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God and man at NASA: A change in climate

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A rebellion at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is
highlighting a shift in the debate over climate change, a shift which
leaves the Bush administration looking like religious obscurantists and
indigenous prophets looking like the best scientists.

This debate has been running for at least a generation, and it might be the
most important issue of the generation; but the latest round came to light
at the end of January with charges that NASA officials had tried to silence
their most prominent expert on climate change. The charges came directly
from the target, James E. Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space
Studies in New York City. Hansen has been sounding the alarm for nearly two
decades about sharp rises in the global surface temperature attributable to
man's activity. Some credit him with coining the phrase "global warming."

Futile official attempts to tone down Hansen occur at least annually, but
he told The New York Times that the latest spate of warnings was the worst
he had seen in nearly 30 years. He and his superiors were particularly
angry that the threats "of dire consequences" came in phone calls rather
than memos, which would leave a paper trail. All the campaign did, however,
was to put him on the front page of the Times and give national publicity
to his latest paper, stating that calendar year 2005 posted the highest
global surface temperature in more than a century of measurements.

Hansen is a hard man to shut up, not only because he clearly has courage
and a mission but also because so much of the political and scientific
world is paying him attention. About the same time certain NASA public
relations functionaries were trying to pressure Hansen, British Prime
Minister Tony Blair lent his name to an official United Kingdom government
report warning that the climate impact could be even more serious than
previously thought. Blair wrote the forward to the report "Avoiding
Dangerous Climate Change," published Jan. 30. The book compiles evidence
from a meteorological office conference last February.

"It is clear from the work presented that the risks of climate change may
well be greater than we thought," Blair wrote. "It is now plain that the
emission of greenhouse gases, associated with industrialization and
economic growth from a world population that has increased sixfold in 200
years, is causing global warming at a rate that is unsustainable." With a
voice like Blair's behind him, Hansen is no cinch to hush up.

This pattern of dire warnings and political disparagement has been
predictable, but this time something unusual happened. After Hansen's
interview hit the paper, Times reporter Andrew Revkin began to receive a
flood of complaints from other NASA employees charging political
interference with scientific information. The most startling charges
centered on a 24-year-old presidential appointee named George Deutsch, the
point man in the attempt to muzzle Hansen. Deutsch, it seems, had also
ordered a NASA Web designer to add the word "theory" after every mention of
the "big bang," the cosmological explosion at the origin of the universe.

In an e-mail leaked to the Times, Deutsch said the big bang is "not proven
fact; it is opinion." He went on, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be
to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that
discounts intelligent design by a creator." Deutsch, a recent journalism
graduate from Texas A&M University, appears to be a foolish young man whose
theology is a shaky as his science. The big bang, now repeatedly confirmed
by astronomy, was first posited by a Jesuit cosmologist, George-Henri
Lemaitre, later director of the Pontifical Academy of Science. Initial
resistance came from anti-religious scientists who suspected that it fit
too neatly into church doctrine. Deutsch's venture into these depths has
earned him the role of scapegoat; he resigned Feb. 8 after news of his
resume inflation surfaced.

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NASA's new administrator, Michael D. Griffin, responded to the Times
articles with an agency-wide e-mail slapping down the public affairs
office.

We hope that Griffin's message does the job of restoring "scientific
openness" to an agency that has earned great good will throughout Indian
country. Natives remember with appreciation the outreach that NASA, and its
public affairs officers, extended during the space mission of astronaut
John Herrington, a Chickasaw tribal member. But this political intrusion
highlights an ironic feature of the global warming debate that tribal
elders will relish.

Indigenous people have warned all along that European-style
industrialization is devastating the natural balance. The dominant culture
has scoffed at these "New Age" prophesies, but they turn out to have been
based on solid "scientific" experience. Natives of Alaska and the far north
have been seeing this warming firsthand, in their empirical observations.
(The Goddard report said that the "remarkable Arctic warmth" was the main
factor pushing 2005 to the top of the chart.)

Instead, it's the skeptics of global warming who have been blinded by
religious preconceptions. Their endorsement of the "conquest of nature"
derives from the first chapter of Genesis, as filtered through the apostle
of economics, John Locke. According to Genesis, God created the Earth, and
its plants and animals, for the sake of mankind. But, added Locke, "he gave
it to the use of the Industrious and Rational." This rationale lies at the
heart of the European settlement of America and also of modern
industrialism. It mandates constant exploitation of natural resources to
provide mankind with creature comforts, but turns a blind eye to the
condition of nature itself. The use of the Earth quickly turns into its
abuse.

(To be fair, we should say that a large number of churchmen repudiate this
outlook. Evangelical Christian leaders recently launched an "Evangelical
Climate Initiative" to reduce the causes of global warming.)

The indigenous outlook, on the other hand, here and across the globe,
emphasizes co-existence with nature, not conquest. The other created beings
have equal rights with man, and we all have a duty to seek a sustainable
balance. Locke's heirs might deride this view as primitive and
unproductive, but in the long run it is looking pretty wise, indeed.

Global warming is the ultimate vindication of the Native outlook. Rapid
changes in climate and erratic weather patterns are threatening the
creature comforts humankind has accumulated. The only way to avoid calamity
is to seek a life in balance with nature.

Scientific evidence to support the Native view is now accumulating so
rapidly that no amount of political interference can hush it up.