Climate 'clearly out of balance'  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The BBC has a report on the American Geophysical Union's latest statement, calling for a 50% cut in carbon emissions.

The world's climate is "clearly out of balance and is warming", the world's largest society of Earth and space scientists has said in a statement. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) warned that changes to the Earth's climate system were "not natural". Changes in temperature, sea level and rainfall were best explained by the increased concentration of greenhouse gases from human activities, it added.

The union called for carbon emissions to be cut by more than 50% by 2100. It is the first time the AGU has updated its policy position on climate change since 2003, when it called for a concerted worldwide study to understand how the Earth would change as a result of climate change.

The revised statement has gone further, stating that the changes to the planet's climate system were "best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activities in the 20th Century".

The AGU Council, which adopted the updated position, said that a sustained research effort involving many of its members had strengthened the scientific understanding of the impacts of climate change. It warned that the world faced a tough challenge over the coming 50 years: "Even the lower limit of impending climate change - an additional global mean warming of 1.0C (1.8F) above the last decade - is far beyond the range of climate variability experienced during the past 1,000 years. "Warming greater than 2.0C (3.6F) above 19th Century levels is projected to be disruptive, reducing global agricultural productivity, causing widespread loss of biodiversity, and - if sustained over centuries - melting of much of the Greenland ice sheet."

If the 2C rise was to be avoided, the AGU said, net annual emissions of carbon dioxide had to be cut by at least 50% by the end of the century.

The BBC also reports on the accelerating deforestation of the Amazon, courtesy of the worldwide demand for biofuels and soaring food prices.
The Brazilian government has announced a huge rise in the rate of Amazon deforestation, months after celebrating its success in achieving a reduction. In the last five months of 2007, 3,235 sq km (1,250 sq miles) were lost.

Gilberto Camara, of INPE, an institute that provides satellite imaging of the area, said the rate of loss was unprecedented for the time of year. Officials say rising commodity prices are encouraging farmers to clear more land to plant crops such as soya. The monthly rate of deforestation saw a big rise from 243 sq km (94 sq miles) in August to 948 sq km (366 sq miles) in December.

"We've never before detected such a high deforestation rate at this time of year," Mr Camara said. His concern, outlined during a news conference in Brasilia on Wednesday, was echoed by Environment Minister Marina Silva. Ms Silva said rising prices of raw materials and commodities could be spurring the rate of forest clearing, as more and more farmers saw the Amazon as a source of cheap land.

Open The Future points to an Architecture 2030 view of what global warming means for coastal cities.

JCWinnie at After Gutenberg has a look at James Hansen's new book "Censoring Science".
Subtitle: Sex, Mercedes driving lawyers and a rubber chicken, what more could you want?

It has been a while since this blog made mention of the muzzling of scientific concern over climate change. James Hansen again is talking about the censoring of science. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York had the honor of being the lead author of “Dangerous human-made interference with climate.
The point I emphasized is that overreaching by the Executive Branch, trying to make government science submit to political command and control, is a threat to our democracy, and, as a result, a threat to the planet. The scary part about this story is that seeds have been sown, and a playbook has been codified (although not written!), that will make the situation much worse unless the American public recognizes the problem and makes an issue of it. This is a bi-partisan problem – and neither party is trying to fix it. It is remarkable how wimpish Congress has become in accepting subjugation to the Executive Branch, contrary to designs and intents of our Founding Fathers.

Congressional testimony.

Do you know that before a government scientist testifies to Congress his/her testimony is typically reviewed and edited by the White House Office of Management and Budget? When I asked for a justification, I was told that a government scientist’s testimony “needs to be consistent with the President’s budget”.

Huh? There have never been any budget numbers in my testimony or in the testimony of most scientists. And OMB’s editing of the scientific content is invariably designed to make the testimony fit better with the position of the political party in power (yes, it is a bi-partisan problem). Where is it stated or implied in the Constitution that the Executive Branch should have such authority? (Actually, does the Constitution not vest control of the purse strings to Congress?) Why does not Congress get incensed about this and fight back?

Offices of Propaganda.

The Public Affairs Offices (PAOs) of science agencies have become mouthpieces for the Administration in power. This, too, is a bi-partisan problem. Top people in the Headquarters Offices of Public Affairs can and often are thrown out in a heart-beat when an election changes the party in control of the Executive Branch.

The Executive Branch has learned that the PAOs can be effective political instruments and, with some success, they are attempting to turn them into Offices of Propaganda, masters of double-speak (“clean coal”, “clear skies”, “healthy forests”…) that would make Orwell envious.

Again it is a bi-partisan problem, the control of PAOs being exercised by top political appointees who are replaced rapidly with a change of administration. It is these political appointees that are the problem – the career civil servants at the NASA Centers, e.g., are professionals of high integrity, as are most people at Headquarters.

One may wonder: why doesn’t the media object to this situation? I believe that I learned the reason: it is encapsulated in the phrase “that’s hearsay!”. I heard that phrase over and over again in 2004 after I stated publicly that NASA press releases were being spirited from NASA HQ to the White House for either editing or “deep-sixing”, when they concerned “sensitive” topics such as global warming. Even NPR did not seem to want to touch that story unless there were multiple pieces of proof on paper.

The phrase “that’s hearsay” seems to make the media folks quake in their boots, doubtless because of the threat of a lawsuit. That probably explains why the New York Times stories about censorship of scientists at NASA that came out in early 2006 became a story about a low-level 24-year-old, who then “resigned”. Reporters, New York Times included, knew that the problem went much higher, but instead of focusing on the threat to democracy, it became too-much an amusing story about a renegade trying to reverse scientific understanding of the “big bang”, etc.

The actual story is made crystal clear in the new book “Censoring Science” by Mark Bowen (author of “On Thin Ice”, a gripping, albeit long, story about Lonnie Thompson’s quest for ice cores from alpine glaciers). Bowen gets insiders at HQ and elsewhere to provide extensive information, most of it “on the record”, about how PAO works to cover its tracks (“Gretchen, don’t e-mail me on this!” There are some heroines in this story, middle level people who refused to comply with orders from political appointees that they recognized as being inappropriate.) By the way, I gave Bowen some long interviews and documentation (and my mug is on the book jacket), but I have no financial interest in the book.

The scary part of this story is that PAO political appointees are learning how to cover their tracks. The picture that Bowen presents is one in which PAO political appointees can communicate directly with the White House. One has to wonder, if the Administrator objected to the PAO political appointee activities, how long would it be before he was on the soup line?

As the tracks are covered better and better, it is as if we have a shadow government organization controlling information that the public receives.

How to fix it?

There is an article “Freedom of Speech in Government Science” in the current, Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2008, pages 31-34, by David Resnik. Presumably, Resnik is well-intentioned, but I take vehement exception to one of his bottom lines. The article sounds fine for the most part, but keep in mind the common technique of telling you ten things that are true followed by slipping in the whopper, the very questionable point or conclusion concerning the main point of interest.

“…when a government scientist communicates with the media, the public (or even journalists) may mistakenly assume that the scientist is speaking for the government, when he or she is expressing only a personal opinion. If the scientist expresses an opinion that goes against official policy, this can creates (sic) confusion in the public mind. To minimize confusion and to enable an administration to convey consist (sic) policy messages, it is appropriate to allow public relations officers to review a government scientist’s communications with the media.”

Perhaps I am taking his statement out of context, but he seems to mean review the statement before it is made. This is where we need the Mercedes-driving lawyers ( to help us. What Resnik is saying, which PAO would latch onto in a heartbeat, consists of “prior restraint”, as he suggests review prior to a testimony or statement being made, not correction after the fact by the government. If prior approval for scientific opinions are required, a scientist does not have a snowball’s chance in Hades of providing his unadulterated opinion on a “sensitive” subject.

This is true regardless of which party is in power. The most horrific experience that I ever had with NASA PAO was in 2000 during a Democratic administration when I tried to get a press release through on “Global warming in the twenty-first century: An alternative scenario”, which emphasized the importance of non-CO2 climate forcings. After umpteen iterations, I threw in the towel.

Resnik suggests that the best way to safeguard free speech in government science is for a scientific organization, such as the American Association for the Advancement for Science (AAAS), to designate a committee or group to focus on these issues. That may do some good, but by itself it will do little.

The presumption of democracy is that the public is informed, honestly informed. Government scientists work for the tax payer and should be allowed to report their research results without political interference. Elected officials can use scientific information as they see fit – they must consider all factors in making policies, not just scientific data. But they should not be allowed to torque the scientific data, or choose what information is allowed to be presented and what information is “deep-sixed.” Such filtering, which is a recipe for bad decisions and poor management, has never been as intense as in the past several years, in my opinion.

The main problems could be fixed as follows:

1. (1) Public Affairs Offices should be staffed by career professionals protected by civil service rules, not headed by political appointees,
2. (2) The practice of the White House OMB reviewing scientific testimony should be dropped.

These changes would be simple to make, they would allow the public to be better informed, the government would have a more complete picture for making decisions, the tax payers would get their money’s worth. So why doesn’t it happen?

Because, when a new Administration comes in they say “Hey, now WE can control the Offices of Propaganda (even though they consider them offices of their enlightened truth) and make OUR administration look good!

What is needed is a bi-partisan agreement that these changes would be in the interest of the nation. But it is just not going to happen unless the public gets involved. Politicians do not give up instruments of political power AFTER an election that they have won, unless they made an unambiguous promise before the election. We should be asking the candidates for President “will you make these two specific changes, to take the politics out of scientific reporting?”

And, then, we must check to see that the changes are made when a new administration takes over.

Hansen concludes by recommending Bowen’s “Censoring Science” (Dutton, 2008), for an exposition on the relation between the threat to our democracy (in Texan, pronounced do-re-mi) and the threat to our planet, admitting that Bowen does a better job than his (Hansen’s) 2006 treatise, “Swift Boating, Stealth Budgeting, & Unitary Executives“.

He closes with a query, “Would you believe that the current head of NASA PAO had a senior position in the Southern Company, the second largest holding company of coal-burning utilities in the United States?

“Naw, just kidding.”

“Or am I?”

“Read the book.”


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