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Monday January 09, 2006

[It’s probably dumb to try and put a humorous spin on the abortion issue and the Alito hearings, but here goes anyway.] -- Eugene Linden

Pro-Life group says fire NASA chief

By Lamatty Hurstwhistle
Sentinel and Post Staff Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – At a hastily organized press conference, Dr. James Dobson, founder and president of the American Family Network, called for the firing of NASA administrator Digby Johnson because of the agency’s “consistent pattern of insinuating an anti-life agenda into its space missions.” Dobson said that his call was prompted when the space agency aborted the take off of the Space Shuttle Enterprise after the discovery of a leak in the vessel’s external fuel tank. “We watched for years while NASA deviously promoted a pro-abortion agenda,” said Dobson, “and it’s time we had an administrator who didn’t try to pollute outer space with his political views.” Dobson went on to say that thanks to NASA’s action, “we will never know what that mission might have accomplished.” When initially reached for comment, Johnson heatedly denied that the cancellation of last week’s mission had anything to do with a pro-abortion agenda. “We’re simply trying to protect the lives of astronauts and any suggestion otherwise is sheer lunacy.” Later, however, after consultations with White House officials, Johnson softened his remarks. “Every launch is precious,” said the somber former astronaut, and he vowed to pursue a full investigation into the circumstances that led to the cancellation of last week’s take off. The Republican leadership was quick to take up the issue. Breaking away from exercise hour to take a reporter’s questions at Eglin Federal Prison Camp in Florida, Rep. Tom Delay thundered into the receiver on his side of the glass partition in the visitor’s room: “Abortion in any form is an abomination!” Democratic response was muted at first, possibly because the leadership’s pollsters were attending a conference in Las Vegas. Senator Ted Kennedy’s office put out a statement which read in part, “It’s my firm belief that the captain of a space shuttle should have the right to make the choice to terminate a mission if he believes that a full-term countdown might threaten the safety of the crew.” “Typical,” sneered a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity, “If Democrats had been in charge of expeditions in Queen Isabella’s day, Columbus would have turned back before he passed the Azores.” As the day wore on, speculation grew as to who might replace Johnson as NASA administrator should his public show of contrition fail to appease the White House. Among the names most frequently mentioned have been Phyllis Schlafly and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. “They have gold-plated, pro-life credentials,” gushed one Hill staffer, “and both have strong opinions on scientific matters.” Many observers viewed the new campaign as evidence of a new emboldened pro-life movement on the heels of the confirmation of Samuel Alito Jr. to the United States Supreme Court. Some bloggers, however, took a more cynical view. In a posting in the prominent liberal blog Talking Points Memo, Joshua Marshall suggested that Dobson might have chosen to push the issue to distract the media from newly surfaced emails in which the Christian right leader volunteered to be the mohel at a lavish bris organized by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Although still in its infancy, the campaign is already having reverberations beyond NASA. The Air Transport Association, the principal airline industry lobbying group, issued a statement promising a review on its policy on take offs and landings. A spokesman for the group noted, “Right now, everything’s up for grabs, but I promise that we’re going to look at this from the standpoint of whether it is justifiable to abort any take-offs at all.”

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Short Take



An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.


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