inmax_bound="true">NASA's top climatologist, James E. Hansen, recently urged swift action to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. When he did, the agency's public affairs machinery went into overdrive.
NASA officials ordered Hansen to submit for review any lectures, Internet statements and journalists' requests for interviews. Hansen recently posted a widely quoted report on a NASA Web site stating that 2005 was the hottest year since comprehensive weather records were first kept.
A NASA political appointee, William Deutsch, nixed an interview with Hansen on National Public Radio. Deutsch reportedly told another NASA public affairs officer that NPR was "the most liberal media source" in the nation and that his job "was to make the president look good." If Deutsch said that, he is wrong. The job of government public affairs officials is to inform the public and make available public information.
Hansen, who holds a doctorate in physics, has been issuing warnings of the consequences of man-made pollution of the atmosphere for 15 years. He rightly refused to comply with the gag order. "They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public," he told The New York Times, noting that "public concern is probably the only thing capable of overcoming the special interests that have obfuscated the topic." According to Hansen, many scientists within the government have been pressured to avoid public discussion of climate change.
Climatologist Jeff Masters, who blogs for the Weather Underground, denounced government censorship aimed at downplaying the dangers of global warming. "Our taxpayer salaried scientists should be free to speak out on more than just their scientific findings without the chilling oversight of politically appointed officials concerned with 'making the president look good.' Climate change is of critical importance ... and we should hear the opinions of those scientists who understand the issue the best."
The Hansen episode is just one more in a series of efforts by the Bush administration to maintain a position that global warming can be dealt with without imposing mandatory restrictions of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. emissions account for a quarter of the worldwide industrial output each year. After refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol mandating such limits, the U.S. and Australian delegations at the recent Montreal climate conference stood aside while the world's other industrial nations moved to limit industrial emissions.
Last year a White House adviser on the environment rewrote scientific reports on climate change issued by the government. The aide, Philip A. Cooney, was a former lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, a oil industry group that has strenuously opposed mandatory emission regulation. After the controversy became public, Cooney left his White House position.
If President Bush's State of the Union speech is any indication, global warming is still tucked away in an administration policy deep freeze. While the president called for independence from Mideast oil and found time to discuss the threat of "human-animal hybrids," there was no mention of climate change or any plans to work with international partners to defuse its harmful effects.
If our elected leaders will not educate the public on the ominous dangers posed by global warming, then that responsibility falls to pre-eminent scientists such as NASA's James Hansen. It is essential to maintain their freedom of speech and ability to produce research untainted by partisan politics.
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