Political and Policy Implications of Science: A Cause for Rewriting Science?

Since late 2004, Dr. James Hanson, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been prevented from speaking out about the implications of years of research on Global Warming. Hanson, a 30-year veteran NASA scientist, “fell out of favor with the White House” after giving a speech complaining that climate scientists were being muzzled (he also said he was going to vote for Sen. John Kerry in the upcoming presidential election). The New York Times published an article, Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him (Jan. 29, 200) which detailed the nature of the muzzling going on in NASA and being directed by the White House.

CBS’ 60 Minutes program featured Hanson in one of their pieces entitled Rewriting Science. Hanson, who took a risk in going public said on the program “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.” CBS provided documents showing the extent to which scientific reports were re-written by White House lawyers (not scientists) to undermine the credible research showing that the Earth is warming, and that it is caused by the creation of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide). This was not an editing job, it was a calculated re-write of papers in which the White House made global warming research appear to be full of too much uncertainty to be used to make policy decisions. It was revealed that the White House staff member doing the re-writing was a Phil Cooney, a former lobbyist of the American Petroleum Institute. Cooney recently left the White House and is now employed by a large oil firm!

Hanson and his colleagues at NASA have accumulated evidence to support the fact of global warming, and are expecially alarmed at the serious increase in the melting of glaciers, especially in Greenland. Of particular note is that Hanson suggests that CO2 emissions need to be reduced in the next ten years, or the increase in melting of glaciers (resulting in the rise of sea level) will contribute to more catastrophic results. The graph below shows how atmosheric co2 has changed over the past years ice core and atmospheric data.

What results? Hurricanes for one! In a study reported in Science by researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology, Carlos D. Hoyos and others have shown that the increasing trend in the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes for the period 1970 – 2004 is directly linked to the trend in global warming. One of the specific varibles that they looked at was sea water temperatures, which have increase about 1 degree celcius over this period. Hurricanes get their “energy” from warm ocean water, and if ocean temperatures are increasing its clear there will be more energy for future storms. Hurricane Katrina, grew from a category 1 storm before passing over 90 degree water in the Gulf of Mexico (as shown below) becoming very quickly a category 5 storm.

And the past few days, Hurricane Larry, which was more powerful than Katrina, hit the Queensland Coast of Australia.

Science should be used to help formulate policy. However, when government lawyers re-write science to fit a particular political ideology, then the public is done a major disservice. The U.S. government has had a disturbing record in terms of how it has viewed the results and theory of global warming, irrespective of political party. Bush 1 and 2, and the Clinton administration have not only mis-read science results, but interpreted them to fit their own political views. Years ago, Jacob Bronowski recommended that scientific research NOT be funded by the government, but by some other organization. He never went on to formulate this suggestion in any specific way. I am not sure an a non-government agency would be able to convince politicians who are bent on a particular view or ideology. Perhaps what is needed is better science education at the K-12 level. But that has been the theme of government and non-governmental CEO’s for decades, and sadly, science education has not changed very much. In the state that I reside, only half of the students who start school, graduate from high school.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University