On April 6 the Washington Post ran a 1400-word article on political interference with federal climate scientists, focusing primarily on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The article draws on interviews with several scientists who report instances in which they contend that administration political pressure has impeded the flow of scientific communication about climate change and its implications. Two of the cases discussed in the article involve James R. Mahoney, until very recently the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.
During the past year we have repeatedly stressed the point that political interference with climate science occurs mainly when efforts are made to communicate scientific findings and assessments to a wider audience. Climate scientists, if they can get their research funded, have generally been free to publish their findings in the scientific literature—which is for the most part read and understood only by a scientifically trained readership. It is when the findings are communicated to policymakers, and to the public through the news media, that political gatekeepers will intervene in certain cases to alter, block, or misrepresent the communication. This can be done by a number of different methods, which the Washington Post article takes a few steps toward uncovering and documenting.
The article, “Climate Researchers Feeling Heat From White House,” by reporter Juliet Eilperin (copyright 2006, Washington Post), leads with:
Scientists doing climate research for the federal government say the Bush administration has made it hard for them to speak forthrightly to the public about global warming. The result, the researchers say, is a danger that Americans are not getting the full story on how the climate is changing.
Employees and contractors working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with a U.S. Geological Survey scientist working at an NOAA lab, said in interviews that over the past year administration officials have chastised them for speaking on policy questions; removed references to global warming from their reports, news releases and conference Web sites; investigated news leaks; and sometimes urged them to stop speaking to the media altogether.
Eilperin reports comments by several federal scientists who, to my knowledge, have not been reported on in previous news stories on climate science censorship. She identifies cases involving interventions by Jim Mahoney, who, until his recent retirement, was the the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Director of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program:
Konrad Steffen directs the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a joint NOAA-university institute with a $40 million annual budget. Steffen studies the Greenland ice sheet, and when his work was cited last spring in a major international report on climate change in the Arctic, he and another NOAA lab director from Alaska received a call from Mahoney in which he told them not to give reporters their opinions on global warming.
Steffen said that he told him that although Mahoney has considerable leverage as “the person in command for all research money in NOAA . . . I was not backing down.”
Mahoney said he had “no recollection” of the conversation, which took place in a conference call….
In future postings Climate Science Watch will revisit the role of Jim Mahoney in managing the flow of communication about climate research funded by NOAA and other U.S. Climate Change Science Program participating agencies.
The article also calls attention to the role of the NOAA Public Affairs office in monitoring and screening media contacts by scientists. Public Affairs officer Kent Laborde makes some misleading comments in defense of NOAA’s indefensible media policy, which is discussed in the February 14 and other entries on this blog.
Laborde refers to NOAA’s policy on media contacts by scientists as being of long standing. “We’ve always had the policy,” he says. In fact, the NOAA Media Policy is less than two years old—it was announced in June 2004 by NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher and represented a departure from previous practice and a tightening of control on communication that has drawn criticism from NOAA scientists. The policy essentially requires a political-level pre-clearance for media contacts by NOAA climate scientists.
The need for clearance from Washington, several NOAA scientists said, amounts to a “pocket veto” allowing administration officials to block interviews by not giving permission in time for journalists’ deadlines.
Ronald Stouffer, a climate research scientist at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, estimated his media requests have dropped in half because it took so long to get clearance to talk from NOAA headquarters. Thomas Delworth, one of Stouffer’s colleagues, said the policy means Americans have only “a partial sense” of what government scientists have learned about climate change.
“American taxpayers are paying the bill, and they have a right to know what we’re doing,” he said.
This article is another example of a significant increase since mid-2005 in alert coverage of various aspects of the science and politics of the global warming problem by the Washington Post. Coverage of the federal employee angle is clearly a natural for the Post to treat as a priority. But unlike the New York Times, which has reported on climate change issues regularly and knowledgeably since the 1980s, the Post lagged well behind, and it is only fairly recently that the paper has seemed to make a serious effort to maintain a regular focus on these issues. This is a welcome development.