Censorship of Federal Climate Scientists: The Critical Case of Jim Hansen


Jim Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, has challenged the Bush administrations effort to prevent him from speaking freely about his analysis of the dangers of global warming and the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate disruption.  What Hansen is saying and doing is especially significant at this juncture, as an example of the vital public role of citizen-scientists—those who speak from a position of scientific expertise to play a role in the broader public discourse.  Scientists, including federal scientists, should be supported in playing such a role, not threatened with “dire consequences.” If we can establish the principle of freedom of public communication by federal climate scientists, unimpeded by political and ideological pressure, then others may be emboldened to also come forward into a more open public discourse.

Alone among federal scientists, Jim Hansen has taken a high-profile, openly critical position on the administration’s efforts to screen and control the flow of information from scientists to the public about the threat of climate change. When admonished recently by political operatives within NASA to henceforth seek a pre-clearance for any future media interviews, speeches, and Web postings, he blew the whistle and asserted a scientist’s right, and responsibility, to call public attention to research findings and their implications for society.

This story was covered in the New York Times and the Washington Post on January 29, and was followed by interviews on the National Public Radio programs “On Point” and “Living on Earth.”

Dr. Hansen has made a number of significant recent presentations, both within the science community most notably, his “Keeling talk” (5.3 MB download), “Is There Still Time to Avoid ‘Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference’ With Global Climate? A Tribute to Charles David Keeling,” at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on December 6—and in the press, notably in an op-ed column, “It’s Not Too Late,” in the International Herald Tribune on December 13.

He asserts, essentially, that society’s current path and a business-as-usual scenario for future energy use is unsustainable and is likely to lead to a “tipping point,” beyond which it will be impossible to avoid devastating adverse consequences under which Earth will become “practically a different planet.”  His analysis covers the climate change problem in a broad way, connecting the dots (to use his term) and linking greenhouse gas emissions from human activities to change in atmospheric composition, to global warming and climate change, to adverse consequences for society and the environment, to the logic of actions needed to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (to use the goal language of the climate change treaty), and the role of the scientist in communicating this issue to the public as well as policymakers.  He talks about potential losses on a catastrophic scale, particularly resulting from warming-driven melting of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets with a consequent sea level rise far in excess of what has previously been projected. 

His public communication of this analysis is clearly what got him crosswise with the administration’s political apparatus.  In effect, it challenges the administration’s (at best) go-slow policy on limiting emissions.  It follows from the logic of his scientific argument that we cannot wait decades for new, currently over-the-horizon clean energy technologies to be developed.  He contends that global emissions reductions are needed sooner rather than later to avoid the consequences suggested by his analysis. 

The attempt to censor Jim Hansen is a dramatic case example of a broader pattern of the Bush administrations modus operandi vis-a-vis scientific research and assessments that don’t fit their political stance.  When they don’t like the message, they try to shoot the messenger.  From 2001 onward, the administration has acted in a variety of ways, some of them well-documented, to impede the communication of scientific assessments of climate change, thereby undermining the integrity of the relationship between scientists and policymakers. Politically-driven attempts at message control are designed to create an enhanced sense of uncertainty about global warming and to play down or avoid discussion of likely consequences.  The problem is manifested especially at the points at which the scientifically based assessments of the climate change problem touch on the arena of policymaking, or seek to communicate with a broad public audience. 

Hansen has had to fend off earlier attempts by the administration to dissuade him from speaking freely—see his comments in his public lecture (4.2 MB download), “Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference: A Discussion of Humanity’s Faustian Climate Bargain and the Payments Coming Due,” at the University of Iowa on October 26, 2004.

In citing Hansen as “The Paul Revere” of global warming,

Rolling Stone quoted him on the subject of the administration’s efforts to suppress and deny evidence of climate change:  “In my more than three decades in government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it is now.”  Hansen said: “Delay of another decade, I argue, is a colossal risk.”

While many academic scientists, including Nobel laureates, have spoken out about the administration’s interference with the integrity of scientific communication to the public, Jim Hansen is the only leading scientist to do so from a position of working for the U.S. Government.  Other federal scientists and career science program managers are also aware of the potential implications of global climate change.  They are also aware of the administration’s reputation for playing hardball with internal dissenters and critics.

It does not take many instances of heavy-handed, explicit censorship by administration political officials in order to get results. More subtle tactics generally suffice to get the job of political control done.  For example, career federal science program managers see what the administration considers politically sensitive and fairly quickly adapt by engaging in a kind of anticipatory self-censorship, to avoid trouble. They speak and write with an eye to what will be “cleared” by the White House and federal agency review process, in reports or statements that relate to evidence about likely climate change and its impacts, or that link scientific research to societal and policy implications. Typically they hold on to their positions and hold their tongues, waiting and hoping for a better day. They are understandably reluctant to speak out or do anything to jeopardize their careers, or their program budgets, and hence their research activities or the activities of researchers their budgets support.

The inducing of self-censorship in career professionals so that a result can be achieved with only a limited need for direct intervention by the Executive Office of the President or the leadership of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program has been one of the deleterious influences of the administration on federal climate change assessment and communications activities. It has led to an overall evasiveness on speaking clearly about a fundamental challenge of our time.

Many federal climate and global change science program managers would support Hansen’s right to speak and publish without a political pre-clearance.  They would question the legitimacy of political censorship of public communication by scientists. Will any group of them come forward with a statement?  Experience has shown that, instead, they are likely to rationalize holding back from saying in public what they believe, thus self-censoring to avoid professional and political risk.  Does this best serve the public interest in this situation?

Free to voice an honest appraisal, a fair number of scientists and science managers at NASA, NOAA, EPA, and other agencies would acknowledge that administration officials have filtered science-based communications with the public, and that this has adversely affected the role of the government in informing the public and leading an honest discussion of climate change and other issues.  And note: It is not necessary for political operatives to directly pressure a large number of scientists.  Most scientists are working on technical research projects that do not have clear implications for sensitive policy issues, or may not be coming to conclusions that political operatives perceive as a potential threat.  Many, probably most, scientists do not attempt to serve as much of a bridge between the research community and broader audiences, communicating climate science in terms relevant to societal concerns.  They may not experience the pressure of having their work subjected to political scrutiny and may not have a good understanding of the situation facing those who do.

Thus, political operatives can alter the tone and content of the overall communication of the climate change problem by federal scientists by focusing pressure on a relatively small number of key individuals, and communications on what might be seen as the most “relevant” issues.

Hansen is a highly credible and respected scientist—he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1995—and well-known as a straight-shooter with great intellectual independence and integrity.  His analyses over the years have been influential in developing the mainstream of climate science research.  He is a working lab scientist, deeply engaged in advancing understanding of fundamental Earth system processes.  He follows his research questions and findings wherever they lead him, and is willing to be something of a maverick in challenging commonly-held positions.  Today his case raises issues of fundamental significance for the communication of science findings and their implications for the public.

In order for society to have any hope of dealing effectively with climate change, the public must be better informed, and scientists have an important role to play in educating the public. Thus, what Hansen is saying and doing is especially significant at this juncture, as an example of the vital public role of citizen-scientists—those who speak from a position of scientific expertise to play a role in the broader public discourse.  Scientists, including federal scientists, should be supported in playing such a role, not threatened with dire consequences. 

Because of the prominence he has attained with his research and public communication since the 1980s, there has perhaps been a tendency among those who pay attention to climate science and policy issues to think of Hansen as free to speak without being threatened. While lesser-known, or less bold, federal scientists at NASA, NOAA, EPA, and other federal agencies may have been deterred from unfettered public speech and writing, Hansen has been seen as one whose message could get through, or around, the political screening process.  But now it is clear that this is not something that should be taken for granted. If Hansen can be muzzled, or penalized for refusing to be muzzled, it will have a chilling effect on other federal scientists and managers who are watching how this episode plays out. If we can establish the principle of freedom of public communication by federal climate scientists, unimpeded by political and ideological pressure, then others may be emboldened to also come forward into a more open public discourse.

Thus it is critical that the science community, elected officials, the media, and the attentive public strongly oppose any move by administration officals, whether at NASA or in the White House, to penalize or retaliate against Jim Hansen, or against the Goddard Institute. And beyond this immediate case, the public interest calls for an end to politically-driven manipulation of scientific communication on climate change.

This entry was posted in Climate Science Censorship, Science-Policy Interaction, Whistleblowers. Bookmark the permalink.