dozens of members of the United States National Academy of Sciences. They submitted it to a number of news outlets who refused to print it, including the New York Times. It was ultimately published in Science (link).

Please read this.




Science 7 May 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5979, pp. 689 – 690
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5979.689


Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial—scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That’s what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of “well-established theories” and are often spoken of as “facts.”

For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today’s organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth’s climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Much more can be, and has been, said by the world’s scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business-as-usual practices. We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.

P. H. Gleick,* R. M. Adams, R. M. Amasino, E. Anders, D. J. Anderson, W. W. Anderson, L. E. Anselin, M. K. Arroyo, B. Asfaw, F. J. Ayala, A. Bax, A. J. Bebbington, G. Bell, M. V. L. Bennett, J. L. Bennetzen, M. R. Berenbaum, O. B. Berlin, P. J. Bjorkman, E. Blackburn, J. E. Blamont, M. R. Botchan, J. S. Boyer, E. A. Boyle, D. Branton, S. P. Briggs, W. R. Briggs, W. J. Brill, R. J. Britten, W. S. Broecker, J. H. Brown, P. O. Brown, A. T. Brunger, J. Cairns, Jr., D. E. Canfield, S. R. Carpenter, J. C. Carrington, A. R. Cashmore, J. C. Castilla, A. Cazenave, F. S. Chapin, III, A. J. Ciechanover, D. E. Clapham, W. C. Clark, R. N. Clayton, M. D. Coe, E. M. Conwell, E. B. Cowling, R. M Cowling, C. S. Cox, R. B. Croteau, D. M. Crothers, P. J. Crutzen, G. C. Daily, G. B. Dalrymple, J. L. Dangl, S. A. Darst, D. R. Davies, M. B. Davis, P. V. de Camilli, C. Dean, R. S. Defries, J. Deisenhofer, D. P. Delmer, E. F. Delong, D. J. Derosier, T. O. Diener, R. Dirzo, J. E. Dixon, M. J. Donoghue, R. F. Doolittle, T. Dunne, P. R. Ehrlich, S. N. Eisenstadt, T. Eisner, K. A. Emanuel, S. W. Englander, W. G. Ernst, P. G. Falkowski, G. Feher, J. A. Ferejohn, A. Fersht, E. H. Fischer, R. Fischer, K. V. Flannery, J. Frank, P. A. Frey, I. Fridovich, C. Frieden, D. J. Futuyma, W. R. Gardner, C. J. R. Garrett, W. Gilbert, R. B. Goldberg, W. H. Goodenough, C. S. Goodman, M. Goodman, P. Greengard, S. Hake, G. Hammel, S. Hanson, S. C. Harrison, S. R. Hart, D. L. Hartl, R. Haselkorn, K. Hawkes, J. M. Hayes, B. Hille, T. Hökfelt, J. S. House, M. Hout, D. M. Hunten, I. A. Izquierdo, A. T. Jagendorf, D. H. Janzen, R. Jeanloz, C. S. Jencks, W. A. Jury, H. R. Kaback, T. Kailath, P. Kay, S. A. Kay, D. Kennedy, A. Kerr, R. C. Kessler, G. S. Khush, S. W. Kieffer, P. V. Kirch, K. Kirk, M. G. Kivelson, J. P. Klinman, A. Klug, L. Knopoff, H. Kornberg, J. E. Kutzbach, J. C. Lagarias, K. Lambeck, A. Landy, C. H. Langmuir, B. A. Larkins, X. T. Le Pichon, R. E. Lenski, E. B. Leopold, S. A. Levin, M. Levitt, G. E. Likens, J. Lippincott-Schwartz, L. Lorand, C. O. Lovejoy, M. Lynch, A. L. Mabogunje, T. F. Malone, S. Manabe, J. Marcus, D. S. Massey, J. C. McWilliams, E. Medina, H. J. Melosh, D. J. Meltzer, C. D. Michener, E. L. Miles, H. A. Mooney, P. B. Moore, F. M. M. Morel, E. S. Mosley-Thompson, B. Moss, W. H. Munk, N. Myers, G. B. Nair, J. Nathans, E. W. Nester, R. A. Nicoll, R. P. Novick, J. F. O’Connell, P. E. Olsen, N. D. Opdyke, G. F. Oster, E. Ostrom, N. R. Pace, R. T. Paine, R. D. Palmiter, J. Pedlosky, G. A. Petsko, G. H. Pettengill, S. G. Philander, D. R. Piperno, T. D. Pollard, P. B. Price, Jr., P. A. Reichard, B. F. Reskin, R. E. Ricklefs, R. L. Rivest, J. D. Roberts, A. K. Romney, M. G. Rossmann, D. W. Russell, W. J. Rutter, J. A. Sabloff, R. Z. Sagdeev, M. D. Sahlins, A. Salmond, J. R. Sanes, R. Schekman, J. Schellnhuber, D. W. Schindler, J. Schmitt, S. H. Schneider, V. L. Schramm, R. R. Sederoff, C. J. Shatz, F. Sherman, R. L. Sidman, K. Sieh, E. L. Simons, B. H. Singer, M. F. Singer, B. Skyrms, N. H. Sleep, B. D. Smith, S. H. Snyder, R. R. Sokal, C. S. Spencer, T. A. Steitz, K. B. Strier, T. C. Südhof, S. S. Taylor, J. Terborgh, D. H. Thomas, L. G. Thompson, R. T. Tjian, M. G. Turner, S. Uyeda, J. W. Valentine, J. S. Valentine, J. L. van Etten, K. E. van Holde, M. Vaughan, S. Verba, P. H. von Hippel, D. B. Wake, A. Walker, J. E. Walker, E. B. Watson, P. J. Watson, D. Weigel, S. R. Wessler, M. J. West-Eberhard, T. D. White, W. J. Wilson, R. V. Wolfenden, J. A. Wood, G. M. Woodwell, H. E. Wright, Jr., C. Wu, C. Wunsch, M. L. Zoback

* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

1. The signatories are all members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences but are not speaking on its behalf.
2. Signatory affiliations are available as supporting material here.

A Storm in a Teacup in the Sunday Telegraph

As the sparseness of this blog indicates, I’ve been watching the climate policy debate from a distance, lately. (There is no debate about the science.) But I was dragged into it over the weekend by a shoddy bit of reporting in the Sunday Telegraph (UK) — which reminds me yet again why it’s probably best to maintain my silence.

Late last week I received an e-mail from a young man named Richard Gray, who was seeking information about an article I wrote for Climbing magazine a long time ago, in 2001. Innocently, I responded. At his request, I sent him a copy of the text and a minor correction that appeared in the subsequent issue of the magazine (see the previous post on this blog) and agreed to an interview by phone.

Mr. Gray is a “science correspondent” for his newspaper. Unfortunately, the article he proceeded to write, “UN climate change panel based claims on student dissertation and magazine article,” indicates that he failed to understand a simple table in a report by this UN panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. One would prefer to believe that he doesn’t understand the science, but it appears to be something more basic than that: he seems to have difficulty with simple reading comprehension — unless, of course, his true purpose was to misrepresent the report. Furthermore, he manufactured a quote for his article that supposedly came from my mouth. I’m afraid that it did not.

And now his article is creating a stir in both the blogosphere and the more traditional news media. Stories are cropping up in India and New Zealand. Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairman of the IPCC, is being asked questions about it. Even I am getting requests for my point of view (“POV” in journalist jargon). One news outlet is proposing to drive for five hours to interview me in front of a camera.

… But wait a minute. There is no actual story here. Mr. Gray made it up. These Johnny-come-latelys are writing a story about his story, and they haven’t bothered to check on its veracity. Now, any comment about his story is simply a POV, and all POVs are equal. (“[A]n effort should be made to broadcast the different points-of-view in any debate/development,” one journalist assures me.) The next round will bring stories about their stories about his story and produce yet more POVs even farther removed from the facts. Does it matter if a POV is based on false reasoning or conscious ideological blindness? Apparently not. And what if the trigger for the entire fantasy was based on the same?

Thus do global warming deniers dupe the media, and this is why they will always have an upper hand in the fictional “global warming debate.” It’s not a debate; it’s a public relations war. Continue reading

Canaries in a Coal Mine

This article appeared in Climbing, No. 208, on December 15, 2001. The magazine did a great job producing it; there were some excellent photos. I recommend getting a hold of a copy if you can … or maybe they’ll post it on their site … ?

I am posting it now because it is playing a role in an odd little tempest in a teapot that was initiated by the Telegraph in England on Sunday. I hope to post another entry about that episode shortly.

I’m still quite happy with the article, even though I wrote it a long time ago. Obviously, the political situation has changed. The science still holds up pretty well, although I do point out a few minor errors below.

Canaries in a Coal Mine

As the Earth warms, its mountain glaciers are disappearing. How will climbers-and life-be affected?

By Mark Bowen

Topher Donahue, 29, has been climbing and hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park since his childhood. He remembers that Mills Glacier, at the base of the east face of Longs Peak, used to be covered in soft white snow year-round. Now, it reverts to hard gray ice every August.

Last September, he and some friends walked in to climb the short ice flows that form near the base of the east face. The climbs were in, but the glacier had changed significantly.

“We walked to the base of the wall without stepping on ice once,” he says. “It used to be that you walked for the last quarter-mile on ice.”

Other formerly permanent snowfields, near Jim’s Grove on the trail to Longs, and on the hills above Trail Ridge Road, now disappear completely for a few weeks every summer.

Gerry Roach of Boulder, Colorado, has climbed El Pico de Orizaba, the highest of Mexico’s three big volcanoes, once in each of the last five decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, he recalls, Orizaba’s south side was covered with soft, sun-cupped snow. Now, you can climb to the summit without stepping on snow once. He says the loss of ice is “dramatic” on all three volcanoes, and says he almost cried 10 years ago when he saw how fast it was going on Iztaccíhuatl, the third highest. “I probably won’t go back to that mountain again, it was such a mess. Everything was dripping. I don’t know whether we’ll live to see [the snow’s] complete disappearance, but it will be mostly gone in our lifetime. That’s sad, because volcanoes look prettier with a snowcap on them.”

In 1970, when Roach first climbed Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, he followed the route Edward Whymper had used in 1880 on the first ascent. By the time he returned in 1981, however, the snowfields below the prominent “red wall” had retreated to reveal what he calls “a very nasty rock slope” of slabs covered with loose rock. Thus, on about the 100th anniversary of Whymper’s ascent, his route fell out of favor, not only because of the rock slope but also the seracs and crevasses that had opened up on the shriveling glacier above. The hut was moved west to give better access to the Direct Route. Since then, even that route has changed: You used to walk straight up the tongue of the Thielmann Glacier, but it, too, has retreated, and its margin has steepened. Climbers are forced along its edge, with the Scylla of rock cliffs on one side and the Charybdis of hanging seracs on the other. The approach has been changed twice in the last year-and-a-half. Both new lines are more dangerous than the original. Continue reading

Free Lance-Star Op-ed

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Sunday “Viewpoints” section of the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance-Star. It appeared on August 23rd and was picked up by the McClatchy wire service, so it turned up in a few other places as well, the most gratifying to me being the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette, at pretty much ground zero in the fight against Big Coal. This is the draft I originally submitted, with links to provide some background. The draft wasn’t much changed in the editing room. They gave it the pithy title, “Averting Catastrophe: A Tale of Censorship, Civil Disobedience, Greed, and Willful Ignorance.” (As Jim Hansen explains near the end of this piece, he actually prefers the phrase — and the philosophy — of civil resistance to civil disobedience, and he takes this from Gandhi, whom he has been reading lately.)


Our planet’s preeminent climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen of NASA, faces the very real threat of spending a year in jail. He and thirty others were arrested in June (see this too), during an act of civil resistance at an elementary school in West Virginia where children learn their lessons at the defenseless edge of the 2,000-acre mountaintop-removal mine on Coal River Mountain, owned by Richmond-based Massey Energy. The school “stands as the prime example of just how far this country has gone to support its addiction to coal, and just how far Massey Energy will go to support its profit margin,” wrote the resisters on the day of the arrests. “The West Virginia Supreme Court has joined Governor Manchin in turning their backs on these children, subjecting them to expanded operations within 300 feet of the school … . According to Massey’s own documents, [the expanded] operations will add over three tons of coal dust to the air the children breathe every school year during their most formative years.”

Hansen’s prospects for a fair trial don’t look good. For Big Coal, and Massey in particular, have undue influence in West Virginia courts. The state supreme court has twice overturned a $50 million jury verdict against Massey, and in each case the deciding vote was cast by a judge with an alarmingly close relationship to the company’s CEO, Don Blankenship. After the first vote, photographs surfaced of justice Elliott Maynard dining with Blankenship on the French Riviera and in Monaco. When the court reconsidered the case, justice Brent Benjamin, who tipped the scales the second time, failed to recuse himself even though Blankenship had spent over $3 million on television advertisements for his election campaign. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled this a violation of the Constitution. The case will be reconsidered again.

The schoolchildren, their parents, and their neighbors near the mine on Coal River Mountain face other dangers from this most destructive form of coal mining: a 2.8 billion-gallon sludge dam stands 400 yards upstream from the school, and Massey has an egregious history of water pollution. In 2000, a break in a dam at a Massey mine in Kentucky released 250 million gallons of coal slurry and killed wildlife as far as sixty miles downstream. Last year the company agreed to pay $20 million to settle a lawsuit by the Environmental Protection Agency over more than 4,600 documented cases of illegal dumping into Appalachian waterways.

But it was not only concern for local citizens and ecosystems that took Jim Hansen to West Virginia. For almost three decades, he has been warning of a threat that stands to kill many times the human population of all Appalachia and eliminate perhaps half the other species on Earth: human-induced climate change. Coal represents the single largest component of that threat and the one that could push the planet across the threshold where catastrophic change cascades out of our control. Amazingly, Jim first warned about coal in 1981, when he and some colleagues published a landmark paper in Science that marks the beginning of his still unbroken string of accurate predictions. It is chilling to read the paper today, not only for its prescience, but also because it raises the same difficult issues we now face, which today loom three decades larger, for we’ve done nothing to address them but talk. The scientists pointed out that if humans were to burn all the available oil and natural gas on the planet, we would probably increase the atmospheric abundance of carbon dioxide by less than half the preindustrial amount: to a dangerous, but perhaps not catastrophic level. They added, however, that there is enough coal to double the pre-industrial amount at least. The informed scientific community agrees almost unanimously that this spells catastrophe. The paper suggested, therefore, that the “key fuel choice is between coal and alternatives that do not increase atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Massey Energy has applied for permits to remove more than ten square miles of a ridge on Coal River Mountain that would make a fine location for a wind farm. As the ridge is destroyed, this renewable opportunity disappears with it. Such are the choices we have made for the past twenty-eight years in the face of increasingly undeniable evidence that they will change the face of our planet and burn large holes in the web of life.

Politicians have rarely been comfortable with Jim Hansen’s words. When the 1981 paper led to the first story about global warming ever to appear on the front-page of the New York Times, the Reagan administration cut Jim’s budget and warned other scientists that they would lose funding if they based their work on his computerized climate model. All three Republican administrations since 1981 have censored him, and while Democrats haven’t been quite as bare-knuckled, he and Al Gore enjoyed frosty relations for more than ten years, for example, after Gore, as vice president, pressured him to make the science seem stronger and more dire than it was at the time. (Today’s science shows, incidentally, that Gore was mostly right.)

Now Jim has parted ways with the Obama administration by calling for a ban on mountaintop removal mining and on new coal-fired power plants unless they capture and store the carbon dioxide they emit. He objects strongly, moreover, to the American Clean Energy and Security Act, sponsored by congressmen Waxman and Markey, pointing out that it contains so many concessions to Big Coal and other special interests that its effect on future climates will be nil: it is just more talk.

We should listen when a man of Jim’s impeccable integrity, who has been right for thirty years, is willing to lay his freedom on the line. He knows that we are perilously — perhaps hopelessly — close to the edge. Is coal so important that we will compromise the lives of our children and grandchildren for it? And is this how our democracy should work?

 Comments welcome.

It’s Official: Griffin is Gone

(I restrained myself and left the exclamation point off the end of the title.)

Yesterday the Obama Administration named a new interim leadership team and officially stated that associate administrator Christopher Scolese “will serve as acting administrator until a successor to Michael Griffin has been nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.” It is not a surprise that Griffin will not be kept on, but this is the first official indication to my knowledge.

It is also worth noting that the mendacious and clearly dishonest David Mould, the Assistant Administrator of Public Affairs who actively censored Jim Hansen, is gone as well.

So, the first good moves have been made. It appears that Mr. Obama is conducting one of the most thorough and patient reviews of the space agency that has ever been conducted by an incoming president, so one expects the next few moves to be wise as well. Given his stellar choices for other scientific and technical positions in his administration, I imagine the president’s choice for NASA Administrator will also be inspiring.

 Hear! Hear!

More Bush Burrowing? Now at NASA

(Cross-posted to Daily Kos)

As the Washington Post and Daily Kos’s mcjoan reported last week, the Bush administration is resorting to the time-honored tactic of burrowing, that is, shifting political appointees into tenured senior civil servant positions, in the rush to preserve as much as it can of its disastrous pro-industry ideology before Obama takes over. The most brazen example, mentioned by the Post and mcjoan, was the burrowing of six ideologues into senior positions at the Interior Department. Now I’ve learned of what looks to be a similar attempt at NASA.

The agency has announced that the position of Chief Information Officer is open – but, here’s the catch, only for a grand total of nine working days, spanning the Thanksgiving Holiday. This is too short and too distracted a time for an adequate search in any event, and also gives someone on the inside track an overwhelming advantage. CIO is a critical position in this information-savvy age: he or she will be responsible for “leading and managing all information technology strategies and initiatives” at the agency. Shouldn’t the Obama administration have an opportunity to make or at least contribute to this important decision? Administrator Michael Griffin doesn’t seem to think so.

The NASA transition: Why Griffin must go

(Cross-posted to Daily Kos)

In the days since the election, a few people have asked for my thoughts on the “transition” that needs to take place at NASA as the reins of power are passed to Barack Obama. While I would not pretend to be an expert on the agency as a whole, I think I may, in the years that it took to write Censoring Science, have developed enough of an understanding of the way the agency’s science effort has been “managed” under Bush, Cheney and administrator Michael Griffin to voice some informed opinions there.

Other reporters or bloggers always have their own deadlines and points to make, and ask me to squeeze my thoughts into a sentence or two. But my main recommendation here is controversial enough to require more than that. It must be supported by facts. Many relevant facts will be found in my book, and new crucial details were revealed in the report on censorship at NASA that the agency’s own Office of Inspector General released this past June, six months after the book’s release. In Censoring Science, I reviewed facts and testimony that cast serious doubt on the administrator’s account of his own involvement in the censorship of climate science at his agency (he denied knowing anything about it), but I refrained from stating directly that I believed he was involved.

The new facts in the Inspector General’s report have changed my mind. I now believe that the preponderance of evidence shows that Michael Griffin not only knew what was happening while the single most egregious act of censorship–directed at climatologist James Hansen, specifically–was taking place, but that Griffin in fact authorized this activity.

This alone should be grounds for his dismissal. On top of that, the ignorance and outright animosity he has displayed toward science in general, climate science in particular, and even scientists as individuals (he has referred to them as children) should disqualify him from leading what was once arguably the most inspiring scientific organization in the world. There has been a brain drain during his tenure, and morale is low in the agency’s science mission. We should also remember that NASA’s climate science program, at more than $1 billion a year, is by far the largest of any single organization in the world, while Griffin’s public statements indicate that he is remarkably ignorant of climate science and completely out of step with mainstream scientific thinking on the causes and consequences of global warming. It seems highly inappropriate for such an individual to lead such an important program.

NASA might have a chance to recover its prowess and inspire entire generations once again, but it has no chance, in my view, with Michael Griffin at the helm.

Why I believe Administrator Griffin helped censor Jim Hansen

Censorship at NASA makes for a long and dismal story. It began early in George W. Bush’s first term and was too widespread to cover even in a book. Michael Griffin inherited an active, though secretive, censorship program when he became administrator in mid-2005. The crucial series of incidents I will review here gave him his first chance to do the right thing, but instead of stepping in to stop the censorship, he helped escalate it. When Jim Hansen finally brought these incidents to light in the media more than six weeks after they began, Griffin and his top aides performed a deft public relations move, cut loose and scapegoated the young man who had been carrying out their orders, twenty-four-year-old George Deutsch, and managed to portray the administrator as a champion of scientific openness and integrity. The media and Congress then bought into this cynical and shameless ploy.

Continue reading

Censoring Science on Book TV

Since C-SPAN filmed Jim Hansen and myself when we spoke in Lexington, Massachusetts, on June 1, I have been waiting to see if anything would come of it. Well now something has. Book TV will be broadcasting a show about Censoring Science three times in the next six weeks. Hope it helps direct policy in some small way. If you have a chance to watch the show, please tell me what you think.

 Schedule (on C-SPAN2):

Saturday, October 4, at 8:00 PM
 Saturday, November 15, at 9:00 AM
 Sunday, November 16, at 5:00 AM

(And now that the first show has aired, it can be viewed here on the Web)

” … the rewards and perils of scientific writing in the political realm …”

This coming Friday, I’ll be joining a panel at Netroots Nation in Austin, Texas, to discuss Restructuring U.S. Science Policy.

Seems like a good idea to post the recent interview I did with the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), since it bears directly on some of the ideas I intend to talk about:


As the holder of bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and as the author of Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming (2008, Dutton), Mark Bowen is uniquely qualified to discuss writing about the intersection of politics and meteorology. He also wrote Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World’s Highest Mountains (2005, Henry Holt and Company). Bowen recently took the time to answer some questions about the rewards and perils of political writing in the scientific realm.

BAMS: What motivated you to write about the interaction of politics and science?

BOWEN: My motivation was simply to write about Jim Hansen. His work had attracted my interest when I was writing my first book, Thin Ice, which is about Lonnie Thompson, the paleoclimatologist from The Ohio State University. While Lonnie’s science is superb, it became clear to me as I was writing that it doesn’t tell a complete story on its own. His ice cores and his observation of the widespread retreat of mountain glaciers provide compelling and unequivocal evidence that the planet is warming and that the scope of the warming is unprecedented in thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, and perhaps even millions of years — but it does not tell us why. Jim’s work answers that question. I met and interviewed Jim when I was writing Thin Ice. He is probably the most important character in the book outside the members of Lonnie’s group.

In the fall of 2005, right around the time Thin Ice was released, an editor and I began discussing the idea of doing a book about Jim. The editor made the odd suggestion that it might be “less awkward” if he, rather than I, were to present the idea to Jim; but I heard nothing back for a couple of months. Then, at the end of January 2006, Jim’s censorship story hit the headlines. Turns out the editor had never called him. So, at the end of February, I got in touch with Jim myself, and he immediately agreed to work with me. He gave me open access, but I did all the writing. He has no financial interest in the book.

BAMS: What are the most fulfilling and most difficult aspects of writing on this topic?

BOWEN: The most fulfilling things were to be able to work closely with Jim and to harbor the hope, at least, of helping him wake the world up to this impending catastrophe and maybe even affect policy. The difficult aspects both had to do with politics: It’s hard enough to write a substantive nonfiction book without having to deal with sources who will lie, either openly or not so openly, and others who are afraid to speak, out of fear of recrimination. Based on the notion that the censorship story was timely and tied only to the Bush/Cheney administration (the latter being an erroneous assumption), my publisher also set ridiculously short deadlines-and, in the end, took the book out of my hands before I felt it was ready. Although I am reasonably happy with how it turned out, I would have liked to have had more time to simplify the storytelling and structure and to have been able to take a longer view of Jim’s career, his science, and his proposed solutions.

BAMS: What does it mean to be a scientist in a discipline that has become so politicized? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

BOWEN: One thing it means is that your work is most likely meaningful — that is, relevant to the average person — and that’s probably a good thing. On the other hand, it thrusts you into the hurly-burly of public debate, where the rules don’t even extend to being truthful, so it tests your equanimity, along with your ability to remain truthful yourself and to convey scientific knowledge in plain, everyday language. Being in the public limelight forces you to shed the armor of scientific professionalism, which can be a way of avoiding clear thinking — hiding behind your discipline — so, ultimately, I think, it is good for a scientist to have to defend his or her work in public every once in a while. It is stimulating, it requires courage, and it forces you to get the science right.

BAMS: How do politics ultimately affect the way science is conducted?

BOWEN: Well, the big thing is always funding, of course, and we have seen that go both ways in the global warming area. For the most part, conservative legislators and presidential administrations have cut funding to the bearers or discoverers of bad climate news. Ironically, however, George Bush Sr. was responsible for the largest increase in climate science funding in history. It seems that he figured he could shut the scientists up by giving them money to go off, do research for a while, and keep arguing among themselves — and his tactic seems to have worked.

In this case, I think politicization has also led to a misplaced emphasis on finding a so-called consensus. This has allowed people — and this includes some scientists — who aren’t necessarily well-informed or even capable of understanding the science to weigh in, not to mention those vested interests whose agenda is simply to muddy the waters or “teach the controversy.” The fact is that the scientific connection between human activity and a dangerously warming climate was well-established by 1988, when Jim Hansen made his legendary testimony to Congress. By that time, the scientific case for limiting greenhouse emissions was at least as strong as the case for limiting chemicals that harm the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol, which has phased out the production of chlorofluorocarbons and so on, was signed in 1989, yet we are still a long way from establishing an effective international mechanism for limiting the greenhouse, some 20 years later.

BAMS: What do you think the relationship should be between science and politics?

BOWEN: It seems obvious that politicians should seek impartial advice from the scientific community on issues that have a scientific component — and most issues facing society nowadays do have a scientific component. Even if that component isn’t obvious, many seemingly intractable policy issues yield well to the paradigm of rational examination that is exemplified by the scientific approach. Jim often alludes to an admonition by the physicist Richard Feynman: “The only way to have real success in science . . . is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good about it and what’s bad about it equally. In science you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if politicians approached policy-making that way? Think of W.M.D.’s in Iraq.

It seems to me that our Founding Fathers attempted to build this rational, rather than ideological, approach into our governmental framework. But, unfortunately, things have been going the wrong way for at least the past 50 years. There was an excellent article in Physics Today this past summer [John S. Rigden. Eisenhower, scientists, and Sputnik. Vol. 60, pp. 47-52.] that argued that the last U.S. president who honestly sought and valued scientific advice was probably John F. Kennedy, and that the gold standard was probably set by his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who set up the first President’s Science Advisory Committee in response to the Russians’ launching of Sputnik. A few months before his death in 1969, as he lay on a bed in Walter Reed Hospital, Eisenhower told his former science advisor, James Killian of MIT, that that “bunch of scientists was one of the few groups that I encountered in Washington who seemed to be there to help the country and not to help themselves.”

Scientists have been moved farther and farther from White House decision making ever since that time. George W. Bush, for example, waited nine months into his first term before even appointing a science advisor, and he stripped off the title “assistant to the president” as he did so. Thus, John Marburger, who has held the post ever since, does not have direct access to the president.

BAMS: What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing Censoring Science?

BOWEN: I have to say that I was shocked both at the level of corruption among the political appointees at NASA — and the people in the White House who were directing them — and at their arrogance, which really translates into stupidity. I mean, didn’t they realize that they would eventually get caught? I am not speaking here of the agency’s career people, whom I found to be honest, intelligent, committed, qualified, and good at what they do, almost without exception.

BAMS: What is the most important message you hope readers will get from Censoring Science?

BOWEN: That global warming is real, it’s bad news, and we ought to do something about it right now. There has been enough talk. Let’s start with Jim’s proposal to ban any new coal-fired power plant that doesn’t sequester carbon dioxide. Robust sequestration technology is probably about 10 years off, but if we focus on efficiency, we won’t need any new coal-fired plants until the technology is here.

BAMS: How do you see the relationship of politics and climate science evolving in the near future?

BOWEN: I think it will get a little bit better (it can hardly get worse), but I am not entirely optimistic.

BAMS: Do you have any book/writing projects on the horizon?

BOWEN: Not really. I have a couple of magazine articles in mind. Books are big things, and I have learned that you can’t force them; they happen to you. I feel very thankful that Lonnie Thompson and Jim Hansen have provided me with stories that have been worth dedicating years of my life to. I hope I’ll find another one.

© 2008 American Meteorological Society