Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Censoring Science'

Censoring Science Book Cover

Chapter 1: The Cardinal Rule

One sweltering June afternoon in 1988, an understated Iowan named James Hansen turned global warming into an international issue with one sentence. He told a group of reporters in a hearing room, just after testifying to a Senate committee, "It's time to stop waffling ... and say that the greenhouse effect is here and is affecting our climate now."

At first, it seemed that our policy makers got the message. Two months after the hearing, the senior atmospheric scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, Michael Oppenheimer, told The New York Times, "I've never seen an environmental issue mature so quickly, shifting from science to the policy realm almost overnight." By the end of the year, thirty-two climate-related bills had been introduced in Congress. More than a decade after that, however, in April 2001, Oppenheimer conceded that he had been wrong. None of the bills had gone anywhere, and the prospects for an effective policy response were looking increasingly dim. After less than two months in office, the new president, George W. Bush, had announced that he would abandon a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants, our greatest contributors to the greenhouse effect, and then swiftly pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, the first binding international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. As Christine Todd Whitman, then the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, later put it, this "was the equivalent to 'flipping the bird,' frankly, to the rest of the world."

In late 2004, after four more years of inactivity and concerted foot-dragging by the federal government—as well as suppression, twisting, and censorship of climate science on a breathtaking scale—Jim Hansen decided it was time to make another statement. It took about a year for the right venue to present itself, the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), in December 2005 in San Francisco. His speech took place on Tuesday afternoon, the sixth.

This is the story of the six or so months during which the dangerous human-made warming of our planet finally did shift from science to the policy realm. Perhaps. It is still too early to tell. The battle to effect true change has been long and so far unsuccessful. Jim didn't shift public opinion quite as single-handedly this time around; however, as before, he provided the spark.

The AGU's fall meeting always takes place in San Francisco, and it is a large event. More than 12,000 scientists, students, teachers, and so on attend. The press is well represented, so headlines often result. The majority of the people who present papers at the meeting petition for the opportunity by submitting an abstract, while a select few are invited to speak. Jim had been invited to give a lecture in memory of Charles David Keeling, the legendary greenhouse pioneer who had shown that the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide has been rising steadily since 1958, when he first began monitoring the gas with an instrument on the summit of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. Keeling had died about six months before the meeting. His son Ralph, a distinguished climate scientist in his own right, had extended this invitation to Jim.

Jim wanted to use this opportunity to, in his words, "connect the dots." He wanted to tell everything he knew about global warming, from the science, to the disastrous possibilities, to the solutions...and maybe to the special interests who have blocked solutions; he wasn't yet sure about that. And he wanted to make it crystal clear. "I felt that I had to write this down," he says, "not just give a talk, because the communication process is always distorted by repetition or the interpretations people place on what you say—newspapermen especially. They have to write their stories very quickly, and they don't have time to send it back to let you check the accuracy."

AGU is a huge operation. You're supposed to get the computer file with your slides into their system at least twenty-four hours before your talk. Jim typically works about eighty hours a week, and to maximize efficiency he often waits until the last minute to focus on a project. He had nowhere near finished his talk by Sunday afternoon, as he and his wife, Anniek, prepared to drive to Kennedy Airport from their apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He worked on it in the terminal building and on the flight west. By the time his deadline arrived on Monday afternoon, he had still not completed the wording on some of his slides, so when he handed in his presentation, he got permission to replace it the next morning. After going out to dinner with Anniek that night, he continued to work on the slides as well as the text from which he intended to read.

He awoke before dawn and worked as quietly as possible in their hotel room. (About a year later, upon accepting the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Medal at St. James Palace, London, Jim would acknowledge the debt he owes to Anniek, "who generously tolerates my inordinate obsessions.") Taking advantage of the time difference, he retrieved some new graphics electronically from his research assistant, Darnell Cain, back in New York. As he handed in the flash drive with his presentation—just in time—the AGU technician did him the favor of printing out the text of his speech so he wouldn't have to read from the screen of his laptop. Then Jim and Anniek got some fast food and sat outside on a park bench to eat, while he made finishing touches in pen on the printout, not quite reaching the end.

Dr. James E. Hansen is almost universally regarded as the preeminent climate scientist of our time. He has been director of NASA's premier climate research center, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, for twenty-five years, and he has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences for ten. During a series of talks that was seen as the "main event" that afternoon, he delivered his Keeling talk to an overflow audience in one of the larger conference rooms in San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center. There was a sense of history, a sense that the torch was being passed. As Ralph Keeling noted in his introduction, "The importance of Jim's work¿.¿.¿.¿was not lost on my father, who held him in very high esteem for his integrity and tenacity. In fact, just minutes before my father died, he was engaged in discussions with my brother Eric on Jim's recent paper in Scien'e."

Many people stood for the forty minutes that it took Jim to read, somewhat haltingly, into the microphone. The light at the podium wasn't great; he couldn't see his text well.

His written abstract reads:

The Earth's temperature, with rapid global warming over the past thirty years, is now passing through the peak level of the Holocene, a period of relatively stable climate that has existed for more than 10,000 years. Further warming of more than 1°C [about 2°F] will make the Earth warmer than it has been in a million years. "Business-as-usual" scenarios, with fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions continuing to increase about 2 percent per year as in the past decade, yield additional warming of 2 or 3°C this century and imply changes that constitute practically a different planet.

...Earth's climate is nearing, but has not passed, a tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to avoid climate change with far ranging undesirable consequences. The changes include not only loss of the Arctic as we know it, with all that implies for wildlife and indigenous peoples, but losses on a much vaster scale due to worldwide rising seas. Sea level will increase slowly at first, ...but as Greenland and West Antarctic ice is softened and lubricated by melt-water and as buttressing ice shelves disappear due to a warming ocean, the balance will tip toward ice loss, thus ... causing rapid ice sheet disintegration. The Earth's history suggests that with warming of 2–3°C ... sea level will [rise about] 25 meters (80 feet).

... Real world data suggest substantial ice sheet and sea level change in centuries, not millennia. The century time scale offers little consolation to coastal dwellers, because they will be faced with irregular incursions associated with storms and with continually rebuilding above a transient water level.

The grim "business-as-usual" climate change is avoided in an alternative scenario in which growth of greenhouse gas emissions is slowed in the first quarter of this century, primarily via concerted improvements in energy efficiency ... and then reduced via advanced energy technologies that yield a cleaner atmosphere as well as a stable climate. The required actions make practical sense and have other benefits, but they will not happen without strong policy leadership and international cooperation. Action must be prompt, otherwise carbon dioxide–producing infra-structure [mainly coal-burning power plants] that may be built within a decade will make it impractical to keep further global warming under 1°C.

In the end, he had decided to include the following:

There is little merit in casting blame for inaction, unless it helps point toward a solution. It seems to me that special interests have been a roadblock wielding undue influence over policymakers. The special interests seek to maintain short-term profits with little regard to either the long-term impact on the planet that will be inherited by our children and grandchildren or the long-term economic well-being of our country.

The public, if well informed, has the ability to override the influence of special interests, and the public has shown that they feel a stewardship toward the Earth and all of its inhabitants. Scientists can play a useful role if they help communicate the climate change story to the public in a credible understandable fashion.

Since he aimed to communicate not only to the public but also to his scientific colleagues, Jim buttressed these statements—including those regarding a practical solution—with copious evidence from real-world measurements and with rigorous analysis, based on his nearly forty years of experience studying the climate of our own planet and that of our neighbor, Venus. Indeed, this talk succeeded in connecting the dots for the first time in the minds of many geoscientists. One might assume that the thousands at this meeting would all be experts in global warming; however, most actually specialize in one or two specific aspects of the enormous field of geophysics. Very few—probably none—have the broad view of Earth's climate system that Jim Hansen does. A number of leading scientists, for instance, Paul Crutzen, who had won a Nobel Prize for his work on atmospheric ozone chemistry, told Jim that he had put together just the sort of comprehensive and convincing presentation that was needed. Many began using the charts from his talk, which he later placed on the Web, and a few suggested that he turn it into a paper and publish it in an academic journal. In a way, he would do that, about a year and a half later. By that time, however, his thinking had moved on, and it took six papers to get it all down.

Among those who gathered around immediately after the talk were a BBC reporter and a technician. "One of them just held a microphone in front of my face," Jim recalls. Other media requests began arriving by e-mail. Back in New York, his assistant, Darnell, and his institute's public affairs officer, Leslie McCarthy, also began receiving e-mails and telephone calls.

Jim and Anniek remained in San Francisco through Thursday evening, whereupon they caught a red-eye back to New York and Jim returned to science.

Jim leads an ascetic life. He and Anniek keep a tiny apartment a few blocks from his institute, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is located on the campus of Columbia University. On the days when he doesn't get up at 4:30 A.M. to catch a train to Washington for a meeting at NASA headquarters or the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, he tends to spend the early morning thinking and writing in the peace and quiet of the apartment. Until recently, it had no Internet connection, which he saw as a good thing. If Leslie, Darnell, or one of Jim's scientific colleagues or fellow managers needs to reach him, she or he will call on the phone. At some point in the morning, when a meeting or some other pressing duty calls, he will rush downstairs and walk—more exactly run—a few blocks south to GISS, where he will work into the night. He claims that his only regular exercise comes from running up the stairs to his seventh-floor office. He and Anniek also own a small farm in rural Pennsylvania, to which he commutes by car about once a week—less in winter. Indeed, the old Volvo that they keep on the street in New York bears some resemblance to a farm vehicle. The one time I rode in it, the backseats and floors were covered with straw.

He works virtually all his waking hours. If he wakes in the night, he will put a few hours into his latest writing project or scientific paper. This is not busywork. Jim has a profound ability to focus. He moves from project to project, apparently shooting from the hip but hitting the bull's-eye nearly every time. As we shall see, it is difficult to keep up with him. Over the next few critical months, he would play a major role, sometimes in the background, in a dazzling number of crucial events that would finally put global warming back in its rightful place at the forefront of public concern.

The morning he and Anniek returned from the AGU meeting, Jim caught a few hours of sleep, then posted the words he had said and the images he had shown on the personal page he keeps on Columbia's Web site. He holds dual appointments at Columbia and GISS. Aside from directing the institute he is an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia and an active participant in the Columbia Earth Institute. GISS is also quasi-academic. Many of the NASA scientists at the institute hold dual appointments, some full-time Columbia scientists do their research there, and many Columbia students are involved in GISS research as well.

That afternoon, Jim sent an e-mail to a list of scientific and media contacts, to let them know that he had posted his Keeling talk on the Web. It's not as if he didn't realize that he was walking the political line with some aspects of the talk. This was his way of presenting it as a personal statement, disassociated from his position as a government scientist. Since Jim has been walking the political line to greater and lesser degrees for about twenty-five years—since 1981, to be precise, the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency—he is probably as aware as any of NASA's 18,000 employees of the agency's stipulation that any statements that might relate to government policy must be presented as personal opinion.

The seeds he planted that afternoon quickly took root ...

The biggest headlines on the global warming front that particular week arose not from the statements of scientists in San Francisco, but from the behavior of a delegation representing the George W. Bush administration in Montreal. Representatives from nearly 200 nations were meeting in that city to discuss the next steps in the halting international effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions that had commenced seventeen years earlier, right around the time Jim had told the Senate that global warming had arrived.

Owing to the complexities of greenhouse policy, two parallel sets of negotiations were taking place in Montreal. The larger of the two was aimed at extending the voluntary 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which had been negotiated during the term of the current president's father. The 189 nations that had eventually signed the Framework treaty, the United States among them, were discussing future, nonbinding agreements aimed at improving the treaty's effectiveness and enticing developing nations to join in the emissions-curbing effort. The second, smaller set of negotiations in Montreal involved only those developed nations that had signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. President Bill Clinton had signed the Kyoto treaty, but Congress had refused to endorse it; and when George W. Bush rejected it in March 2001, he ensured that the United States would be the only major developed nation besides Australia not to commit to the binding agreements of Kyoto. (The only other developed nations not to sign were Monaco and Liechtenstein.) The Kyoto signatories were working to develop a new set of more ambitious goals and timetables that would come into force after the Kyoto treaty lapses in 2012. Since the United States had not signed the treaty, the U.S. delegation was not party to these "post-Kyoto" discussions, of course.

Although it might seem that there was little to be risked in the non-binding discussions, the lead negotiator for the United States, one Harlan Watson, spent nearly his entire two weeks in Montreal attempting to undermine their very premise. Stating quite openly that his aim was to end, right then and there, all international discussions even of nonbinding emissions limits, Watson fiercely resisted the efforts of the other 188 signatory nations even to start a new round of informal negotiations. This was very much in keeping with the goals of the oil giant ExxonMobil, which had recommended him for a place on the negotiating team shortly before President Bush, evidently taking the company's cue, appointed him leader of the team in 2001.

After midnight on the final day of the Montreal sessions, with a proposal for a new round of informal talks on the table, Dr. Watson is said to have uttered, "If it walks like a duck and talks like duck, it's a duck," and walked out of the room. A confused delegate from another country evidently stated, "I don't understand your reference to a duck. What about this document is like a duck?"

Slightly more than twenty-four hours later, again in the wee hours of the morning and only after the other signatories had agreed to two huge escape clauses—that any future talks would be "open and non-binding" and that they would "not open any negotiations leading to new commitments"—did Watson agree to add his signature.

The United States received much criticism for Watson's antics—and not only from environmentalists. A front-page article in The Washington Post, published on Saturday, December 10, a few hours after Watson finally relented, read, "At times this week, Washington and its traditional allies seemed on the brink of divorce, especially after Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin told reporters ... . 'To the recalcitrant nations, including the United States, I would say this: there is such a thing as a global conscience, and now is the time to listen to it.'"

The unique thing about global warming as a policy issue is that every once in a while our planet itself decides to make a statement. Indeed, the third intensifying factor that early December was the season. November 30 marks the end of the so-called meteorological year. Since weather stations generally report their results monthly, meteorologists and climatologists have found it convenient to divide the year into four three-month seasons. September, October, and November are designated as fall; December, January, and February as winter; and so on. Sometime around the second week of December, then, the three major research groups that track global weather-station data—the Hadley Centre at the University of East Anglia in Britain; the U.S. National Climatic Data Center, which is an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and Jim Hansen's group at GISS—release their estimates of the Earth's average temperature for the meteorological year just ended. They update the reports in early January to provide laypeople with estimates for the calendar year, which are rarely much different.

Jim's and the British group are the longest standing of the three, having both published their first global temperature estimates in 1981. All three groups constantly improve their methods and their coverage of the planet and report these improvements in scientific journals as necessary.

Owing to the intense interest of news organizations in this annual taking of the planet's temperature, the three groups coordinate with one another and all release their data on the same day. Interest was especially high this particular December because a race was on: since mid- to late summer, the scientists in all three groups had been telling their friends and acquaintances, including those in the news media, that 2005 might turn out to be the warmest year on record—since about 1880, that is, when station coverage first became global enough to permit a meaningful estimate.

Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Censoring Science by Mark Bowen. Copyright © 2007 by Mark Bowen

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Mark Bowen