Two weeks ago, now (an eternity in the blogosphere, God knows) Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interviewed Jim Hansen and myself on their independent news program, Democracy Now!
This particular outlet is probably about as far from Fox News as you can get. “Pioneering the largest public media collaboration in the U.S., Democracy Now! is broadcast on Pacifica, NPR, community, and college radio stations; on public access, PBS, satellite television … ; and on the internet. DN!’s podcast is one of the most popular on the web,” claims their Web site. However, the old (and questionable) Fox News adage about “fair and balanced” reporting springs to mind as I think back on two aspects of the interview, one salutary and the other somewhat less so.
Jim, Amy, and Juan sat around a table in Democracy Now!’s New York studio, while I was wired in from a studio in Watertown, Massachusetts, near my home. Just before we went live, as the sole proprietor of this small establishment was framing me in his camera, he told me to get ready for a good conversation: “This isn’t sound bite news.”
Indeed, Goodman and Gonzalez proceeded to conduct one of the best interviews in my experience, for the simple reason that they listened. When they asked a question, they would sit back and give Jim or myself pretty much all the time we needed in order to respond. I don’t think they once interrupted.
The first pleasant surprise occurred even before the interview began, when Gonzalez’s voice piped up in my earpiece actually asking me if there was anything I wanted to cover that day. There was:
It is true that the main subject of the interview, my book, Censoring Science, focuses mainly on the specific acts of censorship that Jim Hansen took public in early 2006. It is also fair to say that no recent presidential administration – and probably none in American history – rivals the present one in terms of the scope of scientific censorship and the cunning cynicism with which it has been carried out. The book also shows that the censorship of climate science began during the Reagan administration and continued in the first Bush administration. So many of the people who have interviewed me over the past few months have used the opportunity to bash George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the Republican Party in general. Fair enough, I suppose …
But the book shows that the Clinton administration engaged in some twisting of climate science as well, mainly through the actions of Vice President Al Gore, who may have spun the ball in a different direction than Bush and Cheney have been spinning it for the past seven years, but who spun it nevertheless. In my opinion, Mr. Gore did not distort the science anywhere near as much as the Republicans have. Furthermore, as I point out in the book, Jim Hansen actually believes that, back in the early 80s, Mr. Gore may have had better insight into the climate system than he himself – although Gore’s insight was based more on intuition than hard analysis.
I would have said that the Democrats had stopped short of actual censorship until Jim told me a story that changed my mind. (Unfortunately, he didn’t tell it until after the book was finished, so it isn’t in there.)
Basically, in the summer of 2000, just before the fateful election that would place Bush, rather than Gore, in the Oval Office, Jim and some colleagues ruffled many feathers among global warming scientists and activists by publishing a surprisingly optimistic paper, entitled “Global warming in the twenty-first century: an alternative scenario.”
To quote from Censoring Science:
Their argument was based upon solid estimates of all the major climate “forcings” of the industrial era. A forcing is basically equivalent either to turning up the brightness of the sun or turning it town. A positive forcing, such as a greenhouse gas, will heat the atmosphere; a negative forcing will cool it. An example of the latter would be the tiny particles called aerosols that spew forth from coal-burning power plants-sulfates mostly, which also cause acid rain. This type of aerosol cools the air … by reflecting sunlight back into space. But another very important industrial aerosol comes down on the positive side of the ledger. Black carbon soot, which is emitted mainly by household heating systems, diesel engines, and open fires, heats the air by absorbing sunlight, owing to its color; and its effect is amplified by the fact that some airborne soot eventually settles on mountain glaciers or polar ice sheets, darkens their surfaces, and enhances their absorption of sunlight. This not only dramatically speeds their melting, it also adds a positive feedback that enhances warming; for in their white pristine state, glaciers and ice sheets cool the atmosphere by reflecting sunlight away from the planet in the same way most airborne aerosols do. Not only does the soot on their surface reduce the reflectivity of the ice itself, but also, as the glaciers shrink they expose the darker land or water underneath, which absorbs sunlight even more effectively. …
When [Jim and his colleagues] compared, side by side, the forcing power of all the main greenhouse gases and aerosols that have been added to the atmosphere during the industrial era, they discovered some low-hanging fruit. They realized that, while carbon dioxide has so far been the strongest individual contributor to manmade greenhouse warming, the total effect of the non-CO2 greenhouse gases is about equal to carbon dioxide’s. They also understood that realistic efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, while essential, could only be expected to slow their growth, not stop it. Jim’s “alternative scenario” was to propose that we might make a significant dent in the greenhouse by focusing on the non-CO2 gases for the next fifty years, particularly methane and ozone, and by limiting black carbon soot. This would supplement reductions in the emission of carbon dioxide, which is a much more difficult nut to crack both economically and politically, since this gas is an inevitable byproduct of fossil fuel burning and, therefore, of the global energy infrastructure. “Combined with a reduction of black carbon emissions and plausible success in slowing CO2 emissions,” they wrote, “this reduction of non-CO2 greenhouse gases could lead to a decline in the rate of global warming, reducing the danger of dramatic climate change.”
Jim and his colleagues also made note of some immediate side-benefits to this scenario. Soot is linked to an increased prevalence of lung cancer and asthma. Ozone also causes asthma and other adverse health effects, and hurts agriculture, for a total cost of about $10 billion a year in the United States alone. And in addition to the direct greenhouse benefit of limiting methane, which is presently the second most important greenhouse gas, this would in turn limit ozone, owing to active chemical processes in the atmosphere that eventually produce ozone from airborne methane.
The [authors] did not ignore carbon dioxide emissions; in fact, they stressed the critical importance of curtailing their exponential growth between now and 2050 and cutting them drastically in the second half of the century. They were simply making the optimistic suggestion that we might buy a few decades to develop new technologies to replace fossil fuel burning by dealing also with soot and the non-CO2 greenhouse gases, while implementing a few sensible and not particularly painful strategies for energy efficiency and conservation that would limit carbon dioxide emissions as well.
As I relate in the book, the publication of this “alternative scenario” evoked an emotional response from the scientific community, most of whom believed that such a, shall we say, “balanced” approach might let the fossil fuel industry off the hook. Even the editors at Nature engaged in what might be called censorship by editing a response that Jim wrote to one of their news articles so heavily that Jim refused to let them print it.
(Incidentally, a recent study led by Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California at San Diego, has reemphasized the importance of dealing with soot. Since Nature saw fit to publish this one, you can find it here if you have a subscription. Otherwise, go here or here. The new study has been received with more interest than criticism, which might be a sign that the scientific community is developing a more mature view of this complex problem.)
I had thought that the censorship of the alternative scenario ended with the scientific community until I learned that Jim encountered so many obstacles trying to get a press release related to his paper through the public affairs office at his employer, NASA, that he gave up on that, too. He has referred to this as the “most horrific experience” he has ever had with NASA public affairs.
So, before the interview on Democracy Now!, I asked Juan Gonzalez if he might give Jim a chance to talk about this incident; and in a salutary example of fairness and balance, Juan and Amy Goodman began by asking Jim to tell the story (video, audio, and transcript here).
Not only is scientific censorship a bipartisan problem, it can dangerously infect the scientific enterprise itself. Both scientists and policymakers must rise above such dogmatism if we are ever to develop an effective and, yes, balanced approach to this issue.
My next entry will concern the second, less encouraging instance of “fairness and balance” that cropped up during the interview.