NASA Administrator Mike Griffin waded into the politics of global climate change when he told National Public Radio (NPR) in an interview
aired May 31 that he has no doubt “a trend of global warming exists” but he is “not sure it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with.”
Griffin also told NPR he thought it “rather arrogant” to assume “that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings.”
After acknowledging that recent findings have “pretty well nailed down the conclusion that much of [global warming] is man made,”
Griffin went on to say, “to assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth’s climate today is the optimal climate … and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn’t change.”
Not long after the interview ran on NPR stations across the United States, President George W. Bush called on 15 of the world’s major industrial nations to agree by the end of next year on emissions goals for limiting greenhouse gases, a major contributor to global warming.
The day before it aired, NPR promoted the Griffin interview with a press release that included a partial transcript of host Steve Inskeep’s conversation with Griffin. After receiving inquiries from reporters, NASA released a statement from Griffin that evening saying in part it is “NASA’s responsibility to collect, analyze and release information. It is not NASA’s mission to make policy regarding possible climate change mitigation strategies. As I stated in the NPR interview, we are proud of our role and I believe we do it well.”
Within hours of NPR airing the interview, U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee put out a press release
to make the point that NASA should be spending more money on Earth science. The agency currently spends approximately $1.2 billion a year on Earth science programs.
“Setting aside NASA Administrator Griffin’s personal views on the significance of global warming, I remain concerned that NASA is not doing as much as needs to be done on climate change data collection and research,” Gordon said in the statement. “Based on NASA’s own five-year budget plan, the agency will be unable to start any of the new Earth observations initiatives recommended by the National Academies for the foreseeable future. That’s not going to get us where we need to be in our understanding of climate change. NASA needs to do more.”
Griffin’s comments received wide coverage in the U.S. media and abroad. The Washington Post had two mentions of Griffin’s comments in the June 1 paper. The Associated Press and UPI also posted stories, which ensured wide pick up by the nation’s smaller papers. Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank’s snarky Washington Sketch column saw Griffin’s out-of-synch comments as “a meltdown in the Bush administration’s message machine.” Elsewhere in the paper, White House science advisor John Marburger was quoted saying of Griffin, “nobody should think that he was speaking for anyone but himself.”
Griffin’s comments drew criticism from within his own agency. James Hansen, NASA’s top climatologist and outspoken head of New York’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told NPR’s Day to Day program May 31 that he was floored by Griffin’s comments. “I almost fell off my chair,” Hansen said, adding that he found Griffin’s statements “remarkably uninformed.”
“Civilization developed with … the current climate,” Hansen said. “And we have got an infrastructure along coastlines that assumes that our climate is going to stay roughly what it is now. But if we are going to simply allow human emissions to greatly change climate, I think that is extremely arrogant of our species. It will be devastating to many other species on the planet, not to mention many of our own species.”