The radio program, Earth and Sky, (which inexplicably is not aired in San Antonio) has an interview with MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, published on February 16. He discusses the recent suggestions that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), parent office to the National Weather Service, has been monitoring the contact its scientists have with the public and suppressing some scientific opinions. Emanuel says:
I think there's little question that this [censorship] has been going. In the last year or so, I've had a number of colleagues in NOAA complaining about this. It takes different forms, and sometimes it's a bit subtle, but there's no question that they feel pressure to be very cautious about what they say on the issue of hurricanes and global warming. It's less clear exactly where this is coming from. We don't really know how high up in NOAA, or even if it's beyond NOAA.
Emanuel claims that the NOAA censorship problem only concerns a few scientists:
[M]y impression is that 99% of the scientific employees of NOAA have no problem at all, and are doing work that has no implications, no political implications. And they're left alone. It's just the few that are doing things that the senior management doesn't approve of that have the problems.
What problems do these chosen few have?
I think that the most egregious cases that I know about have been when scientists have been contacted by somebody in the media, maybe a major television station, and an interview was set up, and these things have to be cleared with the NOAA, with the Department of Commerce press office, and they were just nixed. They were just basically told, "no, you may not do this interview. End of story."
Who are the chosen few that "senior management doesn't approve of"? A Wall Street Journal article from February 16 actually names two:
Pieter Tans, a researcher who studies carbon dioxide at NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., says public-affairs "minders" now sit in on more interviews, something that didn't happen before. He said he sees it as an attempt to control comments about the dangers of climate change.
Thomas Knutson, a research meteorologist with the agency's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., said he believes his views have been censored by the NOAA public-affairs office because of his view that global warming could be making hurricanes worse. Last October the public-affairs office said no to a scheduled interview with CNBC television, he said.
On another occasion, Dr. Knutson said he had been invited around the time of Hurricane Katrina to appear on a television show with Ron Reagan, the son of former President Reagan who is co-host of a show on MSNBC. But shortly before he was to appear, he got a voice mail from a person in public affairs. "He said, 'The White House turned it down,'" Dr. Knutson said.
Emanuel is also concerned that NOAA, late last year, officially took sides in an area of considerable scientific controversy. In response to the super-active Atlantic hurricane season, the NOAA published an article in their official magazine titled "NOAA ATTRIBUTES RECENT INCREASE IN HURRICANE ACTIVITY TO NATURALLY OCCURRING MULTI-DECADAL CLIMATE VARIABILITY. In other words, they told the public not to link all this destruction and devastation to our changing climateit's just a natural cycle that we're currently cresting.
Yet it turns out that a significant number of scientists believe there is evidence suggesting that our warmer climate is already causing stronger hurricanes." Emanuel says:
There is the problem of an agency, like NOAA or NASA, taking a very decided stance in something that, among scientists, is controversial. I've never seen that happen before. What would have happened if back in the 1980's, NOAA had held a press conference to say that there's no such thing as an ozone hole? I mean everyone would have been shocked that they would take a position in an ongoing debate like that. And yet they have done this with hurricanes and global warming. Although I understand that they have retracted that recently, and couched it in more, in looser terms.
The Wall Street Journal article says that this retraction took place last week:
Amid a growing outcry from climate researchers in its own ranks, the [NOAA] backed away from a statement it released after last year's powerful hurricane season that discounted any link to global warming. A corrected statement, which says some NOAA researchers disagree with that view, was posted to NOAA's Web site yesterday [February 15].
The retraction appears to have taken the form of a footnote added to the end of the November article—in small print. I can't find any other reference to it in a more prominent place on NOAA's web site or amongst their press releases. The small print says:
*EDITOR’S NOTE: This consensus in this on-line magazine story represents the views of some NOAA hurricane researchers and forecasters, but does not necessarily represent the views of all NOAA scientists. It was not the intention of this article to discount the presence of a human-induced global warming element or to attempt to claim that such an element is not present. There is a robust, on-going discussion on hurricanes and climate change within NOAA and the scientific community. The headline and paragraph could have more clearly stated:
“Agreement Among Some NOAA Hurricane Researchers and Forecasters” There is agreement among a number of NOAA hurricane researchers and forecasters that recent increases in hurricane activity are primarily the result of natural fluctuations in the tropical climate system known as the tropical multi-decadal signal.”
Despite this rather weak correction, the original, misleading, headline and article still dominate on that web page, for future web surfers to stumble across. The editor's note is not even referred to until the concluding paragraphs. It can easily be missed altogether.
Emanuel, thanks to a "strong statement" issued by the head of NOAA recently, thinks the problems may be mostly in the past. I think he is way too optimistic.
NASA's administrator also issued a "strong statement" recently. But his bosses in the White House went ahead and replaced the infamous George Deutsch in the NASA press office with another scientific novice and political appointee.
It appears that the Bushies do not have any intention of stepping back from their attempts to control the flow of information out of NASA, and so the fortunes for improving the similar climate at NOAA—much further away from the public eye—do not appear promising.
The head of NOAA has not even acknowledged that there is a problem, as Emanuel points out:
Recently, the administrator of NOAA, Conrad Lautenbacher, issued a statement to his employees pretty much along those lines as well [scientific openness to the press]. Although he also denied that there was any wrong-doing, which [NASA Administrator Mike] Griffin did not do. And I think that was a mistake, because too many people know better.
Mistake? Or a calculated move? No problems means no changes are necessary.