CBS News’ 60 Minutes program sat down with scientist James Hansen who is the head of NASA’s top institute studying the climate and talked with him about how the Bush Administration is actively rewriting his reports to downplay the threat of global warming:
What James Hansen believes is that global warming is accelerating. He points to the melting arctic and to Antarctica, where new data show massive losses of ice to the sea.
Is it fair to say at this point that humans control the climate? Is that possible?
“There’s no doubt about that, says Hansen. “The natural changes, the speed of the natural changes is now dwarfed by the changes that humans are making to the atmosphere and to the surface.”
Those human changes, he says, are driven by burning fossil fuels that pump out greenhouse gases like CO2, carbon dioxide. Hansen says his research shows that man has just 10 years to reduce greenhouse gases before global warming reaches what he calls a tipping point and becomes unstoppable. He says the White House is blocking that message.
“In my more than three decades in the government I’ve never witnessed such restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public,” says Hansen.
Restrictions like this e-mail Hansen’s institute received from NASA in 2004. “… there is a new review process … ,” the e-mail read. “The White House (is) now reviewing all climate related press releases,” it continued.
Got that? The White House wants to look at your report before you release it to the public. Because we all know how many top-level scientists qualified to double check the work of other scientists are on the White House staff, right?
Not that Hansen is alone in this regard as the White House regularly edits reports from dozens of federal agencies before releasing it to the public. Rick Plitz co-wrote a number of reports for the federal Climate Change Science Program that came back from the White House with major edits to make global warming seem less of a threat:
“The strategy of people with a political agenda to avoid this issue is to say there is so much to study way upstream here that we can’t even being to discuss impacts and response strategies,” says Piltz. “There’s too much uncertainty. It’s not the climate scientists that are saying that, its lawyers and politicians.”
Piltz worked under the Clinton and Bush administrations. Each year, he helped write a report to Congress called “Our Changing Planet.”
Piltz says he is responsible for editing the report and sending a review draft to the White House.
Asked what happens, Piltz says: “It comes back with a large number of edits, handwritten on the hard copy by the chief-of-staff of the Council on Environmental Quality.”
Asked who the chief of staff is, Piltz says, “Phil Cooney.”
Piltz says Cooney is not a scientist. “He’s a lawyer. He was a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, before going into the White House,” he says.
So we have a lawyer/lobbyist formerly of the American Petroleum Institute double checking the work of the nation’s top scientists so he can “correct” it to properly reflect the “facts.” Am I the only person who sees how ridiculous this is?
Piltz says Cooney edited climate reports in his own hand. In one report, a line that said earth is undergoing rapid change becomes “may be undergoing change.” “Uncertainty” becomes “significant remaining uncertainty.” One line that says energy production contributes to warming was just crossed out.
“He was obviously passing it through a political screen,” says Piltz. “He would put in the word potential or may or weaken or delete text that had to do with the likely consequence of climate change, pump up uncertainty language throughout.”
In a report, Piltz says Cooney added this line “… the uncertainties remain so great as to preclude meaningfully informed decision making. …” References to human health are marked out. 60 Minutes obtained the drafts from the Government Accountability Project. This edit made it into the final report: the phrase “earth may be” undergoing change made it into the report to Congress. Piltz says there wasn’t room at the White House for those who disagreed, so he resigned.
The net result of all this is that it allows President Bush to go in front of the American Public and make statements like:
“We do not know how much our climate could, or will change in the future,” President Bush said in 2001, speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House. “We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it.”
Of course President Bush doesn’t know because the report he’s been handed has been heavily edited to remove that kind of content. This puts the events around hurricane Katrina into a new light: Perhaps Bush wasn’t lying through his teeth when he claimed that “no one could predict the levees would fail” because all the reports done over the past two decades that said exactly that had been heavily edited before reaching his desk.
So just how qualified is Hansen to report on climate change? According to the scientists 60 Minutes spoke with he’s the best:
Why the scrutiny of Hansen’s work? Well, his Goddard Institute for Space Studies is the source of respected but sobering research on warming. It recently announced 2005 was the warmest year on record. Hansen started at NASA more than 30 years ago, spending nearly all that time studying the earth. How important is his work? 60 Minutes asked someone at the top, Ralph Cicerone, president of the nation’s leading institute of science, the National Academy of Sciences.
“I can’t think of anybody who I would say is better than Hansen. You might argue that there’s two or three others as good, but nobody better,” says Cicerone.
And Cicerone, who’s an atmospheric chemist, said the same thing every leading scientist told 60 Minutes.
“Climate change is really happening,” says Cicerone.
Hansen pissed off the Bush Administration when he complained about not being listened to during a talk he gave at the University of Iowa about a year and a half ago and NASA has been sitting on him ever since:
NASA let Pelley sit down with him but only with a NASA representative taping the interview. Other interviews have been denied.
“I object to the fact that I’m not able to freely communicate via the media,” says Hansen. “National Public Radio wanted to interview me and they were told they would need to interview someone at NASA headquarters and the comment was made that they didn’t want Jim Hansen going on the most liberal media in America. So I don’t think that kind of decision should be made on that kind of basis. I think we should be able to communicate the science.”
Gee, intimidate much? A lot of scientists working for the government are keeping their mouths shut for fear of losing their jobs with the few exceptions being people who are either retiring or quitting, as in the case of Plitz mentioned earlier. Hansen isn’t leaving his job anytime soon unless he ends up being forced out for speaking his mind, which is a risk he’s willing to take because he feels the danger is very real:
“We have to, in the next 10 years, get off this exponential curve and begin to decrease the rate of growth of CO2 emissions,” Hansen explains. “And then flatten it out. And before we get to the middle of the century, we’ve got to be on a declining curve.
“If that doesn’t happen in 10 years, then I don’t think we can keep global warming under one degree Celsius and that means we’re going to, that there’s a great danger of passing some of these tipping points. If the ice sheets begin to disintegrate, what can you do about it? You can’t tie a rope around the ice sheet. You can’t build a wall around the ice sheets. It will be a situation that is out of our control.”
But that’s not a situation you’ll find in one federal report submitted for review. Government scientists wanted to tell you about the ice sheets, but before a draft of the report left the White House, the paragraph on glacial melt and flooding was crossed out and this was added: “straying from research strategy into speculative findings and musings here.”
According to 60 Minutes they’ve tried for months to get an interview with the President’s science adviser only to be told that he would “never be available.” And as for Phil Cooney?
Phil Cooney, the editor at the Council on Environmental Quality didn’t return 60 Minutes’ calls. In June, he left the White House and went to work for Exxon Mobil.
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Bush appointees in several federal agencies have engaged in all manner of interference with science reporting ranging from adding patently false information in reports on stem cell research to inserting creationist nonsense into studies of the Grand Canyon. What should be a surprise is the fact that the public is putting up with this bullshit. We’re not talking about other scientists questioning the reports being submitted, but non-scientists appointed by the President mandating changes to the science to support the political and religious viewpoints of themselves and the Administration.
This should be an outrage and yet you rarely hear much about it probably due to the rather week scientific literacy of the American public. Even after the cluster fuck that was the response to hurricane Katrina there’s been little call to stop censoring the scientists. I suppose we get what we deserve.