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Even on the surface, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency is a hot case. It asks whether the EPA is mandated to regulate greenhouse gases in order to reduce global warming. Twelve states, three cities, and a coalition of environmental organizations point to the Clean Air Act and say yes. The agency says no. But lurking beneath the surface of the Supreme Court dispute are more far-reaching and fundamental questions about government’s power to censor scientific knowledge. To decide the case, the Court will need only to clarify specific language in the Clean Air Act. What the decision may well avoid, but shouldn’t, is consideration of the government’s obligation to seek and speak the truth. In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned on a promise to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants. Under pressure from some members of Congress and industry groups, his new administration quickly changed course. In March 2001, the United States withdrew its support for the Kyoto Protocol, the international effort to combat global warming. At the time, a White House spokesman said Kyoto “is not in the United States’ economic best interest.” Since then, the primary justification for the administration’s reluctance to regulate greenhouse gases has shifted. Instead of focusing on regulatory costs, the government adopted the approach of the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups and embarked on efforts to alter the scientific debate. Unable to ignore all evidence of global warming, the administration insists that the science is still inconclusive and that more research is needed before regulatory action. But to manufacture this doubt in the face of a remarkable consensus in the scientific community about the probable causes and effects of global warming, the government has had to take a further dangerous step: It has muzzled its own scientists and censored their reports. TWISTING AND TURNING To an unprecedented degree, top Bush administration officials have inserted themselves into the scientific and regulatory process. Consider the following: In 2002, Philip Cooney, the chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, altered a report on climate change to inject scientific uncertainty where none existed. For example, he turned “Earth is undergoing a period of rapid change” into “Earth may be undergoing a period of rapid change.” He also inserted the following italicized language: “[T]he role for CCRI [the U.S. Climate Change Research Initiative] is to reduce the significant remaining uncertainties associated with human-induced climate change and facilitate full use of this scientific information in policy and decision making on response strategies.” Cooney, a lawyer with no scientific training, was formerly a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute. Shortly after his role in rewriting scientific reports was revealed in 2005, he left government to work for Exxon Mobil Corp. In 2003, the entire section on climate change was deleted from the EPA’s Report on the Environment after the White House insisted on changes in the text. EPA scientists objected to the revised version because, they said in an internal memo, it “no longer accurately represents scientific consensus on climate change.” Then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman ended up pulling the whole section to save the remainder of the report. She was quoted in the press as saying, “I didn’t want to lose this report over language on climate change.” These examples lend credibility to charges that the administration enforces an unwritten rule that all documents relating to climate change policy are reviewed by the White House. Even the most senior and distinguished scientists have been affected by the heavy hand of government censorship. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, was told that he needed prior permission before publicly expressing his scientific opinion on global warming. Hansen said he faced increased pressure from the NASA public affairs office after he delivered a speech advocating cuts in auto emissions to the American Geophysical Union in 2005. According to The New York Times, he was warned there would be “dire consequences” if he continued to make such comments. Hansen went public with his charges of censorship, and NASA was embarrassed enough to back off — at least where Hansen is concerned. Others, like Rick Piltz, who for 10 years coordinated and edited reports for the Climate Change Science Program, which itself coordinates government research, were not so lucky. In 2005, Piltz resigned and became a government whistle-blower. MORE BLIND SPOTS The administration’s resort to censorship of science is most pronounced with regard to global warming, but is not confined to that issue. This September, the EPA rejected the conclusions of its own staff scientists and the independent Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, even when 20 (out of 22) of the panel’s experts voted to tighten federal standards regulating fine particles of soot in the air. In rejecting those recommendations, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson stated that there is “insufficient evidence” that long-term exposure to soot causes health problems. Manufacturing doubt is an old trick — like using the gaps in evolutionary science to justify a belief in creationism. Citing “insufficient evidence” as a reason not to regulate fine particulates or greenhouse gases today is just another way of saying that human bodies will have to start piling up before the EPA concludes it has enough evidence to act. But the reductio ad absurdum in this saga is the bizarre case of Subhankar Banerjee and his photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These photos of polar bears, icebergs, and endless wilderness document a remote region rarely viewed by humans. They were scheduled to be exhibited in the main rotunda of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in 2003. But then, in an effort to dramatize the impact that drilling for oil and gas would have on that pristine region, a U.S. senator brought one of Banerjee’s photos into a congressional debate. Mysteriously, the photo exhibit was relocated to a remote gallery, and descriptive information and quotations were removed. A spokesman for the museum explained that the museum’s policy is to stay “out of politics.” �FUNDAMENTALLY DISTORTED’ The risks of censoring science and letting politics trump knowledge became fully apparent when the government’s sanitized version of climate change made its appearance in the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA. The government argues, among other things, that the EPA need not curb carbon dioxide emissions — a major component of heat-trapping gases — because CO2 is not a “pollutant” as defined by the Clean Air Act and because there is too much scientific uncertainty over whether the climate is changing and what is causing that change. According to the government’s brief, the science of global warming “is evolving and remains subject to substantial debate and uncertainties.” Not so, say the 18 climate scientists who filed an amicus brief. Indeed, they conclude that there is “remarkable” scientific consensus on global warming: “The evidence of these changes, though attended by the uncertainty or caveats that appropriately accompany scientific knowledge, is nonetheless so compelling that it has crystallized a remarkable consensus within the scientific community: climate warming is happening, and human activities are very likely a significant causal factor. . . . We are profoundly troubled by the misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the current state of knowledge of climate change evident” in the government’s position. In addition to Hansen, the head of the Goddard Institute, these amici include two Nobel Prize winners recognized for their “work on atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone,” and the former director of the Environmental Modeling Center at the National Weather Service. Several of these scientists also helped produce Climate Change Science, a 2001 report from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, which the government cites to back its claim of insufficient evidence of global warming. But their amicus brief charges that the EPA “fundamentally distorted the meaning of the report” and that the EPA’s “use of selective quotations and its unbalanced treatment of uncertainty allowed it to draw conclusions that are opposed to the actual scientific conclusions of Climate Change Science.” IT’S GOOD TO KNOW Suppression of scientific research and ideas is ironic in an administration that purports to revere the original intent of the Founders. The Founders extolled the power of education and scientific knowledge, and described the development of learning as a basic underpinning to democracy. Thomas Jefferson saw science as the paradigm of truth-seeking processes and described liberty as the “great parent of science.” Benjamin Franklin was well-known for his belief in scientific inquiry, rational decision making, and the need for an educated electorate. And in his 1796 farewell address, President George Washington enjoined the country to “Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.” These Founders surely would have expected their new experiment in democracy to encourage the free exchange of scientific information and opinion, not interfere with or manipulate it. Censorship of science is bad, and not just because it is intellectually dishonest and offends constitutional principles. It’s bad because suppressing or distorting science undermines informed self-governance and prevents the development of sound public policy, responsive to the kinds of problems that won’t go away, much as we try to ignore them. Censorship of science threatens to make us a nation of the ignorant, uninformed, and just plain stupid. Oh, and in the case of global warming, it also puts the future of the planet at risk.
Joan E. Bertin is executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, based in New York City. Jay Dyckman is director of the NCAC Knowledge Project, which focuses on censorship of science.

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