No need for coffee this morning, as the energy in the 8 a.m. session on communicating science (particularly global warming science) has a palpable stimulating effect all its own. The star of the loaded panel was certainly Dr. Jim Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Columbia University Earth Institute. After all, he’s the national poster boy (or punching bag, depending where you stand) on the subject of federal interference in climate science.
“I speak today as myself and not as a spokesman for NASA,” Hansen opened to clapping and a few chuckles. The implication, not lost on the audience, was the painstaking effort that the Bush Administration and its appointees have taken to quash the free flow of information out of scientific agencies when it fails to jibe with their preferred policies. When allowed to talk, scientists must now be clear when they are speaking as themselves and not as reps of their agencies.
Hansen’s talk, “Communicating the Dangers and Opportunities in Global Warming” should be available on-line in the coming days at http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/. It was divided between forecasting likely impacts of climate change and discussing scientists’ and government’s failure to make adjustments to it. Hansen contrasted a fairly positive reaction to the ozone hole problem in the 1980s with failures to address climate change for the past two decades. The gap between global warming and public understanding is one reason, and this gap widened by the repurposing of federal agency media offices into “propaganda machines.”
Hansen spoke of press releases on climate change traveling from NASA to the White House for approval. Reprimands and admonishments are made verbally to avoid leaving a paper trail, allowing for a claim of “that’s hearsay” — to scare media off the trail. Hansen’s case was special in that George Deutsch, the young public affairs appointee attempted to silence him via e-mail, left a paper trail. That administrator lost his job, Hansen speculated, not because he fudged his resume, but because he violated the Bush Administration’s oral tradition.
Hansen did not put all his blame on the government, however. “Problems lead … from us scientists all the way to political leadership.” Touching on science and religion toward the end, he said “Does it matter if the world was created 6,000 or 6 billion years ago? We can all agree on the need for stewardship.”
Hansen clearly could have gone on for another 20 minutes, but he was on a packed bill of more than 6 scientists.
Right now the buzz is all Al Gore, whose lecture “Climate Change: The Role of Science and the Media in Policymaking,” takes place in a couple of hours. We’ll report back later.