Let Jim Hansen SpeakJanuary 28th, 2006
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.
The Bush Administration once again demonstrates its unbelievable clumsiness when it comes to handling the politics of global warming. In a story carried on the website of the New York Times, Andy Revkin writes,
James E. Hansen, longtime director of the agency’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an interview that 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.
What is it that the Bush Administration is trying to keep Jim Hansen from saying?
According to the NYT article,
The fresh efforts to quiet him, Dr. Hansen said, began in a series of calls after a lecture he gave on Dec. 6 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. In the talk, he said that significant emission cuts could be achieved with existing technologies, particularly in the case of motor vehicles, and that without leadership by the United States, climate change would eventually leave the earth “a different planet.” The administration’s policy is to use voluntary measures to slow, but not reverse, the growth of emissions.
Here is why the Administration’s actions are, from a political standpoint, incredibly stupid.
1. Many, many government scientists routinely engage in political advocacy on the climate issue. Revkin points to this in his article when he identifies a government scientist who expresses views less critical of the Administration’s stance on climate change, but who apparently does not have the same restrictions.
2. Clearly, Jim Hansen is being singled out because of his stature and visibility. But that same stature results in a front page New York Times story when he complains about his treatment.
3. Jim Hansen’s statements about “policy” are really just political exhortations, and not really about policy in any significant degree. The climate issue is in gridlock and it is inconceivable that (yet another) prominent scientist witnessing to his political values is going to change these dynamics, even if it offers some short term discomfort for the Bush Administration.
4. Jim Hansen’s statements had their 15 minutes of attention and were largely old news – the Bush Administration has turned a non-story into renewed focus on their approach to climate.
5. Finally, we want scientists to engage in policy discussions. Note to the Bush Administration – you are funding about $2 billion of research focused on improving policy. If scientists don’t talk about policy, then they are wasting the public’s money.
6. From a crass political standpoint, when scientists of the stature of Jim Hansen make overtly political statements absent any substantive or meaningful discussion of policy, they make themselves look bad. Had the Administration given Jim Hansen enough rope, he may very well have undercut his own authority by looking like just another scientist trying to couch his political views in science.
Let’s be clear: the Administration has every right to control what its political appointees say. They even are in the right when they insist that scientists clearly differentiate their own views from official government policies, particularly when the scientist is speaking from an official setting using government resources. This is especially important when the speaker is very prominent.
I am sure that the reaction of the Administration will be that this is either manufactured (read the whole NYT story) or it is the result of an over-aggressive political appointee (echoes of the defense used to explain why a prospective scientific advisory board member was asked who he voted for).
Two final points – this case helps to underscore how absurd it is to try to separate science and policy. The IPCC has a formal mandate to be “policy relevant, but policy neutral”. If the Bush Administration was smart and really wanted to silence scientists, it would ask why IPCC rules aren’t good enough for NASA scientists. Keeping science and policy separate makes no sense for the IPCC or U.S. government scientists.
And lastly, understanding this experience requires no need to fall back on a simple-minded “war on science”. This is just bad politics by the Bush Administration, which reflects on a policy failure shared by all.