Censoring Science

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

It’s Official: Griffin is Gone. That’s the heading on Mark Bowen’s blog on 27 January.  He forbore to add the exclamation mark that tempted him. You would understand this as a noteworthy piece of news if you’d read Bowen’s book Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming published in January as a Penguin paperback. (The hardback edition appeared in 2008.)  In his book Bowen is clearly suspicious of the role that Michael Griffin, appointed Administrator of NASA in 2005, played in the attempt to censor James Hansen which the book details. Incidentally, Bowen has recently set out very clearly in this long entry on his website the case against Griffin in a more connected way than he was able to establish when writing the book.

To turn to the book. The author, a writer, has a doctorate in physics and wrote a much-praised climate change book Thin Ice in 2005. Bowen’s mountain-climbing expertise enabled him to join climatologist Lonnie Thompson in some of his heroic expeditions to high and remote ice caps to gather ice core records. The association with Thompson opened his mind to the clear and present danger of global warming.   In Censoring Science he moves to the work of another distinguished climatologist, though this time one he hasn’t had to follow into forbidding terrain.  James Hansen directs the research at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), much of which is centred on factors affecting climate change. Twenty years ago he delivered a now famous congressional testimony showing early models predicting increased global warming, and he has remained at the forefront of scientific understanding of the effects of increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Irony attends the scientific realisation of the dangers of anthropogenic global warming:  many of the finest scientists engaged in it are American, yet America (and for a time its faithful shadow Australia) is the one developed country which long refused to treat the question as of moment for the future of humanity.  The irony is no accident.  Bowen’s book describes some of the workings of an administration which not only denied or ignored the science but also tried to prevent the public being made aware of it. Much of his investigation centres around events in late 2005 when Hansen gave a lecture to an American Geophysical Union meeting in which he set out the possibilily of tipping points ahead if fossil fuel CO2 emissions continued at their current rate.  He spoke of the vast scale of losses due to world wide rising seas under such a scenario, and called for prompt action to keep further global warming under one degree centigrade.  He added a comment that it seemed to him that special interests had been a roadblock wielding undue influence over policymakers. Two days later the GISS global temperature results for 2005 were posted, showing it to be one of the warmest years on record.  It’s beyond the scope of a short book review to detail the consternation amongst political appointees to the staff at NASA, and the steps that were taken to try to ensure that Hansen was put on a short leash.  To follow it closely would also require a better knowledge of the workings of NASA administration and agencies than I have.  But the thrust of Bowen’s careful narrative is clear There was an attempt, not only then but at other times, to muzzle Hansen and other scientists and to tamper with the conclusions to which their scientific work pointed.  The White House itself appears to have have been a driving influence in the background.   It is part of the widespread suppression of science under the Bush administration, much of it centred on climate change, but extending into other fields as well.

It’s a disturbing story. NASA’s mission statement was quietly altered in February 2006 to drop the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet”, ostensibly to square it with Bush’s focus on pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.  This went hand in hand with cuts to funding of earth science projects such as those which depend on satellite measurements to provide critical information about Earth processes.  Funding cuts are an obvious way of stifling scientific discoveries.

Hansen did not submissively accept restrictions on his ability to communicate with the general public. He is not a person to shrink from what he sees as a duty, albeit expressed in modest terms. “I don’t want, in the future, my grandchildren to say, ‘Opa understood what was going to happen but he didn’t make it clear.’ And so I’m trying to make it clear.”

Thankfully Hansen’s combativeness meant that the authorities failed.  He remained in his position and continued to work as the scrupulous scientist he is, sharing his science and his concerns with a wider public when he feels he needs to.

Much of the book is devoted to Hansen himself, his work, the progress of his thinking over time, his background and character.  Bowen builds a picture of a relaxed but dedicated man who spends long hours in the science which has absorbed him for years. These parts of the book provide a narrative of Hansen’s growing understanding of the complexities of global warming and awareness of its latent dangers.  Bowen himself is well equipped to understand the science and his explanations are clear and helpful.

The book’s story ends in 2007.  Since then Hansen has if anything become more involved, in his capacity as a private citizen, in seeking to prod governments into activity.  He has also continued to do solid scientific work, which has included recently his and nine others’ paper Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? which suggests that we need a reduction from the present level of 387 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 ppm or less if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.

Is it naivety which guides Hansen in his expectations of how the public will react to the scientific picture if only they understand it?  Bowen quotes approvingly journalist Bill Blakemore who thinks it’s something closer to what Yeats calls ‘radical innocence’, a kind of transparent integrity. Whatever it is, long may it continue.

51 thoughts on “Censoring Science”

  1. Do you have comprehension problems, Ayrdale? Pielke’s opening paragraph:

    The political consensus surrounding climate policy is collapsing. […] It is not due to the overturning of the scientific consensus on the role of human activity in the global climate system.

  2. Ayrdale, I don’t think you’ve quite got Pielke right. He certainly claims a collapse in climate policy, but not in the scientific consensus. As I understand him he accepts the latest IPCC science. But he maintains, opaquely I have to say, that climate scientists should stay out of policy and that their insistence on a particular CO2 target level for relative safety damages the prospect of a policy consensus. By implication he would presumably regard James Hansen as blundering about in a field in which he doesn’t belong.

    He appears to regard a target of 450 parts per million as simply not achievable in terms of political realities. What Hansen and numerous other scientists are saying is that if we move above that level for any length of time, and indeed do not aim then to reduce to a lower level than is current, we run terrible risks for the human future. Are they supposed not to tell us? Does Pielke not believe them? But he says he accepts the science.

    I refuse to accept a political reality which transcends the scientific reality. I realise that we may fail at the political level, but I hope very much that we don’t, and in the meantime I think it would be most unwise to take the urgent seriousness of the science out of the political arena – if that is what Pielke is saying, though it’s hard to pin down exactly what he is saying.

  3. Well, I understand the implications of what he is saying as this…
    The mirage of scientific consensus is evident, and political consensus is non-existent.
    So, without unity concerted action won’t come about, and without concerted action the planet is doomed in under 4 years (according to doomsayers).
    The proof of the pudding etc…
    (Pielke Jnr may by the way accept the IPPC version of events, but Pielke Snr is a dissenter.)
    There will be blood on the floor, and most of it will come from politically motivated scientists.
    Awkward isn’t it ?

  4. Ayrdale, I can only repeat that he is not saying the mirage of scientific consensus has collapsed. He is suggesting that the political consensus will collapse because policy makers will realise that the target of 450 ppm is unrealistic. I would regard such a realisation with horror, but he seems to be quite happy with the prospect of it.

    I don’t know what doomsayers you are referring to when you speak of the planet being doomed in under four years, but Hansen doesn’t claim that. He considers it essential that we take the opportunities we have to begin to drastically reduce emissions over the next few years lest we reach a tipping point which it would be difficult to control. Especially he considers we need to stop building coal-burning plants.

    In fact I haven’t read anyone who thinks the planet is doomed by global warming. It is our place on the planet and the place of many of our fellow-species which is at risk.

  5. Yes, you’re quite right. Hansen has said he can promise President Obama global record temperatures within 4 years, but that the planet is likely to reach an undefined “tipping point” (sounds alarmist/scary) within 10 years.
    Al Gore certainly believes that humanity is doomed by the threat of runaway global warming, and you could argue that Hansen exploits that fear/threat by warning of his tipping point.
    However, Pielke Jnr (and Snr) have credibility, and Jnr forecasts further carnage within the scientific community over this debate.
    I believe him, and think that when the debate cools down the hysteria and urgency over climate policy and the role of CO2 will be seen to have been unnecessary and politically driven.

  6. Pielke Snr and Jnr would like to think they have credibility, but in reality they’re a long way from the mainstream. Jr’s piece reads like an attempt to be deliberately controversial, to garner some media attention for himself as an “honest broker”.

    I think he’s a long way off the mark, because he confuses the WattsUp and anti-green noise with serious science. He is right in one sense — that the debate should be about targets for emissions reductions, but he dives deep into his policy collapse schtick before making any cogent argument about why 450ppm is unrealistic.

    In the context of US politics, it also seems directed at undermining whatever policy consensus Obama is trying to pull together. By saying it’s too hard, he prepares the ground for all those who want to do as little as possible. He has been positively Lomborgian in the past in his attempts to downplay the real message coming from climate scientists.

  7. And what does Lomborg say by the way ?
    That the trillions that the developed world may or may not spend on the (n0n) problem of CO2/global warming/climate change would be better spent elsewhere.
    Eliminating malaria, providing sources of potable water, relieving famine etc, etc.
    Lomborgian ? sounds like a synonym for pragmatic and sensible doesn’t it…

  8. Lomborg’s arguments fail on two counts. The first is that he presents a false dichotomy. All of the problems he suggests have priority over climate change are worth addressing — but you don’t have to choose between them. Action on malaria is entirely compatible with action on climate change.

    Lomborg’s position on the costs of climate change depend crucially on considering only the most innocuous of changes. With sea level rise, for example, he uses the base AR4 figures (20-60cm) but never acknowledges the other part of the AR4 statement, that increasing contributions from ice sheet are not included in those numbers. That’s where “Lomborgian” comes from — I use it to mean a determined attempt to don rose-tinted spectacles and see only what you want to see.

  9. Well Gareth, I’ll let other readers pass judgement on that.
    Money’s is obviously not inexhaustible though, and if we spend money on alleviating CO2 emmissions to “save the planet” than it’s less money to spend on good works elsewhere.
    And if, as I suspect, the money spent on alleviating climate change/global warming is a massive con, and totally unnecessary then it becomes an ethical issue…

  10. There is also a question of ethics that has to be faced by those who advocate inaction. If you are wrong, then by delaying action you worsen the damage the world will face.

    Of course, a rational assessment of the risks and costs removes the “if” from the previous sentence.

  11. Exactly. And Bjorn Lomborg “believes panic is neither warranted nor a constructive place from which to deal with any of humanity’s problems, not just global warming.”

    A rational assessment squares the circle doesn’t it?

    This is really where Pielke Jnr came in, and where Lomborg fits in…

  12. But… as I’ve pointed out, and you seem unable to understand, Lomborg’s view is not “rational” because it depends entirely on mis-reading the evidence. P Jr’s attitude looks like more attention-seeking than useful policy analysis.

  13. Gareth, OK, it’s all right.
    We won’t waste time debating whether Lomborg is rational or otherwise.
    Our conclusions will not make a blind bit of difference anyway.
    I firmly believe what I express on my blog, ditto for you.
    No need to panic…and P Jr’s stance will be apparent in his future posts.
    I’ll keep you posted.

  14. Ayrdale, fortunately figuring out whether or not someone is rational is less a matter of debate and more a matter of fact checking. You follow their logic and check their facts. If discrepancies are found and not corrected, the person is not acting rationally. That’s the whole point, being rational is a matter of logic, observation and sound deduction, and not a matter of opinion or perspective.

  15. “I firmly believe what I express on my blog, ditto for you.”

    That is the problem Ayrdale. You express opinion and Gareth bases his blog on the scientific evidence. A big difference. You cannot base opinion climate policy on opinion, but base it on the facts (scientific evidence).

  16. An example of Gorish arrogance there from you Jonno I think.
    Gareth bases his blog on “the scientific evidence” ? Baloney.
    The scientific evidence as you well know (or you should) is that there’s a lot to learn about climate.
    See Chris de Freitas, NZH today…”Clearly, the alarm over “global warming” is based on ignorance of the scientific facts.”
    Awkward Jonno and Gareth isn’t it ?
    One thing is sure, the argument is not over, the debate is not settled.

  17. Oh the debate is settled, though tired arguments may continue. And the only thing I see that is “awkward” around here are the points that you make, because being based on science, facts and quality peer review gives you that comfortable feeling of standing on solid ground. Solid ground with a rising sealevel lapping around your ankles that is.

  18. Ayrdale asserts:

    Gareth bases his blog on “the scientific evidence” ? Baloney. The scientific evidence as you well know (or you should) is that there’s a lot to learn about climate.

    I certainly agree that there’s a lot to learn, but I will not ignore what we already know — and that’s a lot. Ayrdale, you would do well to emulate SamV, who took the time to read Spencer Weart’s Discovery Of Global Warming (link in sidebar), and discovered that we know a hell of a lot.

    See Chris de Freitas, NZH today…”Clearly, the alarm over “global warming” is based on ignorance of the scientific facts.”

    Got a link for that? Given de Freitas’ penchant for making fact-free assertions, I guess it will reflect his “evidence” to the Project Hayes hearing, which I discuss here.

  19. samv, tired arguments notwithstanding, the arguments from Chris de Freitas (“Climate Scientist”) have rattled your complacent cage once more.
    As an interested layman, with a disdain for totalitarianism, and knowing greens are inherently totalitarian, I am delighted to see dissent within scientific ranks over climate change.
    The dissent isn’t going away. Get over it…and read de Freitas’ comments today and rebut them (preferably in the NZ Herald ) if you can.

  20. Greens are not inherently totalitarian. There’s this logic gap between putting anything except economic development first, and that a person completely agrees with all forms of centralised control. There may be a strong association there; but don’t leave a gap in your logic – you can and do find people who are both objectivist and environmentalist.

    But look… back to the point at hand, I understand your point of view, I held it myself for some time as Gareth hints at. It took me a while to satisfy myself fully and I don’t think you should change your mind without satisfying yourself, either. Can I recommend two specific essays from S&W – the brief summary and then do read the Modern Temperature Trend essay as well. It’s well worth the investment in time, and you’ll probably realise by the end that several of the arguments you have been presented with are not just wrong, but actually dishonest. Then you might get a feel for how deep into the muck this “debate” has descended.

    Of course the global warming argument was the original “dissent” from the previous consensus position that there was nothing worth worrying about.. so arguments that claim “people don’t like dissent” don’t stand up when you look at the history.

  21. Ayrdale, does it occur to you that you are not advancing any arguments to rebut the findings of the mainstream climate scientists (among whom by no stretch of the imagination can de Freitas be numbered)? Are you aware of the scientific reputation of James Hansen who occasioned the book which this post reviews? Do you understand that he is highly respected by his peers ? Have you read anything he has written? You don’t have to agree, of course, but you might at least do him the courtesy of engaging with what he says and indicating what it is that you disagree with. Advancing someone like de Freitas as some kind of rebuttal is just laughable. If you want something accessible that Hansen has written you could try this (which incidentally deals with the tipping points that you describe as undefined): http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/2008/2008_Hansen_1.pdf

  22. Bryan Walker, don’t be so disingenuous.
    de Freitas cannot be disregarded.
    To say his opinion is laughable is arrogance beyond belief
    I’ve grudgingly accepted a level of abuse from others and you haven’t stooped to troll, crank, flat earther; but I take exception to your rhetorical questioning of me instead of dealing with the facts he raises.
    Chris de Freitas is an academic with climate science skills.
    This morning’s NZH carried a letter to the editor, part of which I’ve already quoted.
    de Freitas has laid his professional future on the line by questioning the IPPC version of global warming.
    Do me and other readers a favour by reading his letter this morning and dealing with the points he raises.

  23. de Freitas cannot be disregarded

    If authors continue to publish flawed work and ignore the criticism, it’s perfectly reasonable to ignore everything they say by default. You have the right to free speech but not free review or criticism from qualified and respected scientists.

    Just the facts, please.

  24. I can’t read de Freitas’ letter this morning because I no longer get the Herald.
    You may be interested in my letter to the Herald in late 2007, which was published:

    “Chris de Freitas (Perspectives 27 Nov) claims there is no evidence for dangerous climate change from human action.

    In doing so he dismisses the work of the hundreds of scientists involved in the preparation of the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, calling it a political entity and claiming its pronouncements are at variance with the facts.

    The ‘facts’ he lists are the familiar litany from denialist circles. They have all been responded to and shown wanting many times over by reputable scientists. The scientific consensus remains overwhelming that climate change caused by human action is a deeply serious threat to humanity and many other species on our planet.

    Dr de Freitas is welcome to his scepticism, but he can hardly expect the rest of us to ignore the warnings of climate science and not take the steps which will avert the worst dangers posed by global warming.”

    My questions to you in my last comment were not purely rhetorical. I think that if you read some of what James Hansen has written, and grasped his stature as a leading scientist, you would be less likely to enter de Freitas into the lists against him.

  25. He is not welcome to his scepticism, he is to be applauded for it.
    You and others who refuse to engage him show that you are not comfortable with the facts he raises.
    He and sceptics like myself are the de facto winners in this debate, and as time goes by, and you let the debate slip away you lose your credibility.
    And I think you know it…

  26. You and others who refuse to engage him show that you are not comfortable with the facts he raises.

    What facts? All he does is repeat tired old sceptic nostrums that have been repeatedly debunked. Put him in front of a jury of his peers, rather than the letters column of a newspaper, and he’d be ripped to shreds.

  27. Put him on TV, with an opponent and an impartial moderator and let the public decide.
    Even better, let’s see Al Gore take up the challenge to debate the issue. There are plenty of offers. Some hope.
    This is the defining issue for the green movement. Lose it and socialists masquerading as environmentalists will have nowhere to go.
    My advice (and Chris de Freitas’ too) is to start talking about the perils of a forthcoming ice age.

  28. You need to get your head around this simple fact: climate change is real, and not some political construct you can argue out of existence. If you want your views to flourish and guide, then you need to engage with reality, not wishful thinking.

  29. Gareth of course climate change is real. The climate has always changed and always will. Please refer to your picture of Homer Simpson above.
    Is catastrophic global warming involving widespread inundation of populated areas, huge social disruption, massive extinction of species, increased extreme weather and earthquakes, increased kidney stones – all caused by our emission of CO2 real ? Or an overhyped fantasy ?
    The sceptics are winning this debate because the political/economic costs of the green political wish list are both absurd. And the science behind it is shonky…
    And Gareth, time will tell, and time as Jagger said, is on our side…

  30. There you go again, donning the alternate reality specs:

    The sceptics are winning this debate because the political/economic costs of the green political wish list are both absurd. And the science behind it is shonky…

    The sceptics are making noise, but no more than that. Their days of influencing policy are long gone, especially in the US.
    Your comments on politics are revealing, because they show that you define climate change as a purely political issue. It isn’t. It’s real, happening now, and we caused it. We can do something about limiting its worst effects if we can summon up the will to reduce emissions. How we do that is the political question.
    As for the science being shonky: there you go with your reality-bending eyewear again. It shows quite clearly that whatever the young Mick and Keef might have thought, time is most certainly not on our side.

  31. …of course climate change is real. The climate has always changed and always will.

    Logical Fallacy. Past climate change having natural causes does not imply present or future climate change is not man-made.

    Is catastrophic global warming involving widespread inundation of populated areas, huge social disruption, massive extinction of species, increased extreme weather and earthquakes, increased kidney stones – all caused by our emission of CO2 real ? Or an overhyped fantasy ?

    Have you read the Spencer and Weart essays yet? They should be quite revealing. Convincing links to most of the above should be found, though I think the kidney stones claim is a bit of a red herring.

    The tone and content of your posts seem to imply you’re still cribbing sources like the NZC“S”C. They are convincing in their manner, they ask questions which get you thinking. You’re thinking about the questions they raise, which is good – because it means you’ll be well placed to get a lot of good stuff out of Spencer & Weart. Go read the story about how the argument developed scientifically since 1850. Ponder it well, pull up the scientific papers it refers to and look at their graphs, do whatever you have to do – but you owe it to yourself not to let rhetoric and convincingly framed arguments be the basis of your position! You’ve already demonstrated more reasoning power than that.

  32. samv do you think Chris de Freitas may have read Spencer and Weart ?
    I think he is very familiar with their work, and as a climate scientist he no doubt could debate the authors very effectively.
    I “crib my sources” from all around the blogosphere, particularly ClimateDebateDaily.com. Do you check in there ?
    I’m also a fan of WattsupWithThat (winner best science blog 2008). Had a look there ?
    Prometheus of course is a must read, (do you keep an eye on that ?) as are several other literate and credible blogs, BishopHill for example.
    I am very interested in keeping this debate alive…You can see more of my reading list at my blog. Your comments are of course very welcome.

  33. samv do you think Chris de Freitas may have read Spencer and Weart ?

    If so, he is unable to come up with a serious rebuttal of it to support his position. Again I think you’re giving him far too much credit. Is he a climate scientist? Really? He works for the Geography department of Auckland University. What makes him a climate scientist? Can you find any climate science papers he has published, other than the rebutted paper “Stern Review: Dual Critique” ?

    Yes I’m familiar with some of those sources but after critically evaluating what they had to say, I saw gaps. Big gaps. And that’s all I’m saying – read the history, critically evaluate it. You’ll be much better off for it.

  34. “Put him on TV, with an opponent and an impartial moderator and let the public decide.”

    Rubbish! What is wrong with the peer review process? Do your really think the ‘public’ can understand the complex science of climate change. Obviously, you don’t and you claim to do some ‘research’.

  35. Can I just point out that Spencer & Weart is actually just the one man, Spencer Weart, director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.

    Ayrdale: your sources explain a lot. You need to read a little more widely, and stop assuming that anything you disagree with is a priori wrong.

  36. Ayrdale, your “wonderful” wattsupwiththat thread is about a NASA scientist John Theon who retired 15 years ago and was never Hansen’s boss. Have a look at a couple of Gavin Schmidt’s comments on Real Climate – it won’t take long:

  37. Thank you I’ve had a look at those.
    What impresses me most in the thread of WattsupWithThat are the comments and debate.
    What invigorates me and keeps me going is that you Bryan and others on this site are dogmatic and convinced that the debate is over, when any interested person can see, read and hear that it plainly is not over.
    Chris de Freitas and many hundreds of other scientists continue to punch holes in the mantra that rising atmospheric CO2 causes rising global temperatures.
    Scientific studies underway right now will continue to enlarge our knowledge (I refer to ARGOS, the Ibuki satellite and the CERN Cloud studies as 3 of many) and the results from these will aid our understanding of climate mechanisms.
    With developing knowledge we can make progress. We certainly can’t make any progress as a nation or a species by claiming the issue is settled, and the debate finished.
    That is my point, and it’s self evident.

  38. What invigorates me and keeps me going is that you, Ayrdale and others like you, like claiming this. Yet, any ‘evidence’ you bring to the table has already been disproven. Is you (I doubt you or Chris can) bring any new evidence to the table, and then you may be right. The ironic thing is, it is your so called evidence that has holes in it.

    That is my point, and it’s self evident.

  39. Bryan,

    this comment is way late on the topic but when I looked over one of the links to Bowen he came up with a guy called Griffin @ NASA (a bushtail appointee) who I was pretty sure backed to Reagan’s Starwars thing.

    why worth mentioning.. for me at anyrate, it’s that Mirowski (qv Mashey)has a pretty detailed proposition on how scientists employed in the Milz-Industrial-Complex (ie Baliunas, Singer, Seitz et al) were pushed out when Starwars failed and ended up in the GMI for instance on a contention beat against climate scientists the new boys on the block.

    To me it adds a sensible edge for why a kind of scifight could and would be set up by MIC people. Griffin looks infill, as it were, and likely well-placed to operate political circuits alongside these displaced ‘physicists’.

    mebbe useful..

  40. Tom, Griffin was certainly inclined to the denial camp. Bowen reports remarks he made to a reporter on radio in 2007. After acknowledging that a trend of global warming exists he said: “To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate…and that we need to take steps to make sure it doesn’t change…I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.” One prominent scientist said Griffin’s remarks demonstrated that he was either “totally clueless” or “a deep anti-global warming ideologue”.

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