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A Peace Over Climate Science?

Mainstream Research Vindicated, Albeit Years Too Late

Global Temperature Change Map SOURCE: NASA Now even the Bush administration basically admits that it misused and suppressed global warming information and the scientists who purvey it. Is the battle finally over?

You could be forgiven for not noticing, given all the news from the presidential race. But in the past few weeks something pretty important has happened for those of us who track global warming and its handling by the Bush administration. Not once, but twice, the administration itself has essentially validated longstanding charges that science, and government scientists, have been suppressed and otherwise mistreated on this highly politicized issue.

The first validation came with a long awaited report from the NASA Inspector General’s office on the James Hansen affair, in which the agency’s (and the world’s) most famous climate scientist charged that the NASA headquarters public affairs office had blocked his access to the media. The Hansen saga has received much attention; there’s even a book about it. Anyone familiar with the details of the case would already know that untoward behaviors occurred—most notably, a young political appointee named George Deutsch, apparently following orders from his public affairs superiors, blocked Hansen from doing a requested NPR interview. It appears that interfering with climate science amounted to a routine among these folks: A number of NASA climate-related press releases were also either blocked or suspiciously altered so as to minimize their impact or to otherwise align them with administration policies.

Surely these appointees—political appointees—had some idea of what they were doing, why they were doing it, and who might be pleased by their actions.

The Inspector General report comes across as fairly hard-hitting; it says more or less point blank that the complaints leveled by NASA scientists have far more substance than the evasive defenses that have emerged from the agency’s public affairs folks (and that have been parroted by administration defenders). All in all, the Inspector General found that “during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public.” So insofar as it’s possible to “prove” that political interference with science occurred, this report does precisely that. And in the process, it vindicates those of us who have been flagging these types of behaviors for years.

One troubling aspect of the Inspector General’s work, however, lies in its suggestion that these abuses don’t go beyond a few bad apples: The report found “no credible evidence suggesting that senior NASA or Administration officials directed the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs to minimize information relating to climate change.” And again: “The defects we found are associated with the manner of operation of the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs and are largely due to the actions of a few key senior employees of that office.”

I for one find this highly dubious. Are we seriously supposed to believe that this public affairs office was a rogue actor? Surely these appointees—political appointees—had some idea of what they were doing, why they were doing it, and who might be pleased by their actions. Mark Bowen, author of the aforementioned book about the Hansen affair, Censoring Science, finds the NASA Inspector General report wholly unsatisfying on this particular point of ultimate responsibility and agency. Bowen charges that the Inspector General “leaves out any connection” between individuals in the public affairs office and “those who directed the censorship from within the White House.”

And speaking of censorship—Hansen’s story, while perhaps the best known, represents just one climate science abuse narrative that has emerged from this administration. There have been many, many others. Moreover, as I and others have argued, the most important such story is also, perhaps, the least known. It involves the concerted campaign to suppress the Clinton-era “National Assessment” of climate change impacts on the United States–and the subsequent failure, on the part of this administration, to produce a legally required follow up assessment.

You can read about the whole sordid saga here; it’s pretty outrageous stuff. But finally, there’s a mildly happy ending: Thanks to a court order, the Bush administration has at last coughed up an assessment of how global warming will change the lives of all Americans by producing rising sea levels, droughts, and numerous other troublesome outcomes. As Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, which had sued the administration last year to get the assessment produced, put it, “The tide is finally turning, and the administration has been forced to acknowledge the harsh reality of global warming.” (The original deadline for delivery of the assessment was 2004. It only took until 2008.)

Not surprisingly, not everyone is completely happy with this end product. The World Wildlife Fund, for instance, has charged that the report, hastily put together, isn’t as useful to policymakers and stakeholders as it ought to be. I don’t doubt it—but nevertheless, this really does feel like the end of an era. There’s less and less fighting over climate science, and the Bush administration’s many transgressions keep meeting with slow repudiations and reversals.

All in all, it leaves you feeling a lot like someone who has finally won an eight-year court case, but went through incredible suffering and sacrificed untold resources in the process—it’s hard to really celebrate. You’re glad it’s over, but you still hate and lament what you went through. You mourn the incredible waste—so much time lost, when it didn’t have to be that way. Or to give NASA’s inspector general the last word: “In sum…none of this course of conduct was in the public’s best interest.”

There’s a lot of repair to be done.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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