Global warming and politicizing science

The NAS's reputation in research and the dissemination of information about global warming and climate change precedes its accolades for its museum exhibits about climate change. In 1991, the NAS released a report, Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming, calling for a decrease in the dependence on fossil fuel, the advancement of nuclear and solar energy technologies, and the promotion of energy conservation, all aimed at a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The NAS asserted that the United States could reduce emissions by up to 40 percent cost-effectively and that a potential ecological disaster because of global warming was reason enough to implement changes immediately.

The NAS's report was met with general approval by environmental groups, most of which supported the recommendation for increased funding to develop renewable technologies, but opposed the NAS's call for the development of nuclear power. Although the White House maintained that the administration's National Energy Strategy was consistent with the recommendations by the NAS, then-Senator Albert Gore, Jr., a Democrat from Tennessee and future U.S. Vice President and author of An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It (2006), charged that many of the administration's policies actually conflicted with the recommendations of the NAS. Gore also predicted that history would judge President George H.W. Bush harshly if global warming continued.

In 1998, the NAS distanced itself from a confusing mass mailing that urged scientists to apply pressure to sway public policy and opinion against the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to assign mandatory carbon dioxide emissions limitations. The mailing, which appeared in a format similar to that of a NAS journal reprint, challenged the prevailing climate change research and included a cover letter from former NAS President Frederick Seitz urging scientists to lobby against the Kyoto treaty to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The NAS did not take a position on the Kyoto treaty, although it had long-since recommended a prompt response to global warming, but opposed only the mailing, which generated more than 15,000 signatures because of its misleading design.

Although the NAS conducts research at the request of the government and advises policymakers on technical matters, the academy itself is not a political body. Nonetheless, the alleged distortions of the academy's research by members of presidential administrations to meet political agendas have been the subject of debate, during the William J. Clinton White House and increasingly during the George W. Bush administration. The head of the NAS stated in an interview, however, that he does not think that a deliberate scheme of misrepresentation exists, but that the extent of the problem in the George W. Bush White House is greater and that scientists agreed with policies of the Clinton administration more than those of the Bush administration, under which their independence may be more constrained.

The NAS found itself in the center of discussions about global warming in 2001, following a report commissioned by President George W. Bush, who had rejected the Kyoto Protocol and had hoped the report's findings would alleviate the pressure to find another option to the Kyoto treaty and limits on carbon emissions. The report, however, reached the conclusion that human activity had most likely brought about the increase in global temperature in the 20th century. Accounts issued by a Democratic Congressman in 2003 and 2004 claimed that the Bush administration had, in fact, misused scientific findings to support its own policy agenda. More than 5,000 scientists, including over 100 members of the NAS, signed a letter accompanying the reports that concurred with criticism of the White House.

Among the claims of impropriety were those by an associate director from 1998 to 2003 within a part of the National Institutes of Health, who charged that the Clinton administration was quick to approve suggested appointees to his scientific advisory committees, but the Bush administration rejected over 70 percent of his appointees, in some cases taking months to do so, and apparently in opposition to scientific independence. The Union of Concerned Scientists claimed that the EPA eliminated a chapter about global warming from a 2003 report about the nation's environment after the Bush administration's revisions might have led readers to believe that doubts persisted about global warming when, in fact, none did. Republicans maintained that reports and claims critical of the White House were simply politically-motivated. Democratic staff issued a memorandum that documents obtained from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) indicated that additional changes were made in a fiscal year 2003 report to Congress from the administration on the status of the U.S. Climate Change Program. In 2007, the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, however, defended alterations to scientific climate change findings as an acceptable practice to synchronize reports of the executive branch with policies of the administration.

The NAS issued a report by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to the U.S. Climate Change Program in early 2007 that identified for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 11 critical components of global change assessments. This is the process through which experts reach agreement about issues related to the environment, including the loss of biodiversity and climate change. Among the essential elements identified were strategic framing of the assessment process, sufficient funding to support an effective assessment process, strong leadership, and the commitment and involvement of stakeholders with clear, unambiguous interactions and exchanges among policymakers and scientists. The NAS, in spite of the charged political environment that surrounds it, continues to support research and programs to effectively inform policymakers.

SEE ALSO: Bush (George H.W.) Administration; Bush (George W.) Administration; Climate; Clinton Administration; Nuclear Power; Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. Jeffrey Brainard, "National Academy Elects Fewer Women," Chronicle of Higher Education (v.53/36, 2007); Darren Goode, "Dems Say Bush Aide Downplayed Global Warming Threat," Congress Daily (March 19, 2007); Constance Holden, "NAS Separates Itself from Kyoto Petition," Science (v.280/5363, 1998); National Academies, (cited September 2007); James Randerson, "Should Governments Play Politics with Science?" New Scientist (v.184/2468, 2004); C. Schubert, "Global Warming Debate Gets Hotter," Science News (v.159/24, 2001); Tim Walker, "NAS: Act Now to Reduce Global Warming," Science News (v.139/18, 1991).

Robin K. Dillow Rotary International Archives

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