Hansen in the New York Times

The more astute of you may have noticed the headline NYT story this weekend on Jim Hansen’s ongoing tussles with the (politically appointed) public affairs people at NASA HQ (Jim is my immediate boss so you need to read this with that in mind!). Most of the recent fuss has been about the GISS analysis of surface air temperatures (GISTEMP), which used to routinely be made available as soon as the analysis was done (usually a week or so after the end of any particular month). This data was generally released with little or no fuss (and no press releases) except for the end of year summary. However, as it started to become clearer that 2005 was a contender for warmest year, journalists and others started paying direct attention to the raw figures and writing stories that were bypassing public affairs. For instance, Juliet Eilperin’s October story in WaPo (discussed here and here) was one of the stories that they were most definitely not happy with (as alluded to in today’s WaPo). No follow-up media requests to interview relevant scientists were approved.

It should be made absolutely clear that scientists at GISS (including Jim Hansen, David Rind, Drew Shindell, myself and others) have at all times treated media interviews with the utmost professionalism and have never (to my knowledge) used them to make inappropriate or personal statements that could cause embarassment to the federal government or NASA. On the contrary, we have received multiple compliments for our ability to explain the issues succinctly and avoid common pitfalls (such as confusing weather events and climate for instance). There is therefore no basis for assuming that this would be any different with regards to the 2005 temperatures – and indeed interviews related to the official press release last week (i.e. this story) confirm that pattern. Thus restrictions on media contacts seem a little puzzling to say the least.

The latest round of tension apparently started after Hansen’s presentation at AGU in December (the full presentation and notes are available here). This was a keynote address which was by all accounts very well recieved by the scientists present and garnered some press in the following days. In it, Hansen re-iterated a number of his usual themes (the history of anthropogenic forcings, the match of model results to the observed trends, the importance of the ocean heat content metric as a check on the planetary heat imbalance etc.). He also suggested that there was maybe only another 10 year window of opportunity to tackle rising growth rates of carbon dioxide before the planet would be committed to a ‘dangerous’ anthropogenic climate change. His slides give the reasoning behind this, but basically it is predicated on avoiding a global mean temperature rise that could cause significant portions of the ice sheets to start to melt, based partly on an analogy with the temperatures at the Eemian (the last interglacial ~100,000 years ago).

So does his conclusion that rising emissions are probably not a good thing constitute ‘policy advocacy’ that could step over the line? Not in any substantive sense, given that this has been agreed to all signatories to the FCCC (including the US) and is supported by the National Academies of Science from all G8 countries. This is along the lines of an overall policy goal (like improving education levels, or keeping the population healthy) and is very different from advocating for any particular policy designed to achieve those ends. Some commentators agree with this distinction, others don’t, but it’s a distinction that is clearly understood by most scientists in the field.

In summary, the apparent desire of some to limit the flow of climate information is probably counterproductive and will likely only succeed in alienating the scientists who are at the base of NASA’s mission and generating bad publicity. It is rather ironic that the department responsible for exposing NASA’s science to the public may be reducing NASA scientists’ exposure to them instead.

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