Global Warming Debate Suppressed

Fri Apr. 7, 2006 1:45 PM EDT

The Bush Administration is making it increasingly difficult for scientists to disseminate their research on global warming. According to the Washington Post:

[Over the last year,] administration officials have chastised [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] 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.
As of summer 2004, all NOAA media releases had to have prior authorization from those higher up in the administration, a caveat that intimidates some researchers to modify what they publish. According to Christopher Milly, a hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, his team "purged key words from the releases, including 'global warming,' 'warming climate' and 'climate change,' " in order to get a news release issued. James Hansen, head of NASA's top institute studying the climate, said:

Advertise on MotherJones.com

In my more than three decades in the government I've never witnessed such restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public. Should we be simply doing our science and reporting it rigorously, or to what degree the administration in power has the right to assume that you should be a spokesman for the administration? … I've tried to be a straight scientist doing the science and reporting it as best I can.

Meanwhile, global warming is not only becoming taboo for scientists. TV weather reporters are increasingly urged to report only on the day's weather, with no mention of its relationship to overall climate change or human influence. According to a recent Salon feature, networks, driven by ratings, want weather programming devoid of social responsibility and often program lengthier climate reports on weekend evenings, a timeslot known to have the lowest ratings. "The last thing any station wants is an activist weatherman," says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington research group.

Ross Gelbspan reported something similar in Mother Jones last year, asking why discussion of climate change is absent from the media. The world is being inundated by extreme weather—mudslides, higher-than-average rainfall, tsunamis, hurricanes, and floods, yet the media never tries to look at the larger picture. For example, Gelbspan writes, "when one storm dumped five feet of water on southern Haiti in 48 hours last spring, no coverage mentioned that an early manifestation of a warming atmosphere is a significant rise in severe downpours."

Newsrooms deserve a portion of the blame for providing soft reports about the global climate, but the fault isn't solely the media's. The more pressing problem is the fact that scientists are unable to disclose their findings and research, preventing both the media—and consequently, the public—from fully understanding the ramifications of global warming.