Does the Bush Administration really think that if its PR people string a spool of barbed wire around U.S. government scientists, all talk of global climate change will stop?
By now, most of you have seen this morning's New York Times scoop, in which James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, asserts that NASA's top brass issued a directive requiring that "his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists" be reviewed by "public affairs staff," meaning PR factotums (factota?) loyal to the president and his party.
Censorship of scientific information? Please, perish the thought, says one of Hansen's new screeners:
Dean Acosta, deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the space agency, said there was no effort to silence Dr. Hansen. "That's not the way we operate here at NASA," Mr. Acosta said. "We promote openness and we speak with the facts."
He said the restrictions on Dr. Hansen applied to all National Aeronautics and Space Administration personnel. He added that government scientists were free to discuss scientific findings, but that policy statements should be left to policy makers and appointed spokesmen.
I added the emphasis, because it contradicts Mr. Acosta's first, bogus assertion. The Bush Administration defines "policy statements" very broadly, to include facts that don't fit the party line, and, for scientists, obvious conclusions derived from research.
One of Hansen's colleagues illustrated how the Bush Administration's idea of "openness" worked in practice:
In one call, George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen, said Leslie McCarthy, a public affairs officer responsible for the Goddard Institute.
Citing handwritten notes taken during the conversation, Ms. McCarthy said Mr. Deutsch called N.P.R. "the most liberal" media outlet in the country. She said that in that call and others, Mr. Deutsch said his job was "to make the president look good" and that as a White House appointee that might be Mr. Deutsch's priority.
I assume it would be okay with Deutsch and Acosta if Dr. Hansen said things like this:
…so long as only a "policymaker" like Vice President Cheney was allowed to explain what it means.
Dr. Hansen apparently got the Administration's goat when, in December, he gave a speech at the American Geophysical Union, asserting that more aggressive efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were not only urgent, but feasible.
Obviously, Bush/Cheney disagree. And that's fine, I don't mind it if they want to take a cautious position. The economic implications of global climate change are profound. Every choice has the potential to cause mammoth dislocations. Environmentalists do their cause no help by minimizing the impact that drastic cuts in emissions would have. Like any other major economic shock, it is the most vulnerable members of society who would suffer first and most. I'm not saying those are the victims Bush/Cheney are worrying about, but I worry.
We need a big, fat, public debate about what to do, how fast to do it, and whether we should focus our resources more on reversing the climate trend or mitigating it. We also need to know more than we do about the science underlying climate change, to help us plot the most appropriate course. In an ideal world, where such research was being conducted aggressively and out in the open, we'd surely have big fights about it. Our politics could well be transformed as interest groups realigned around different solutions to allocate the costs. No doubt, it will be bloody when it happens — I hope only figuratively.
The Bush Administration apparently thinks Americans are all children and can't handle this. To repeat: Do they think the climate change phenomenon will just go away if they suppress discussion about it? This is an example of what happens when executives — political, corporate, wherever — turn into Eddy Arnold and ask their PR people to "make the world go away." But trying to silence one of the most respected scientists in the field can only have one result: Massive backlash.
Today, Dr. Hansen is more of a hero than he was yesterday, and his power has grown significantly. He will spend his next 15 minutes of fame as the martyred symbol of Bush's War Against Science. Bush Administration acolytes like the ones you find on Hugh Hewitt's blogroll won't relish having to defend their Most Admired One's brazen and foolish attempts to impose censorship on an issue of such significance.
(P.S. The bellweather on global warming policy will be property insurers. Eventually, the insurance industry will organize and drive climate change policy. Wouldn't you, if you held the policies for, say, Marina Del Rey? Rising sea levels? Gulp.)
UPDATE 1/29: For a thorough and righteously angry post on this and other current examples of Bush/Cheney wielding power inappropriately to suppress inconvenient findings of fact, and bury the careers of government officials simply for telling the truth, read this from the site Political Cortex.