It has been a good month so far for climate science, and a bad month for climate cynics. It has been an especially bad month for those on the Irrational Right who, for whatever reason, cannot stand the thought that Al Gore has emerged so gloriously from the grave in which they thought they had buried him forever.
“So now ‘Algore’ will join Yasir Arafat among the list of noble Nobel peace laureates,” Rush Limbaugh lamented. By awarding Gore the prize, Limbaugh said, the Nobel committee has “rendered themselves a pure, 100 percent joke.”
A week earlier, Hillary Clinton issued her “Agenda to Reclaim Scientific Innovation.” As president, Sen. Clinton says, she would ban political appointees from “unduly interfering with scientific conclusions and publications”, tell agency heads to resist political pressure that threatens scientific integrity, and protect whistleblowers who tattle on ideologues who mess with science.
Thus, the Bush Administration suffered two loud and public slaps in the face for its suppression of science at a time when the world needs it like never before.
Let the slaps continue. The Administration’s demotion of scientific inquiry has gone well beyond allowing a former oil industry lobbyist at the White House to censure reports on climate change. Its actions have been childish and petty.
In February 2006, officials removed the words “understand and protect our home planet” from NASA’s mission statement. More substantively, NASA’s earth sciences budget has dropped 30% while the funding has gone up for the President’s Mission to Mars program.
Then there is the story behind the Deep Space Climate Observatory. DSCOVR, as it now is known, is a satellite sitting in a warehouse in Maryland, gathering dust rather than climate data. Its original mission was to hold a position in space that would allow it to continuously photograph the sunlit side of the planet, providing scientists with their first direct measurements of the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth and how much is reflected. In addition, DSCOVR would monitor weather systems, vegetation and other indicators of climate change.
DSCOVR has one fatal flaw, however. It was conceived by Al Gore, not as an instrument to gather climate data, but to broadcast a constant image of Earth on the internet, which Gore hoped would raise public awareness about the planet and the climate. DSCOVR originally was scheduled to launch in 2001 but Congress, controlled by Republicans at the time, dubbed the satellite “Goresat” and ordered that it be put in storage at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Despite the fact that the U.S. Academy of Sciences judged that DSCOVR would make a “strong and vital” contribution to our understanding of climate change, NASA cancelled the program in January 2006, explaining that “the context of competing priorities and the state of the budget for the foreseeable future precludes continuation of the project.”
Yet the cost to launch DSCOVR was estimated at $100 million, only one-thousandth the cost of the International Space Station and the “competing priority” apparently is the Mars program. Why Mars should enjoy a higher priority than Earth in the president’s cosmology remains one of the great mysteries of the universe.
Climate scientists lament that with the erosion of NASA’s satellites budget, the institutions trying to better understand global warming are going blind. “The observations we have at this point just aren’t good enough,” said Robert Charlson of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The biggest single problem we have now is a lack of adequate satellite measurements, and the platforms that could be moving us toward answers are either pending or being killed.”
Goresat apparently is to the Irrational Right what Galileo’s telescope was to the Church in the 17th Century — a scientific instrument that threatens the old world view. If now were then, Limbaugh would be calling for an Inquisition to silence Gore-ileo’s heresy and to cast him into a dungeon from which he would never be heard again.
Instead, the world continues honoring Al Gore for his persistent pursuit of the facts about our impact on the environment, and the Administration’s war on science is a presidential campaign issue. One wonders whether Limbaugh realizes that in vilifying Al Gore, he has helped to make him the hero he is today, rather than simply a professor who has returned to the public arena to help us focus on our clear and present danger.
– Bill B.