WASHINGTON -- 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. Their accounts indicate that the ideological battle over
climate-change research, which first came to light at NASA, is being fought in
other federal science agencies as well.
These scientists -- working nationwide in research centers in such
places as Princeton, N.J., and Boulder, Colo. -- say they are required to
clear all media requests with administration officials, something they did not
have to do until the summer of 2004. Before then, climate researchers --
unlike staff members in the Justice or State departments, which have
long-standing policies restricting access to reporters -- were relatively
free to discuss their findings without strict agency oversight.
"There has been a change in how we're expected to interact with the
press," said Pieter Tans, who measures greenhouse gases linked to global
warming and has worked at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder
for two decades. He said that although he often "ignores the rules" the
administration has instituted, when it comes to his colleagues, "some people
feel intimidated -- I see that."
Christopher Milly, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said he
had problems twice while drafting news releases on scientific papers describing
how climate change would affect the nation's water supply.
Once in 2002, Milly said, Interior officials declined to issue a news
release on grounds that it would cause "great problems with the department." In
November 2005, they agreed to issue a release on a different climate-related
paper, Milly said, but "purged key words from the releases, including 'global
warming,' 'warming climate' and 'climate change.' ''
Administration officials said they are following long-standing policies
that were not enforced in the past. Kent Laborde, a NOAA public affairs officer
who flew to Boulder last month to monitor an interview Tans did with a film
crew from the BBC, said he was helping facilitate meetings between scientists
"We've always had the policy, it just hasn't been enforced," Laborde said.
"It's important that the leadership knows something is coming out in the media,
because it has a huge impact. The leadership needs to know the tenor or the
tone of what we expect to be printed or broadcast."
Several times, however, agency officials have tried to alter what these
scientists tell the media. When Tans was helping to organize the Seventh
International Carbon Dioxide Conference near Boulder last fall, his lab
director told him participants could not use the term "climate change" in
conference paper's titles and abstracts. Tans and others disregarded that
None of the scientists said political appointees had influenced their
research on climate change or disciplined them for questioning the
administration. Several researchers have received bigger budgets in recent
years because President Bush has focused on studying global warming rather than
curbing greenhouse gases. NOAA's budget for climate research and services is
now $250 million, up from $241 million in 2004.
The assertion that climate scientists are being censored first surfaced in
January when James Hansen, who directs NASA's Goddard Institute for Space
Studies, told the New York Times and the Washington Post that the
administration sought to muzzle him after he gave a lecture in December calling
for cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. (NASA
Administrator Michael Griffin issued new rules recently that make clear that
its scientists are free to talk to members of the media about their scientific
findings, including personal interpretations.)
Two weeks later, Hansen suggested to an audience at the New School
University in New York that his counterparts at NOAA were experiencing even
more severe censorship. "It seems more like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union
than the United States," he told the crowd.
NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher responded by sending an agency-wide
e-mail that said he is "a strong believer in open, peer-reviewed science as
well as the right and duty of scientists to seek the truth and to provide the
best scientific advice possible."
"I encourage our scientists to speak freely and openly," he added. "We ask
only that you specify when you are communicating personal views and when you
are characterizing your work as part of your specific contribution to NOAA's
NOAA scientists, however, cite repeated instances in which the
administration played down the threat of climate change in their documents and
news releases. Although Bush and his top advisers have said that Earth is
warming and human activity has contributed to this, they have questioned some
predictions and caution that mandatory limits on carbon dioxide could damage
the nation's economy.
In 2002, NOAA agreed to draft a report with Australian researchers aimed
at helping reef managers deal with widespread coral bleaching that stems from
higher sea temperatures. A March 2004 draft report had several references to
global warming, including "Mass bleaching ... affects reefs at regional to
global scales, and has incontrovertibly linked to increases in sea temperature
associated with global change."
A later version, dated July 2005, drops those references and several
others mentioning climate change.
NOAA has yet to release the coral bleaching report. James Mahoney,
assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, said he decided in
late 2004 to delay the report because "its scientific basis was so inadequate."
Now that it is revised, he said, he is waiting for the Australian Great Barrier
Reef Marine Park Authority to approve it. "I just did not think it was ready
for prime time," Mahoney said. "It was not just about climate change -- there
were a lot of things."
On other occasions, Mahoney and other NOAA officials have told researchers
not to give their opinions on policy matters. 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
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
Mahoney said he had "no recollection" of the conversation, which took
place in a conference call. "It's virtually inconceivable that I would have
called him about this," Mahoney said, though he added: "For those who are
government employees, our position is they should not typically render a policy
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
"American taxpayers are paying the bill, and they have a right to know
what we're doing," he said.
© Copyright 2006 San Francisco Chronicle