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NASA Chief Draws Incredulity With Global Warming Remarks

By Katherine Noyes
Jun 1, 2007 2:07 PM PT

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin stirred up a maelstrom Thursday when he said he's not convinced global warming is a problem humans should try to solve.

NASA Chief Draws Incredulity With Global Warming Remarks

On the very same day that President Bush announced his widely disparaged proposal for tackling global warming -- a plan many have called a delay tactic to avoid undertaking any real action before the end of his term -- Griffin told National Public Radio Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that it would be "arrogant" for humans to believe that the climate of today is optimal or worth preserving.

"I have no doubt that a trend of global warming exists," Griffin began. "I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with.

"To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had, and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change," Griffin said.

Beyond Human Power

"I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown," he added.

"And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings, where and when, are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now, is the best climate for all other human beings," Griffin said. "I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take."

The NASA chief's comments drew widespread shock and disbelief, not the least of which came from James Hansen, a climate scientist who is director of NASA's own Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "I almost fell off my chair. ... "It's remarkably uninformed," he told NPR's Morning Edition.

'Really Shocking'

"I was stunned by it," Daniel Lashof, science director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told TechNewsWorld. "All the world's leading climate scientists disagree.

"NASA is doing some of the best science on global warming in the world. ... It's really shocking," Lashof added.

"It's pretty amazing that he made such comments considering that a temperature rise of a few degrees is the difference between an ice age and the present climate," Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientist Richard Healy told TechNewsWorld.

The Change Process

Even more important, though, is that it's not just a matter of increased temperature that would cause the environmental problems, Healy added. Rather, it's the state of flux in a changing climate, which could "cause droughts, raise sea levels, wipe out crops and kill millions of people," he explained. "He's basically saying it's OK to let these things go."

The comments were shocking, agreed Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Human beings have already altered Earth's climate, so Griffin's comments about deciding what's optimal are "completely out of place," she added.

Griffin's thinking also ignores the risk of irreversible impacts from global warming, Ekwurzel told TechNewsWorld, such as widespread extinctions, intense heat waves and threats to human health.

The Consensus View

Griffin's comments on humans' inability to affect climate change also fly in the face of the views expressed last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), added Tony Kreindler, a spokesperson for Environmental Defense.

"To my ears, it's a rejection of the scientific consensus reflected in the most recent IPPC report, which said we do indeed have the technologies we need to reduce emissions and avoid the worst consequences of climate change," he told TechNewsWorld.

Regarding NASA's responsibility for battling climate change, Griffin told NPR that "nowhere in NASA's authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to effect climate change one way or another."

Others disagreed. When NASA sees changes in the mass of Greenland ice sheets, for example, "they have a responsibility to issue warnings about the consequences," Ekwurzel said, even if it's not formally part of the agency's mission.

Here on Earth

Overall, changes made at NASA since Bush took office reflect a disquieting trend, Ekwurzel added.

"My bigger concern is that NASA has cut back on some of its climate monitoring, and that all the statements dealing with the Earth have been removed from its mission statement," she said.

"I would hope NASA, as it looks to exploring other worlds, would not forget the power it can bring to the science of observing our own planet," Ekwurzel concluded. "NASA brings so much to the study of climate science -- to see that cut would be a cause for great concern."


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