Silencing Scientists

A really stupid idea


Open communication and criticism by colleagues are the hallmarks of science. Thus it is deeply troubling when a prominent scientist claims that the Bush administration is trying to silence him. James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York and one of the world's leading climatology researchers, claimed in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on CBS' 60 Minutes that the Bush administration tried to censor his work on global warming.

In January, the Times reported that Hansen said officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site, and requests for interviews from journalists. Hansen said he would ignore the restrictions and said, "They feel their job is to be this censor of information going out to the public."

Hansen believes the effort to censor him arose from a speech, "Is There Still Time to Avoid 'Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference' with Global Climate?" that he gave in December 2005 at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the release later that month of an annual GISS analysis showing that 2005 was either the warmest or second warmest year in the past century.

But along with the climate data, Hansen offered his views on the proper way to address man-made global warming. Specifically, he believes that humanity must begin efforts aimed at deep cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases like the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by burning fossil fuels. Hansen explained that dangerous "climate change [can be] avoided in an alternative scenario in which growth of greenhouse gas emissions is slowed in the first quarter of this century, primarily via concerted improvements in energy efficiency and a parallel reduction of non-CO2 climate forcings, and then reduced via advanced energy technologies." The eventual reductions will have to reduce emissions to 60 to 80 percent of current levels. Why are these actions not being taken? Because, according to Hansen, "the special interests seek to maintain short-term profits with little regard to either the long-term impact on the planet that will be inherited by our children and grandchildren or the long-term economic well-being of our country."

When it comes to climate, Hansen is clearly one of the world's leading experts and we should carefully listen to what he has to say. However, when he starts prescribing technological and economic policies, Hansen may be exceeding the bounds of his expertise. I am not saying here that his prescription is wrong, but other experts offer various paths to achieve the eventual stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The nations of the world might choose to let greenhouse gases accumulate for another generation or so and then begin steep cuts in emissions targeted at a selected level of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And how does one balance the risks of climate change with the risks to human health and prosperity posed by dramatically increasing the price of energy to the world's poorest people?

The Bush Administration has rejected the Kyoto Protocol and greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the near term. I leave aside the issue of whether or not this is good or bad policy. In his December presentations, Hansen clearly came out against this policy. (Not to mention the delicate point that Hansen had endorsed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in the 2004 election.)

Hansen says that he has no strong partisan political inclinations, and I believe him, but surely he cannot be so naïve as to think that officials in the current administration might not react to his public opposition to their policies. I personally know of cases in which scientists were discharged when their views failed to coincide with those of the Clinton Administration. And I can assure you that Clinton-era flacks at the EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FDA, and the Department of Energy limited my access to experts at those agencies.

So what happened next, according to Hansen, is that Bush administration–appointed NASA flacks retaliated for his policy disagreement by trying to limit the media's access to him. Quite obviously, this attempt to squelch Hansen backfired spectacularly. I contacted via email another former NASA climate scientist, Roy Spencer, who has been deeply involved in the global warming debate. Spencer, a prominent skeptic about predictions of catastrophic of global warming who is now at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, worked at NASA during the Clinton administration. "I left NASA for a few reasons," replied Spencer via e-mail, "But probably the main reason was not being able to openly give my opinions on global warming." He explained that as NASA employees, scientists are also seen as representatives of NASA, and they are supposed to coordinate media interviews (and especially congressional testimony) through the agency's public affairs office and management. "NASA management has never liked being 'blindsided' when they read the morning newspaper," noted Spencer. He added, "They also like everyone in NASA to be singing the same tune (which I have never understood from a science point of view)." Spencer called Hansen "an excellent scientist." He concluded, "When I worked for NASA, I just tried to play by the rules, and resigned when I decided I didn't want to play any longer. Jim Hansen has much more political capital to spend than I had, and if I was in his position and believed as he does, I might well be doing the same thing he is doing now."

I am very troubled by this case and others in which the Bush administration has tried to keep government scientists from speaking. We certainly do not want scientific information to pass through a political filter. Government scientists must be encouraged to call them as they see them when it comes to reporting scientific results. However, when they are speaking in their capacity as informed and concerned citizens, they should make it clear to their audiences that that is what they are doing. In those cases, neither the administration nor their agencies have any business trying to control what they have to say and to whom they say it. They are representing neither the administration in power nor the agencies for which they work. It's not a neat solution, but it's probably the best we can do.

Disclosure: Many ideological environmentalists incorrectly think I'm in league with the "special interests" Hansen references.