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Sentido :: Destinations
20 April 2006

The global environment is, of course, a global issue, one that touches every life on the planet, and the science about it should be open and available to all. Past government policy and existing federal law mean that such scientific evidence should be readily available to the public. What's more, since much of the climate science conducted has been done outside of government, the field could really not be subjected to government gag orders in the past.

But now, it appears that several agencies are laboring to silence scientists who are researching climate trends and alterations, especially where they have knowledge about the degree to which human activities are playing a role in the rapid and historically inexplicable heating of the planet's surface and atmosphere.

The case in point is that of Dr. James Hansen, head of climatology research for NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He essentially became a whistleblower when he broke an institutional silence and came forward to explain to the press the severe risks facing the world if action is not taken to tackle climate change now.

He became a whistleblower for two reasons: one, the institution he works for was participating in a campaign to withhold and to distort evidence related to climate science, so his revelations are designed to correct the disinformation; two, he could face retaliatory hostile treatment by superiors just for revealing something no one has a legal right to hide, which means he may need special whistleblower protection, designed to give legal shelter to those who in good conscience reveal government abuses.

NASA's reaction, in the words of one report, was to place him under "administrative house arrest". It has also been reported by TomPaine.com that "Political appointees boasted they would 'make the president look good' by imposing blanket prior restraint, denying interview requests, announcing that agency-selected replacements would substitute for him, and threatening 'dire consequences' if he disobeyed".

He did. Hansen appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes program and other national media. Scientists, academics and journalists formed a wave of support for Hansen and his right to speak openly and freely about public science, and NASA declared its intention to reform its media policy, saying it recognized the rights of individual employees to employ their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

But, as Tom Devine and Tarek Maassarani report, there is a lot of fine print to work out in the NASA reforms, and the result is, it may leave scientists and civil servants even more vulnerable to intimidation and to retaliation for speaking freely. The new media policy still places government scientists under harsh restrictions and still seems aimed to give superiors control over what the media hear and discuss, as related to agency work. This standard seems not only to work against the First Amendment, but its lean toward censorship also violates a number of other federal laws.

Devine and Maassarani specify:

"The policy bans anonymous disclosures, controls the timing of information’s release and institutionalizes prior restraint censorship through 'review and clearance by appropriate officials' for 'all NASA employees' involved in 'preparing and issuing' public information. This means that scientists can be censored and will need advance permission from the 'appropriate' official before anything can be released."

Nevermind the government's current problems with anonymous leaks and the many ironies of who is for and who against them and why. There is no discernible reason for NASA to control the information it seeks to control if it is committed "to a culture of scientific and technical openness" as its new media policy claims.

NASA is clearly aiming to control what the press knows and how it is discussed outside the agency. Scientists around the country have been vocal in their criticism of such practices, which have been on the rise in recent years, and this new policy gives specific voice and official endorsement to specific acts of censorship which do not fit within existing American law.

But most troubling is the fact that the new policy, despite such provisions violating federal law, could subject NASA employees to termination or even prosecution for disclosing information not classified but which any superior might consider "sensitive" (a non-legal, non-objective determination).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has applied this determination and this rule to disclosure of "politically-awkward climate change research", a clear indication that the policy is designed to censor those whose findings run afoul of the executive's official political posture.

The present leadership at NOAA has used this thinly veiled gag order to claim, apparently without fear of criticism, that the consensus in the scientific community accepts no link between climate change and Hurricane Katrina-type scenarios. Yet one of NOAA's leading researchers said this claim was a "bald-faced lie".

Another scientist was questioned by superiors about what answers he would give during an interview, and was blocked from speaking to the press after he revealed he would mention that scientific research shows an apparent trend linking intensified storm activity and climate change.

The EPA, charged literally as the agency for 'environmental protection', has a policy that scientists may not disclose any research without authorization and are forbidden from "initiating contact" with reporters, to "prevent EPA management from being surprised by news coverage". This level of control of information clearly runs contrary to the agency's mission to ensure that a clear and objective picture of the environmental impact of human activities be known and that relevant actions be taken to curb any detrimental practices.

It seems more than clear that at present, there is a policy in place, whereby political appointees have taken the reins of information management at science-based federal agencies, with the specific intent of preventing sound scientific evidence of climate change from becoming known.

The issue also comes into focus, when one considers federal laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act (specifically designed to protect individuals who seek to disclose information inappropriately kept from the public or from investigators), the Anti-Gag Statute, and not least of all, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, all of which indicate these censorship and information management policies are —or contain provisions which are— illegal. [s]

27 February 2006

Research and new images show glaciers famed as "snows of Kilimanjaro" receding at alarming rate, far faster than projections had suggested. Researchers at Ohio State University, who warned five years ago that the famed snowcap on Mount Kilimanjaro might melt or even disappear now say the melt is occurring, but at a rate much faster than expected. [Full Story]

1 August 2005

As the world begins to focus on the nearly 3 million facing hunger in Niger and the catastrophic refugee crisis in Darfur, in western Sudan, an estimated 31.1 million people across the continent face food shortages.

Arable land, foodstocks and agriculture in general are suffering dangerous setbacks, making it increasingly difficult to feed African populations, some of which are growing rapidly. [Full Story]

14 June 2005

As land and water become scarce and as competition for these vital resources intensifies, we can expect mounting social tensions within societies, particularly between those who are poor and dispossessed and those who are wealthy, as well as among ethnic and religious groups. Population growth brings with it a steady shrinkage of life-supporting resources per person. [Full Story]

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