The Unmuzzled Scientist

Basketball junkies watching March Madness on CBS late Sunday afternoon March 19 may have been enticed by promotions for "60 Minutes" to stay tuned for a tale of impending global doom that the Bush administration was suppressing. A senior government scientist apparently risked his job to at long last reveal that only 10 years remained before global warming would ruin planet Earth. But the impression given on the broadcast did not square with reality.

James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been telling the world that story for many years. Nor was his charge that the science is being covered up by the Bush administration anything new. He made that complaint during the 2004 election year in the same speech in which he endorsed Sen. John Kerry for president against his boss, George W. Bush.

If that suggests Dr. Hansen is more political than a scientist ought to be, the dispute over whether the U.S. government should regulate emissions of greenhouse gases is at heart political. But it is not a matter of industry’s allies in government nullifying unanimous scientific opinion. The scientists are divided, and Hansen and his friends are using political tactics to try to prevail.

In his "60 Minutes" interview, Hansen gave the impression of a faithful government scientist who, frustrated by politicians, at long last dared to speak out. Asserting the need to reduce CO2 emissions, Hansen warned: "If that doesn’t start within 10 years, I don’t think we can keep additional global warning under 1 degree Celsius. And that means there’s a great danger of passing some of these tipping points. If the ice sheets once begin to disintegrate, what can you do about it?"

Hansen sounded much the same alarm in 1988, when he energized the global warming movement by predicting a temperature rise of 0.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 10 years. When the actual rise in surface temperatures over the decade was only 0.2 degrees, Hansen stepped back from his earlier predictions.

"The forcings that drive long-term climate change are not known with an accuracy sufficient to define future climate change," Hansen wrote in 1998. He later admitted devising "extreme scenarios" about global warming to get the attention of "decision-makers."

As the fiercely contested presidential election of 2004 neared its end, an obviously unmuzzled Hansen declared publicly he was muzzled. Speaking at the University of Iowa on Oct. 26 that year, he declared: "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." At that same event, Hansen said he was voting for Kerry. In short, if you want the truth about environmental peril, you better get rid of Bush.

Hansen stepped up his rhetoric last December with a lecture calling for an immediate reduction in emissions. In a January New York Times interview, he said the Bush administration was trying to silence him. In February, he told an enthusiastic audience at the New School in New York City: "It seems more like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union than the United States." I have been a political reporter long enough to recognize political rhetoric.

Roy Spencer, a research scientist for the University of Alabama in Huntsville who disagrees with Hansen’s science, recently wrote: "Hansen is a smart, productive public servant that is on a crusade for what he believes in." In waging that crusade, his claims that he is muzzled can get him on "60 Minutes" faster than sober debate over whether the "tipping point" is so far in the future that technological advances surely will be available to cope with the problem.

In concluding the Hansen segment on "60 Minutes," CBS correspondent Scott Pelley said: "For months, we’ve been trying to talk to the president’s science adviser, but we were finally told he would never be available." White House communications director Nicolle Wallace told me: "’60 Minutes’ never contacted the press office." Assuming both statements are accurate, they resulted in a one-sided political presentation that ignored the real scientific debate.