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.

Bali ha’i, Bali low?

The Bali conference ended with a cliffhanger, but as I was cocooned in a kayak paddling up the coast of the Abel Tasman it passed me by like a fur seal in the night. I did notice a fishy smell, but I don’t think it emanated from Nusa Dua. The big news, of course, was the US climbdown at the last minute, memorably blogged by David Sassoon at Solve Climate. He extensively quotes an eye witness account by Peter Riggs, Director of the Forum on Democracy and Trade:

Continue reading “Bali ha’i, Bali low?”