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Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming by Mark Bowen is about the life's work of a scientist, James Hansen.  But had the Supreme Court's vote been 5-4 the other way in Bush vs. Gore in 2000, it would have been a very different book.  

That is, if it had it been written at all.  

Dr. Hansen might have warranted a biography, which would necessarily include a layperson's guide to his scientific findings. He and his colleagues at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) have made great contributions to scientific understanding, perhaps even more than their scientific peers recognize (p. 214).  However, while Hansen's major discoveries and advances are covered, they are not the primary subject, nor, clearly, the impetus for this book.  

George W. Bush did become president; his appointees were, by inclination or for political reasons, opposed to acknowledging the reality of global warming; and his administration did operate under a "unitary executive" theory of government (p. 160) in which everything was to be done for the President's political benefit.  The unrepentant young censor at NASA headquarters George Deutsch, who resigned in disgrace after it was revealed that he had failed to graduate from Texas A&M (pp. 81-82), claimed his job was "'to make the president look good'"(p. 17).

Censoring Science is therefore an intriguing, occasionally distracting, mix of genres.  It has elements of political thriller, detailing the various ways in which Bush appointees succeeded (and failed) in suppressing scientific research, and how the cannier of them maintained deniability.  It is a personality profile, overtly laudatory but humanizing, of an important scientific figure.  And it is an introduction to what Jim Hansen and his fellow climate scientists have learned from decades of careful study, and the particular findings that Bush appointees tried to suppress or distort.

Certain sections still sting despite the vintage of the betrayals they represent.  The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for example, held a press conference and released statements in 2005 claiming that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were part of a "'tropical multi-decadal signal,'"(p. 146), and certainly not influenced in any way by global warming.  

This unfounded claim caused an outcry from scientists within the agency, some of whom were at the time publishing papers showing that global warming did indeed contribute to the strength of hurricanes.  At a time when, as Bowen notes, the public were glued to their TVs, intensely interested in what the experts had to say, it was a teachable moment if ever there was one.  A trusted government agency used the opportunity to try to put the kibosh on any suggestion that the disaster unfolding on our screens might have been related to climate change.  

The scientific discoveries of climatologists represent a story in themselves.  You might, with present knowledge, startle at the contents of Hansen's presentation to Dick Cheney's climate change working group (!), in 2001, in which he suggested it might be sufficient in the near-term to reduce non-carbon dioxide causes of greenhouse warming, such as methane, ozone, and soot (pp. 98 ff).  The rapid progress of scientific understanding, thanks to new data and new analyses, meant that the presentation was rather quickly obsolete.  A mere five years later, Hansen's thinking was rather different:

[Hansen] realized that we might closer to a dangerous tipping point than he had thought... If this is the case, our choice is not between no change and a significant change, but between a significant change and disaster.  (p. 276)
And, of course, given that another four years have passed since this book's publication in 2008, science has moved on since.  And those years have borne out this assessment by Bowen:
If one looks at the history of global warming science, one will find that as the science has improved, both the certainty and the magnitude of the danger have nearly always increased.  (p. 288)
Among the things I had not realized prior to this book, despite previous readings, was that, in previous warming periods, greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere were not the first triggers.  For hundreds of thousands of years before we humans got in the game of burning fossil fuels, global temperature changes actually led greenhouse gas changes by "a few hundred years or so."  As Bowen explains, "[t]his is expected, since the changes were instigated by orbital oscillations.  These... caused initial, small changes in temperature, which then led to walloping feedbacks.  During a warming... the oceans, soils, and biosphere gave off greenhouse gases; and this boosted temperatures dramatically" (pp. 290-291).  

The graph on page 289 is particularly alarming in this regard.  It shows, in the last hundred plus years, greenhouse gas levels shooting far beyond levels seen in the last 420,000 years, and in the last thirty, global temperatures start to follow them up like a dawdling puppy finally being tugged along by an extended leash.

Because much of the narrative is focused on political intrigues, and because the science is four years old in a field where we learn more every month, Censoring Science might not be the first book I'd give to someone who wanted to learn about climate change.  (That would be Eaarth by Bill McKibben.)  But it is certainly a worthy member of the genre.

I would recommend Censoring Science particularly for those interested in: the political censorship of climate science under George W. Bush; by extension, what might be likely to occur to under other "unitary executive" and/or "business-friendly" administrations; the history of climate science; or debunking denialists' pet arguments.

© cai


Bowen, Mark.  Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming.  New York: Dutton, Penguin Group, 2008.

ISBN 978-0-525-95014-1

Originally posted to DK GreenRoots on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 07:35 AM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers, History for Kossacks, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, SciTech, and Community Spotlight.

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