Mike Griffin on Global Warming, Intolerance and Policing Free Speech

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin emerged from his ninth floor office over the last two weeks to give a series of major speeches and interviews. Griffin updated everyone on how things are going at the space agency (very well, surprisingly enough) and tried to clarify his position on global warming. On the latter, he may have created even more confusion.

Griffin’s first stop was the Goddard Memorial Symposium, where he blamed critics for undermining his agency’s efforts and demanded that everyone get in line behind the Bush Administration’s plans to send humans to live on the moon and eventually Mars.

“The rift and harsh rhetoric between proponents of robotic science and human spaceflight does not help our nation’s overall space effort one iota, but it does cause division that weakens us,” Griffin declared. “If we wish a better reality for tomorrow, we as a community must police this behavior; those who engage in it must be made to feel, and be, unwelcome in the community at large. My hope for today is that there will in the future be more respect for each others’ work.”

With that threat/exhortation delivered, Griffin was off to Houston for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. While there, he granted an interview to the editors of the Houston Chronicle in which he decried the unwillingness of certain people to listen to alternative viewpoints. Who, precisely? Scientists. Climate change scientists, to be exact.

The Chronicle editors asked the NASA chief about the widespread outcry last year when he publicly questioned whether global warming is really a serious threat to the planet.

“I understand that the bulk of scientific evidence accumulated supports the claim that we’ve had about a one degree centigrade rise in temperature over the last century to within an accuracy of 20 percent,” Griffin told NPR in May 2007. “I’m also aware of recent findings that appear to have nailed down — pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of that is man-made.

“Whether that is a longterm concern or not, I can’t say. I have no doubt that … a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with,” he added.

Griffin, who is leading NASA’s efforts to create human habitats on the airless moon and poisonous Red Planet, then decried the ‘arrogance’ of those trying to protect the habitat that is home to 6.5 billion people.

“I don’t think it’s within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown,” the NASA chief said. “And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that’s a rather arrogant position for people to take.”

Griffin admitted to the Chronicle editors that, in retrospect, questioning the seriousness of a problem his agency has spent tens of billions of dollars studying over the last 15 years was probably not a very wise thing to do. However, he blamed his critics, insisting that his main mistake was in grossly underestimating how intolerant everyone had become of dissenting views.

“I didn’t realize it had approached the status where you can’t express any sort of a contrary opinion or a comment without it being treated almost as a religious issue. So that’s one mistake,” said Griffin, only a week after demanding for his own critics to be ostracized by the entire space community.

The NASA administrator also told the Chronicle editors that protecting the home planet is not actually part of the space agency’s responsibilities.

“The second [mistake] was, of course, that it actually doesn’t have anything to do with what we do at NASA. Our job is to gather the data, we don’t make policy about what you do with the data. By making comments along those lines all I really did is embroil my agency in a controversy in fight that we don’t have a dog. So yeah, it was a mistake,” he admitted.

Although Griffin is correct in saying that NASA does not make policy, “to study and protect the home planet” has long been part of the agency’s mission statement. Or it used to be until Griffin removed it in 2006.

According to Mark Bowen’s book, “Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth About Global Warming,” Griffin rewrote the agency’s mission statement and strategic plan mostly on his own, with little input from agency stakeholders. In fact, Bowen says that Griffin’s revision of the strategic plan may well have violated a law, the Government Performance and Results Act, that requires widespread consultation before any changes are made.

The removal of “to study and protect the home planet” from the mission statement occurred at about the same time that NASA scientists were complaining bitterly that they were being censored by political appointees at the Bush White House and the NASA Public Affairs Office.

As recounted in Bowen’s book, the Bush Administration was determined to quash anything about global warming that contradicted its official position that more study was required before mandatory carbon caps or other actions could be taken to rein in emissions.

Bowen says this effort was part of a coordinated campaign run out of the White House to censor government climate scientists in NASA, NOAA, EPA and any other agency that dealt with climate change. This censorship involved heavy editing of NASA press releases, the denial of permission to scientists to give interviews to media outlets, threats to people’s jobs, and other coercive measures.

When the story broke in January 2006, Griffin expressed shock that such things were happening within his agency. He soon issued a Statement of Scientific Openness reaffirming the right of scientists to speak publicly about their research and committing NASA to open scientific inquiry.

However, Bowen says that Griffin undercut his own efforts. Only one person, a 24-year-old public affairs officer named George Deutsch, was disciplined; he resigned under pressure. Two other political appointees in NASA Public Affairs Offices who were also involved in the censorship effort stayed. Bowen quotes sources as saying that because Griffin was unwilling or unable to challenge the White House on these appointments, Deutsch became the scapegoat.

At the same time he was publicly supporting climate scientists and their work, Griffin was busy cutting about 20 percent from NASA’s Earth sciences budget. This was on top of a 5 percent cut done under previous administrator Sean O’Keefe. An alarmed National Academies of Sciences had issued an interim report the previous summer warning that the earlier cuts had left NASA’s science programs in serious trouble and the Earth Observing System on the verge of collapse.

All of this left more than a few people angry and quite baffled, including Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman and Republican Senator Susan Collins, who helped oversee the agency’s funding. In an August 4, 2006 letter, they issued a strong bipartisan rebuke of Griffin’s actions:

“We are writing to express our deep concern about the recent elimination of the phrase ‘to understand and protect our home planet’ from NASA’s mission statement,” they wrote. “At a time in which evidence grows on an almost daily basis of the potentially severe impacts of climate change, we find it inexplicable that NASA apparently no longer views protecting and understanding our home planet as a priority.

“NASA’s earth science is some of the best in the world. From studies of hurricanes to the Antarctica ozone hole, from sea level rise to coral reef mapping, NASA’s earth science mission is vital to our understanding and protecting planet Earth. A NASA scientist has testified before our committee on the implications of climate change and the importance of climate change research.

“We wrote to you on February 15, 2006 to express our concerns about allegations of censorship of climate science at NASA. We appreciate NASA’s response to our questions and the agency’s reaffirmation that it is ‘committed to open scientific and technical inquiry and dialogue with the public.’ However, this commitment has little meaning if NASA subsequently alters its mission so as to scale back the very science that we strongly believe needs to be both conducted and communicated to the public.

“NASA has a history of scientific excellence not only in space, but also on our own planet. While space exploration is vital, we do not believe that science on our home planet should be sacrificed in order to explore distant planets. NASA can, and should, do both,” they added.

Speaking at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston last week, Griffin said it was all one big misunderstanding. Contradicting two United States Senators, he claimed he changed the mission statement to make it consistent with Congress’ expressed wishes.

“Talking about the Space Act reminds me of the kerfluffle that ensued, a couple of years ago, when I changed our mission statement to be consistent with our legislated responsibilities,” Griffin said. “I thought the ensuing squabble was ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ and that a larger point was missed.

“To me, the person who best captured NASA’s true mission was Gene Roddenberry, with his immortal line about the mission of the Starship Enterprise, ‘To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.’ That’s almost perfect; I think we’re more likely to create new civilizations than to find others, but I love those lines, and if it wasn’t for the royalties we’d have to pay, and of course the split infinitive. But all joking aside…”

There is one major problem with this analogy, of course. In Roddenberry’s fictional future, Earth is a peaceful place where war, hunger and environmental problems have been all but completely eliminated. Star Fleet’s main role is to protect the planet from external threats, whether it be assimilation by the Borg or the screeching of an alien probe that wants to talk to humpback whales and simply won’t take “no” for an answer.

The world today is not anywhere near this state. And the agency that does more climate research than any other organization in the world is headed up by someone who doesn’t know whether or not the problem should even be a priority.

As if to drive home this point, the Bush Administration has just released its proposed NASA budget for the next fiscal year. Griffin proudly points to the $910 million NASA has budgeted over the next five years to addressing the National Research Council’s (NRC) first decadal survey of Earth Science, which was released last year. Griffin sees the funding, which will support the launches of two Earth sciences spacecraft and the “formulation” of three additional missions, as a sign of the agency’s seriousness in addressing global warming.

The House Science and Technology Committee’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee disagrees. The subcommittee says that NASA’s budget is more than $6 billion short of what is needed over that five-year period to fulfill NRC’s recommendations. In fact, the funding levels are so low that the agency’s entire science program may be at risk.

“I’m concerned that NASA’s science program is facing an uncertain future under the funding plan offered by the Administration,” said Chairman Mark Udall.

This is almost exactly the same thing the National Academies of Sciences said about NASA’s Earth sciences programs back in 2005, shortly after Griffin took over as administrator.