by Mark Bowen,
Dutton, 336 pages, $25.95
Reviewed by Craig Pittman
On June 23, 1988, a scientist named Jim Hansen spent five minutes talking to a Senate committee. Hansen said he was 99 percent sure the Earth was getting warmer because of the greenhouse effect, and he predicted that 1988 would turn out to be one of the warmest years on record.
Althoughhe spoke inanIowa-bredmonotone, Hansen's testimony electrified the committee hearing.When he tried to leave,Hansen was surrounded by reporters.
"It's time to stop waffling so much and say that the greenhouse effect is here and is affecting our climate now," he told them.
Hansen's testimony — and his prediction — proved to be dead on. But its impact resulted from some artful stagecraft, according to Censoring Science, Mark Bowen's new book on Hansen and global warming.
Hansen had testified to Congress before, but always during colder months. At his suggestion, this time the committee called him on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year. Then, the night before Hansen's testimony, the committee staff left the windows of the hearing room open. The next day, while he talked about rising temperatures, the air-conditioning system struggled to cool the sweating senators.
Bowen's book, written with Hansen's cooperation, comes across as a similar bit of pump-priming. There's a legitimate message in it about the urgency of global warming. But Bowen (Thin Ice) nearly buries the message with overheated stories about the Bush Administration trying to squelch Hansen.
Have government officials attempted to censor Hansen, who has run the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, an arm of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since 1981? Sure. In 1986 and 1988, officials from Ronald Reagan's Office of Management and Budget edited testimony Hansen was about to give Congress about the greenhouse effect. When it happened a third time in 1989, Hansen testified that his words had been altered, producing what Bowen calls "the most spectacular headlines of his career."
However, this story takes up less than a full chapter of Censoring Science. Instead, Bowen focuses most of his book on a brief period in 2005, when Hansen gave a speech that ran counter to the official White House policy of questioning whether global warming existed.
Afterward NASA's public relations bosses said they wanted to know Hansen's every move, they wanted to have a say in what reporters he talked to, and they wanted to review any scientific articles he wrote before they were published.
When Goddard scientists posted some new global temperature readings on the NASA Web site, the information was taken down — but then put back up. National Public Radio asked to interview Hansen, but the NASA public relations staff turned the request down.
When Hansen got wind of what was going on, he gave interviews to The New York Times and 60 Minutes exposing the scheme — and that was that. NPR finally got to talk to him. Meanwhile, his most rabid would-be censor was exposed for padding his resume and quit.
Other government scientists who offended political sensibilities during the Bush Administration have faced suspension and even firing. But Hansen was not fired. His boss didn't even yell at him. And his scientific papers continued to be published.
In fact, he became a bigger celebrity than ever, appearing at the Live Earth concert right after the Smashing Pumpkins. So Bowen's attempts to stoke outrage about Hansen's treatment by the PR staff at NASA staff feel overblown.
Compounding the problem is the fact that Bowen has a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He reels off scientific terms with aplomb, but he sometimes neglects to explain those terms for readers not familiar with, say, Rossby waves.
Bowen is less well-versed in the worlds of politics and the press, often displaying a surprising naivet. about how they work (or don't). He produces a lot of innuendo but no proof that Hansen was targeted by anyone in the White House. Instead he is able to show only that Hansen ran afoul of some bumbling image-builders who were less effective than Reagan's budget office.
Bowen also fumbles by repeatedly attempting to tie the effects of global warming to the disaster that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on New Orleans. That catastrophe resulted from faulty levees, rampant wetland destruction and poor evacuation planning — not the emissions of coal-fired power plants.
There's a good story hiding in this book, a story about a Midwestern paper boy who became the Paul Revere of global warming and the powerful people who didn't heed his warnings. It's too bad that, instead, Bowen felt the need to overcook the facts on this minor episode in Hansen's career.
Craig Pittman has covered environmental issues for Florida's largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, since 1998.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 issue