Something else is burning in the state of Texas besides the wildfires caused by the historic drought in the Lone Star State. Scientists are combusting in revolt, saying Texas politicians are censoring their work on climate change. Not a few of them are pointing their fingers at Gov. Rick Perry, Republican candidate for president.
The trouble began last year when the Houston Advanced Research Centre began compiling data on, among other things, the amount of sea level rise in and around Galveston Bay. An oceanographer, Dr. John Anderson of Rice University, authored the section of the report that indicated that the sea level in Galveston Bay was rising five times faster than predicted. The cause of the rise, he concluded, was global warming.
The full report was submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, where the politicians went to work editing out references to climate change and sea level rise. As a result, all of the authors have withdrawn their names from the report.
Why edit the science?
I called Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, professor at Texas A&M and the Texas state climatologist. Nielsen-Gammon told me: “This is just speculation, but the chairman of the commission is Bryan Shaw. Shaw was appointed a few years ago by Governor Perry. The chairman is an outspoken critic of the science of global warming. So, it may essentially reflect the leadership or work environment of that organization.”
Shaw’s specialty is air quality as it relates to agriculture. He was picked for his assignment from the faculty of Texas A&M University, where his position stands in stark contrast to the rest of his science colleagues at the school. The science department’s website makes no bones about its position that global warming is real and that it is caused by humans.
Nielsen-Gammon, appointed by then-Gov. George W. Bush, is on record as saying that the drought and following wildfires besetting Texas this year have been enhanced by global warming. He says La Nina conditions and sea-surface temperatures are the root cause.
But, he adds, one degree of the five-degree increase over much of Texas can be laid at the feet of global warming. If he is right, that is 20 percent of the $5.2 billion loss to agriculture in Texas. That is only a fraction of the total. Government picked up much more of the loss, insurance companies and individual landowners have absorbed much more.
The state climatologist told me that he has not been muzzled. “I have never experienced any sort of censorship or pressure to edit a particular set of facts.”
He told me he is dismayed at this recent turn of events. “I hadn’t seen any attempts at suppression of summaries of scientific knowledge involving climate change by state agencies — until this,” he said. “I know some of the people involved, and I support them for standing up for scientific integrity.” You can read more of Dr. Nielsen-Gammon’s drought findings here.
Gov. Rick Perry has said in numerous appearances that he doesn’t buy global warming science. He says it is incomplete, and public policy should not be based on incomplete information. He has surrounded himself with appointees who agree with him.
These developments should make Texans uneasy because a sea-level rise would dramatically affect the state’s fortunes. Its coast is susceptible to flooding as it is, and a moderate sea-level rise could have disastrous effects, not to mention its vulnerability to heavy storm surges, and of course the “enhanced effects” of global warming on water resources, crops and livestock.
The report on the conditions of Galveston Bay may never be officially published, though you can read the original report, and the edited version, online here.
It is tempting to argue that Gov. Rick Perry’s appointees’ scientific misbehavior and his presidential candidacy are linked. An examination of the timeline suggests otherwise. The disagreement between the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the work of the Houston Advanced Research Center goes back more than 12 months, well before Perry announced his candidacy.
What fits is that Perry chose climate skeptics and denialists for sensitive positions in his Texas administration to better reflect his anti-science positions, whether on global warming or on evolution. There is no reason to doubt that he would continue the practice if elected president.
Editing out facts from scientific reports that don’t comport with one’s personal beliefs must be a perk of the Texas governor’s office. Another former governor of Texas, former President George W. Bush, ordered members of his White House administration to change facts and testimony of noted scientists when those facts didn’t suit his agenda.
How can politicians get away with altering scientific fact to suit their political beliefs? Unfortunately, because they can.
According to Nielsen-Gammon, it has to do with our own inability to grasp science. “Not everyone has to be a scientist,” he told me. “They all don’t need to know the radiative impact of carbon dioxide. It would be nice, though, if they knew what the National Academy of Sciences is.”
It is surprising that Dr. Nielsen-Gammon still has a job in Texas. He says he stays away from public policy and, therefore, politics. I had to ask, however, whether his study of the science puts him in the Perry camp or with the scientists whose research say global warming is happening and humans are causing it.
“The vast majority of scientists understand humans are causing the planet to warm,” he said. “I am in the vast majority.”