Monday, March 12, 2007

More scientists muzzled by the administration? Part II: The Non-satisfying Explanation

Last week I mentioned (my wife would say "ranted") the apparently politically-motivated muzzling of scientists working for the Fish & Wildlife service with regards climate change and polar bears.

In a follow-up piece in the NYT the situation becomes clearer, limiting the scope of the orders to two scientists at international meetings (one a diplomatic meeting, one not), but the official explanation for the gag-order does not clear the administration from the charge of unwarranted political interference.

The official explanation is that its really about being good diplomats, following protocol and staying on the meeting agenda:

The stipulations that the employees “will not be speaking on or responding to” questions about climate change, polar bears and sea ice are “consistent with staying with our commitment to the other countries to talk about only what’s on the agenda,” said the director of the agency, H. Dale Hall. [From the NYT article]

The meeting referred to here is "a delegation to Norway led by Julia Gourley of the State Department at a meeting on conserving Arctic animals and plants."

Are we really supposed to believe that conserving Arctic animals (e.g. polar bears, perhaps?) and plants can be done without discussing climate change?

The second case is of "...Craig Perham, an expert on polar bears, was invited by the World Wildlife Fund to help advise villagers along the Siberian coast on avoiding encounters with the bears, said Margaret Williams, director of the Bering Sea program of the fund."

This does not sound like a diplomatic meeting, and although not a true scientific meeting, it is certainly a venue where free speech should apply, and where the "diplomatic protocol" argument clearly should not be applicable (even if it had any validity, which I'm rather skeptical about).

Clearly the issue is that the administration, and the F&WL service itself, do not want its employees to discuss climate change and the associated environmental impact in any way that could be construed as a institutional endorsement of the validity of climate change or highlighting its severe consequences.

In a purely diplomatic setting the general concept is understandable - wrong-headed in this case - but understandable from the perspective that diplomats are generally expected to serve as the mouth piece of administration policy and not go off on a tangent of personal opinion (however well informed or correct they might be).

But this explanation does not work. Supposedly Bush and the administration now accept the validity of climate change [indeed, they're even trying to revise history so as to claim Bush has always agreed that GCC is both real and human-made], so why try to avoid the subject (especially when it the only valid basis under which to try to understand and solve the environmental changes in the arctic)? Why try to apply it to non-diplomatic meetings with known wildlife-lobbying groups?

If the "just normal protocol" argument we are being presented isn't true, then the alternative, that this really is classic Republican War On Science behaviour, remains the best explanation.

J. Marquis points out some important contextual information that I hadn't appreciated before:

Polar bears are a hot topic for the Bush administration, which decided in December to consider whether to list the white-furred behemoths as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, because of scientific reports that the bears' icy habitat is melting due to global warming... ...A "threatened" listing would bar the government from taking any action that jeopardizes the animal's existence, and might spur debate about tougher measures to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming.

In other words this is not purely about not contradicting the administration's message, it actually has the potential to force real action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and thus to reduce the profits of the powerful companies that fund and control the Republican party. The claimed White House acceptance of the validity ongoing climate change appears not to be little more than a smoke screen, an attempt to reduce pressure on them when ultimately they have no intention of doing anything to curb emissions.

In other news...

The harmful effects of global warming on daily life are already showing up, and within a couple of decades hundreds of millions of people will not have enough water, top scientists are likely to say next month at a meeting in Belgium.

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