SEJ2006: Speaking Out Against Censorship

In a culminating plenary session at the Society of Environmental Journalists confernce in Burlington, Vt., over the weekend, some of the big guns came out to talk about censorship – and especially the degree to which the Bush administration has used post-9/11 fear-mongering to staunch the flow of information.

There was an interesting general commentary on this, led by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and there was a frightening climate-change specific commentary from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies Climate Scientist and Director Jim Hansen.

Leahy, first, said bluntly that, “Every administration has reasons not to like (Freedom of Information). If you make a mistake it’s a lot nicer to hide it.”

But he added that in his 32-year Senate career, “I’ve been through six different administrations, and I have never seen any as secretive as this.”

Leahy said that even Members of Congress (and especially Democratic Members of Congress) are frustrated in their attempts get information on many government programs – a fact that has contributed to the Bush administration’s current problems.

On one hand “this is the only administration in history that has ‘never made a mistake’,” he said. On the other, things are not “fine.”

“They’re not fine in Iraq; they’re not fine in Guantanamo Bay; they’re not fine in energy policy and they’re not fine in the VA (Veteran’s Administration), all because of this secrecy. It does not make us greater (as a nation). It makes us a less free people.”

That said, Senator Leahy praised “a few brave people (who) have stood up.”

One of those is surely Hansen, who has spoken out repeatedly against administration attempts to silence him or censor what he says about climate change.

On the SEJ panel, Hansen agreed with Leahy about the extent of the Bushite’s secrecy, but he extended the comparative time frame, saying that “in 39 years at NASA, I’ve never seen anything like the degree to which the information flow from our scientists to the public is as inhibited as it is now.”

And while Hansen has been able to stand up regardless of administration efforts to curtail his speech, other scientists have lost their voice and the Institute has suffered what he called a retroactive “going out of business budget cut.”

As an example of the style of censorship, Hansen says that his fellow scientists have been forced to get permission from NASA Public Affairs before releasing news of any research. On occasion, the scientists have also had to endure a mock press conference as part of their preparation. On one such dry run, Hansen told of a colleague announcing new data on the decline in Arctic sea ice. The mock reporter asked what was the likely cause of the decline and the scientist answered: climate change. The “reporter” asked if there was anything that could be done and when the scientist said: Yes, we could reduce greenhouse gas emission. At which point, the Public Affairs minders jumped in and shut the process down, accusing the scientists of straying into a policy issue.

On the question of the budget cut, not long after Hansen went public this summer to complain about an effort by NASA Public Affairs to edit his public utterances, he learned that the Bush administration has instituted a 20-per-cent cut to the Earth Sciences Research and Analysis budget, retroactive to the beginning of 2006. The cut effectively shuts down all programming, because 80 per cent of the budget is consumed just maintaining infrastructure, he said.

In a heartfelt concluding statement, Hansen said: “There is a huge gap between what is understood about global warming and what is known. And by that, I mean there is a gap between what is understood by scientists and what is known by the public and by policymakers. The public is unaware of how close we are to a tipping point – to a (changed climate) regime that we have not known in millions of years. They are unaware of how much we know about the consequences if we do that.

“But they’re also unaware that the actions necessary to avert that situation have enormous collateral benefits – benefits in energy independence, in improved atmosphere, in reduced air pollution, and … in the competitiveness of our industries.”

The gap, he said, can be blamed on “special interests and the politicians supported by special interests” and on “their insistence on balance” in which media are always forced to listen to “both sides” of the climate change debate, usually with “a bumbling scientist” on one side and “an articulate lawyer” on the other.

Hansen is anything but a bumbling scientist. He has probably been one of the most effective climate change communicators in the United States since he first started bringing the issue to public attention in the 1980s. But it’s a scandal to see him still fighting a rearguard action against energy industry puppets like Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.

It seems likely that, come the rapture, there will be a special circle in hell reserved for the deniers. It’s just such a shame that they are being so effective in hastening the day.


Excellent summary Richard, I was at SEJ as well. It was shocking to hear major cuts to NASA’s study of the Earth. Add that to Andy Revkin’s piece in today’s NY Times that documents that US government spending on new energy research is less than half what it was 25 years ago. 
Of course Canada is doing little better. 
Hopefully very few journalists are giving the climate change deniers the time of day. I stopped checking with them years ago.
By the by I’m not related to Sen Leahy nor do I have anything to do with climate change denier Doug Leahey.  I am a journalist who has been writing about the issue for past eight or nine years.
Cheers its a great blog