Climate Researchers Feeling Heat From White House
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Climate Researchers Feeling Heat From White House
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006; A27
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, point 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 added 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
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 and journalists.
"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
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 advice.
None of the scientists said political appointees had influenced their
research on climate change or disciplined them for questioning the
administration. Indeed, 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 D.
Griffin issued new rules recently that make clear that its scientists
are free to talk to members of the media about their scientific
findings and to express personal interpretations of those findings.
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
NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr. 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 mission."
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 report on coral bleaching. James R.
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 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. "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 view."
Tans, whose interviews with the BBC crew were monitored by Laborde,
said Laborde has not tried to interfere with the interviews. But Tans
said he did not understand why he now needs an official "minder" from
Washington to observe his discussions with the media. "It used to be
we could say, 'Okay, you're welcome to come in, let's talk,' " he
said. "There was never anything of having to ask permission of
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'
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
"American taxpayers are paying the bill, and they have a right to
know what we're doing," he said.
Researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.