The Heat Is Online

NOAA's Muzzling of Scientists Finally Reaches the Public

NOAA accused of hiding truth about global warming

The Providence Journal, March 28, 2006  

Hurricanes are getting worse because of global warming.

Kerry Emanuel, a veteran climate researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made that assertion to a roomful of University of Rhode Island scientists a few months ago. He also charged the federal government's top science agency with ignoring the growing research making that link.


Instead of telling the public the truth, he said, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials are insisting that hurricanes are worse because of a natural cycle.


Emanuel's comments made little impact at the time. But during the last three months, his comments and those of other scientists have become like hurricanes -- more frequent and more severe. Finally, they are reaching the public.


James E. Hansen, the top climate scientist at NASA, was quoted in The New York Times in January as saying he had been threatened with "dire consequences" by some NASA political appointees if he continued to call for limits on emissions of gases linked to global warming.


Many climate scientists at NOAA may no longer take calls from reporters, the story went on to say, unless the interview is approved by administration officials in Washington, and is conducted with a public-affairs officer present. But where scientists' views on climate change align with those of the administration, the Times said, there are few restrictions on speaking or writing.


In February, New Republic magazine published a story about NOAA's insistence both in news conferences and on its Web site that global warming has no effect on hurricanes.


Many respected climate scientists, including some working at NOAA, believe that is wrong, according to the article. It quoted Don Kennedy, editor in chief of Science magazine, as saying, "There are a lot of scientists there who know it is nonsense ... but they are being discouraged from talking to the press about it."


Last month, retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., NOAA's administrator, issued a statement saying that the media reports about muzzling NOAA scientists are incorrect. He urged NOAA scientists to speak freely and openly.


He was almost immediately contradicted by Jerry Mahlman, a former director of one of NOAA's top laboratories in New Jersey, who said climate scientists at NOAA have, "indeed, recently been systematically prevented from speaking freely to anyone outside NOAA" about "our inexorably warming planet."


Finally, NASA's Jim Hansen appeared on "60 Minutes" last week and repeated his story of government censorship. The story also introduced Rick Piltz, who resigned from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program last year because, he said, the White House kept softening his annual reports on climate change.


When Emanuel raised his criticisms of NOAA in December, the worst hurricane season in modern history had just ended, and it had broken records set by the 2004 season.


Worsening storms are no coincidence, Emanuel said. They are feeding off ever-warming ocean waters.


Emanuel said in passing that NOAA, the nation's leading science agency _ home of the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center _ was telling the wrong story.


"NOAA talks about natural cycles, but there is no evidence this is cyclic," Emanuel said.


Despite growing scientific evidence that global warming is making hurricanes more frequent and more severe, Emanuel said NOAA has adopted the stance that there is no global-warming effect on hurricanes.


This was not the first time for such accusations. Two years ago, 60 of the country's leading scientists had signed a statement calling for an end to the "distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends" by the Bush administration.


The scientists charged that, to support President Bush's decision not to regulate emissions that cause climate change, the administration has "consistently misrepresented" findings by government scientists. They also found the administration had been working to undermine government science used to deal with childhood lead poisoning, endangered species, air pollution and environmental-health issues. Since then, more than 8,000 other scientists have signed on.


Emanuel said new stories of scientific censorship emerged at a meeting with NOAA scientists last fall.


"Scientists at NOAA have been told there is a gag order on (discussing the impact of) global warming," Emanuel said. "A U.S. government organization should not have a gag order on science. Even in Cuba, scientists can't talk about politics, but they can say anything they want about science."


Soon after Emanuel's appearance at URI to discuss his research and his new book, "Divine Wind: The History of Science and Hurricanes," The Providence Journal sought to test his conclusions.


The first call was to Isaac Held, a senior research scientist at NOAA's prestigious Geophysical Fluids Laboratory, in Princeton, N.J. It was there, last fall, that Emanuel said he first heard about NOAA censorship. Held said he hadn't been affected, but he advised calling Thomas Knutson, a NOAA scientist whose research showed a link between climate change and hurricane intensity.


"Stick to hurricanes. Talk to Tom," Held advised.


Knutson wouldn't talk.


"When we're contacted by reporters, we have to have clearance before we can speak about issues. This is NOAA's media policy," Knutson said. He suggested calling Jana Goldman, in NOAA's public-affairs office.


Is this a new policy? he was asked.


"Check with her," Knutson said. "I'm not sure when the policy was implemented."


Calls to NOAA's public-affairs office led to Kent Laborde, who was described as the public-affairs person who focuses on climate-change issues.


Laborde made it clear that NOAA has discounted the research tying global warming to worsening hurricanes.


"What we've found is, if you look at a couple segments of science, observational or modeling, there is no illustrated link between climate change and hurricane intensity," Laborde said. "We actually have periods of intensity followed by periods of lower intensity. We have evidence of periods going back to the 1930s. It follows a clear pattern."


Laborde was asked if he would approve an interview with Knutson.

What is the topic? he asked.


Emanuel's theories linking climate change to worsening hurricanes.


"Chris Landsea would be better. He's an observational scientist," Laborde said.

Landsea is a top meteorologist at NOAA, often called upon for expert testimony to Congress or to speak at news conferences. He also very publicly quit an international climate-change panel last year because one of its leaders had publicly linked global warming to hurricane severity.


At Laborde's request, Landsea cheerfully discounted Emanuel's theories in an interview with the Journal.


Landsea says he believes what we are really experiencing is a return to an active period of hurricanes, similar to what happened in the late 1940s to the 1960s.

He argued that Knutson's research reflects only a small link between global warming and hurricane intensity.


As for Emanuel's work, Landsea said, "My opinion is his study is very unconvincing."

Landsea insisted that, although he represents NOAA, there is no official NOAA stance on the impact of global warming on hurricanes.


"There are different scientists with different points of view," He said. "Talk to people at Princeton. Tom Knutson has different opinions than I. But he's allowed to speak."

Emanuel said he has no problem with engaging in a scientific debate. What concerns him, he said, is that NOAA seems to be ignoring the debate, and has come down on just one side.


Scripps Howard News Service 2006