John Marburger, Climate Alarmist?

Poor Jack Marburger.

He’s played science adviser to an anti-science president for a long, long time. First, in 2001, Marburger was appointed very late to his post with a reduced and less than cabinet-level rank—a status considerably lower than that of his science advising predecessors from the Clinton administration. This led even Marburger’s presumptive allies in the scientific community to single him out as an ominous example of how the new administration seemed inclined to approach science. So before he even started his job Marburger was on the defensive.

That can’t have felt good.

And before long, Marburger found himself having to explain the president’s troubling stances on global warming, intelligent design creationism, and other science-related issues. Marburger would dutifully trot out in the president’s or administration’s defense—and promptly get slammed for it. His credibility took a serious hit as a result.

That can’t have been fun.

And yet amazingly, Marburger has now remained in the administration for the bulk of two presidential terms, a very long time for anyone in his position. Most previous science advisers have left after one term. Marburger’s political longevity can only be called striking, especially in light of what he has gone through.

And now…well, now we might be seeing Marburger finally begin to speak out.

Contrary to the somewhat hyped coverage, there’s nothing unprecedented about Marburger simply restating the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, as he did recently in a BBC interview. Unlike other top officials in the administration (e.g., James Connaughton), physicist Marburger has been consistently forthright over the years about the state of scientific understanding. When Marburger has strayed in the past it has not been in his depiction of the science, but rather, in his tortured attempts to claim the administration in general has been as honest about the science as he himself has been.

But now, even as other members of the administration start acknowledging what Marburger acknowledged all along–will even Dick Cheney be next?–Marburger is going farther. The really important quotation from his recent BBC interview is not his boilerplate acknowledgement of the scientific consensus, but rather this:

The CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere and there’s no end point, it just gets hotter and hotter, and so at some point it becomes unlivable.

First, is that even true? Does it really just get hotter and hotter until we end up like, say, Venus? I’m skeptical. So is Real Climate. But leave that aside for a second. What’s significant about this statement is the word choice: unlivable. It’s disturbing. It’s scary. It’s the kind of thing that, well, the skeptics would call you an “alarmist” for saying.

These words put Marburger way out in front of the administration, and not just because they admit the existence of an undeniable consensus. What’s unexpected about Marburger’s latest statement is that it emphasizes, as our current U.S. leadership has repeatedly avoided doing, that global warming has real, dire consequences. Earth may not turn into Venus, and we are not all going to die. But for a hell of a lot of people, things could get very, very hard.

That's not something we hear often from anyone in the White House. Throughout the administration, there has been a concerted effort to keep any discussion of global warming up in the atmosphere, rather than down here where we all live. As Rick Piltz has detailed at length, the administration deep-sixed an ongoing scientific study, inherited from the Clinton administration and popularly known as the National Assessment, that was designed to examine in depth how global warming will effect the United States. Marburger, unfortunately, has played a cardinal role in that tale of suppression and neglect of public duty.

Marburger's office, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, helps oversee the administration's interagency Climate Change Science Program–the program that ought to have been studying climate risks to the U.S. public over the course of the administration, but that was recently rebuked by a federal judge (PDF) for failing to substantially do so.

In this context, just saying the word “unlivable” hardly gets Marburger off the hook for other failings. He still hasn't lived up to what we expect and deserve. Still, Marburger's words represent yet another sign that this administration may finally be starting to change its tune on global warming.

Unfortunately, it's probably too late now for them to truly redeem themselves. And if that's true of Marburger, it's even more true of the guy he supposedly advises.


Marburger may have intended the term “unlivable” to be something like “Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum” unlivable, as opposed “Venus” unlivable. A PETM compressed into a couple of centuries could well turn out to be a reasonable scientific approximation to “unlivable” as far as human civilization (as we know it) is concerned….

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