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Profile: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was a participant or observer in the following events:

An unnamed NOAA scientist attempts to generate media attention for a recently published paper that used a comparison of climate models and empirical data to approximate the influence of human activities on ocean temperatures. However the media advisory is repeatedly downgraded by NOAA officials until it is eventually canceled. In an interview with the Government Accountability Project, the scientist later says that publishing such news became increasingly difficult after the Bush administration took office. (Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 31 pdf file)

NOAA scientists’ communications with Congress are vetted by the NOAA’s “policy shop,” housed in the Office of Undersecretary, before being passed on to lawmakers. Many of the communications, especially those that concern sensitive topics like global warming, are edited so they do not contradict the Bush administration’s favored policy positions. According to an unnamed NOAA source interviewed by the Government Accountability Project, “Realizing that it is pointless,” NOAA’s Office of Legislative Affairs “has stopped asking certain scientists what to write in certain circumstances as it is certain to get completely rewritten anyway.” (Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 36 pdf file)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) routes all media inquiries about an article in the journal Science (see December 7, 2003) that was authored by two top government scientists to appointee James R. Mahoney, instead of allowing the media to communicate with the scientists directly. The article in question concludes that “there is no doubt that the composition of the atmosphere is changing because of human activities, and today greenhouse gases are the largest human influence on global climate.” In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Mahoney, who is serving as both assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA deputy administrator, attempts to discredit the finding of the article. Mahoney tells the newspaper, “That’s their assertion. They are extremely competent, and there are many in the climate community who would agree with them. That’s not surprising, but there are many others who would disagree with them. My own view is somewhat more open-minded, and from my perspective we don’t really understand these things as well as we might.” (Perlman 12/4/2003)

An anonymous NOAA public affairs officer interviewed by the Government Accountability Project will later recall being told by his boss to silence a scientist. “You make him be quiet,” the scientist says he was told, “Get that guy to stop speaking to the public… It’s your job… I cannot believe you cannot control that person.” He also says that his superiors told him that any communications on sensitive issues should not be in writing. Rather, “I was usually summoned to XXX’s office, usually with XXX [both top officials] there and the door closed.” (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 89 pdf file)

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who are working with Australian researchers on a report about coral bleaching run into resistance from NOAA officials. A early version of the report contains several reference to global warming. One passage notes, “Mass bleaching… affects reefs at regional to global scales, and has incontrovertibly linked to increases in sea temperature associated with global change.” The references are dropped from a July 2005 draft of the report. In April 2006, the Washington Post reports that James R. Mahoney, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, has delayed the report on grounds that “its scientific basis was so inadequate.” But he insists, “It was not just about climate change—there were a lot of things.” (Eilperin 4/6/2006) The report is finally published in October 2006. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 10/11/2006)

The movie Day After Tomorrow increases media interest in the global warming debate, and a number of reporters contact NOAA scientists with questions on the issue. In the film, the US mainland is abruptly frozen over when the Gulf Stream shuts down because of melting arctic ice. An unnamed NOAA public affairs officer interviewed by the Government Accountability Project will later recall, “We had scientists at that time who were speaking to the press of their views from a scientific standpoint and my boss told me, ‘You are not to substantiate this; make it look like the scientists are out there on a limb, the agency is not backing them up.’” (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 89 pdf file)

A budget document from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)‘s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research reveals that the Bush administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2005 would reduce climate change research budget by $9.2 million, eliminating the federal government’s $2 million abrupt climate change research program and cutting its paleoclimatology laboratory in half. It would also terminate $1.3 million in funding for postdoctoral programs and end research programs on the health and human aspects of climate change. (ESA Policy News Update 6/14/2004; Natural Resource Defense Council 12/31/2005)

The NOAA issues the second edition of its “Procedures Manual for Congressional Communications.” According to the 18-page policy document, while the agency’s Office of Legislative Affairs is responsible for coordinating congressional communications, it is the Department of Commerce and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB ) that have final vetting authority. The OMB’s stated mission is to ensure “that agency reports, rules, testimony, and proposed legislation are consistent with the president’s budget and with administration policies.” (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 41 pdf file)

Department of Commerce press officer Catherine Trinh rejects a request for a media interview with a climate scientist. (The identity of this scientist has not been revealed.) “Let’s pass on this one,” she says in an e-mail to an official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The official asks in response, “Can I please have a reason?” In another e-mail, Trinh again rejects a request for an interview. “Let’s pass on this… interview, but rather refer him to [redacted] of the [redacted] at [redacted],” she writes. “CEQ [White House Council of Environmental Quality] suggested him as a good person to talk on this subject.” The e-mails, obtained by Salon in 2006, reveal that requests for media interviews about climate change are being screened by officials at the Commerce Department (NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce). When asked by Salon if Commerce reviews all requests for media interviews with scientists, Richard Mills, the department’s director of public affairs, states, “I wouldn’t characterize it like that.” (Thacker 9/19/2006)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issues its 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season outlook, predicting that there will be 12 to 15 tropical storms, with seven to nine becoming hurricanes, and three to five of those becoming major hurricanes. Retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., the NOAA Director, says, “Forecaster confidence that this will be an active hurricane season is very high.” (NOAA Magazine 5/16/2005)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) receives several requests for expert comments on a recent paper by climate scientist Kerry Emanuel (see August 1, 2005) suggesting that rising sea temperatures are resulting in stronger hurricanes. According to documents later obtained by the Government Accountability Project, the NOAA’s public affairs office redirects all requests for questions about Emanuel’s study, as well as all requests for interviews with federal climate scientist Knutson, to Chris Landsea, a scientist who does not believe there is a link between hurricane intensity and global warming (see July 27, 2005). (Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 30 pdf file) By August 1, Landsea will have participated in four such “routine, but sensitive” interviews. (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 12 pdf file)

David Hofmann, a lab director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), asks scientists who will be attending the Seventh International Carbon Dioxide Conference in Boulder not to use the term “climate change” in conference papers’ titles and abstracts. According to Pieter Tans, one of the participants, he and the other scientists ignore the request. (Eilperin 4/6/2006)

NOAA officials push to alter the language of a paper NOAA research scientist Pieter Tans will be presenting at the Seventh International Carbon Dioxide Conference in Boulder, Colorado. In his draft abstract, Tans explains how his research suggests that carbon dioxide plays the role of a “forcing agent” in climate change. “CO2 is now generally recognized to be the main driver of climate change,” the draft reads. But people in the public affairs office, or their superiors, edit the abstract down. They also attempt to purge Tans’ presentation of the term “climate change” (see also Late September 2005). (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 68-69 pdf file)

Talking points distributed by the NOAA public affairs office to the Climate Program Office and the State Department include a statement asserting, “NOAA supports the view that there is no verifiable link between observed climate change and the intensity and frequency of the most recent Atlantic hurricane season.” An unnamed source later interviewed by the Government Accountability Project, says, with regard to the talking points, “I remember that this was about the time NOAA HQ stopped asking for input from our scientists on the topic and the answers seemed to be coming from mysterious sources.” (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 43 pdf file)

The NOAA implements a new policy requiring that “information and materials” and “meetings or phone calls with congressional representatives or staff and presentations where congressional staff have been invited or can reasonably be expected to attend must be cleared through OAR [Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research] headquarters and sent up through the NOAA Office of Legislative Affairs.” (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 45 pdf file)

Thomas Knutson, a research meteorologist with the agency’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, NJ, recieves an interview request from CNBC television for its program “On the Money.” Knutson forwards the request to NOAA public affairs officer Kent Laborde for approval, as is required by NOAA’s media policy (see September 29, 2005). Laborde then directs the request to Chuck Fuqua, deputy director of communications at the Department of Commerce, who asks: “What is Knutson’s position on global warming vs. decadal cycles? Is he consistent with [Gerry] Bell and [Chris] Landsea?” (Bell and Chris have views that are more in line with the Bush administration’s position on global warming) Laborde then calls Knutson and asks him about his views on the future trend of Atlantic hurricane activity. Laborde then writes to Fuqua, saying that “he is consistent, but a bit of a different animal. He isn’t on the meteorological side. He’s purely a numerical modeler. He takes existing data from observation and projects forward. His take is that even with worse [sic] case projections of green house gas concentrations, there will be a very small increase in hurricane intensity that won’t be realized until almost 100 years from now.” Two minutes later Fuqua responds, “Why can’t we have one of the other guys on then?” Knutson is then informed that the interview request has been declined. (Regalado and Carlton 2/16/2006; Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 30 pdf file)

The November issue of NOAA Magazine (a publication of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reports, “There is consensus among NOAA hurricane researchers and forecasters that recent increases in hurricane activity are primarily the result of natural fluctuations in the tropical climate system known as the tropical multi-decadal signal.” (NOAA Magazine 11/29/2005) In December, Kerry Emanuel, a climate researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who believes that hurricanes are becoming more severe because of rising temperatures, tells a roomful of University of Rhode Island scientists that the NOAA report had censored the views of government scientists who believe there is a link between hurricane intensity and climate change. (Regalado and Carlton 2/16/2006; Lord 3/26/2006) In February, the Wall Street Journal will similarly report that despite what NOAA contended, several of the agency’s scientists “believed man-made warming was a key cause.” The day before the Journal’s report is published, the NOAA will issue a correction stating that the consensus “represents the views of some NOAA hurricane researchers and forecasters, but does not necessarily represent the views of all NOAA scientists.” (NOAA Magazine 11/29/2005; Regalado and Carlton 2/16/2006)

Flowchart showing NOAA’s review process for press releasesFlowchart showing NOAA’s review process for press releases [Source: Government Accountability Project] (click image to enlarge)A February 2006 NOAA document features a flowchart outlining the review process that news releases must go through before they are published. According to the flowchart, the press release is submitted and reviewed by several layers of bureaucracy within the NOAA and the Department of Commerce. As a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists will note, “a successful press release must pass review by several entities that primarily serve political and public relations functions, and scientists do not have a right of final review to ensure scientific accuracy of the final product.” (Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 32 pdf file) In April 2006, Ronald Stouffer, a senior NOAA research meteorologist, will say he “stopped trying to get press releases out” because of the difficulty of explaining the science to the agency’s public affairs officers and because of the complexity of the approval process. (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 28 pdf file)

James E. Hansen, speaking before an audience at the New School university in New York, says that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wants to implement a new rule requiring that minders be present for any media interviews with its scientists. “It seems more like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union than the United States,” he says. Hansen caused a stir in late January when he accused Bush administration officials of suppressing information on global warming and placing restrictions on his communications with the media (see After December 6, 2005). The officials were upset about a speech he had given on December 6, in which he said that commitments to short term profits were taking precedence over curbing greenhouse gases. He repeats this statement in his remarks during the panel discussion at New School. (Hansen 2/10/2006 pdf file; Eilperin 2/11/2006) In his presentation, Hansen also says that the administration is misleading the public about the potential links between global warming and hurricane intensity. He makes the charge that the “public, by fiat, received biased information” when “the NOAA took an official position that global warming was not the cause of hurricane intensification” (see November 29, 2005- December 2005). (Hansen 2/10/2006 pdf file)

The Washington office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—the agency charged with protecting endangered salmon—sends word to its employees on the West Coast that all questions from the media concerning salmon need to be redirected to Washington headquarters. From this point on, only three people in the entire agency—all of whom are political appointees—are permitted to speak on the issue. (Harden 5/31/2006) The day before, the Washington Post had quoted federal scientists in the NOAA and Department of Interior saying that hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River should either be removed or be rebuilt in a way that allows salmon to migrate upstream. (Harden 4/2/2006)

Screenshot of draft documentScreenshot of draft document [Source: Government Accountability Project] (click image to enlarge)In response to a number of questions for the record (QFRs) submitted by senators Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) regarding an April 26, 2006 testimony on projected and past effects of climate change, scientists at NOAA submit a document of draft responses to an NOAA legislative affairs specialist for review. The document is ultimately reviewed by individuals at the EPA, Energy Department, White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who suggest a number of changes. For example, the OMB suggests keeping the sentence, “The full range and magnitude of the biological and biogeochemical effects of ocean acidification are still so uncertain that a reliable and quantitative estimate of the likely socio-economic effects is not yet possible,” but removing the sentence immediately following that: “However, healthy coral reef ecosystems are important to both the fisheries and tourism industries and negative impacts on these ecosystems could affect these industries.” According to the OMB, “[a]s written this seems to conflict with the factual first sentence of the paragraph, which adequately answers the question.” In another instance, the OMB recommends adding a sentence that attributes global warming to increasing water vapor, drawing from a quote taken out of context from an article written by scientists Thomas Karl and Kevin Trenberth. When NOAA scientist James Butler attempts to explain that the edit is not scientifically valid, the OMB insists on keeping the change. Finally, Karl himself enters the fray, recommending a change that the OMB accepts. The Government Accountability Project, which will obtain the draft document that shows the changes, comments, “These two examples show that, while federal climate scientists are occasionally able to correct distortions to scientific findings in congressional communication, political appointees can still introduce inaccurate information that goes unchecked.” (Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 37, 80 pdf file; Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 44-46 pdf file)

A panel consisting of seven climate scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have completed a consensus report on the views of agency scientists concluding that global warming may have an impact on the intensity of hurricanes. The report is due to be released this month. But in an email sent to the panel’s chair, Ants Leetmaa, a Department of Commerce official says the report will not be released and needs to be modified so it is less technical. When this is reported in the journal Nature in September, the NOAA will deny that the report was blocked, insisting that the publication in question was just a two-page fact sheet about the issue. The agency says there were two reasons it wasn’t released: one, it wasn’t completed before the beginning of the annual hurricane season, and two, the agency cannot take an official position on a field of science that is changing so quickly. However Leetmaa notes that the draft did not take an official position of any kind; rather it just referred to the “current state of the science” (Schmid 9/27/2006; Giles 9/28/2006)

The NOAA issues a press release on a study co-authored by Jason Dunion, a hurricane researcher with the agency’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. The study finds that dust storms suppress hurricane activity. The authors say that periods of intense hurricane activity seem to have taken place when there were fewer dust storms, suggesting the possibility that dust storm scarcity, not global warming, may have caused the recent surge in hurricane activity. The lead author of the study was Amato Evan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 10/13/2006; Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 31 pdf file) Earlier in the year, the NOAA rejected a press release linking global warming to greenhouse gases because, according to the public affairs office, the “lead author’s organization/agency usually takes the lead in issuing releases.” (see April 10, 2006).

An anonymous public affairs officer tells the Government Accountability Project that political appointees in the NOAA have been instructing career employees in the agency’s public affairs office to closely monitor what scientists communicate to the media on the topic of global warming. Their jobs depend on it, he says. He says he must inform his superiors of any interview requests from major news outlets, provide them with minute details about the interview, and specify whether the interviewee is considered to be a “loose cannon” or someone who will “go along with the company line.” If it’s suspected that the scientist will say something that undermines the credibility of the administration, his bosses ask him to redirect the reporter to a different scientist more willing to toe the line. He might tell the reporter, “Oh, such and such is not going to be available, but I’ve got such and so.” In at least one instance, according to the anonymous public affairs officer, an appointee actually instructs him to silence a certain scientist (see (2004)). The public affairs officer also says that his bosses have been closely involved in the vetting of press releases. They require that he personally provide them with hardcopies of draft releases on “sensitive” issues, such as those mentioning “global warming,” “warming,” “melting,” and “glaciers.” He says he was instructed not to email any drafts to them. When the superiors disapprove of a certain press release, they tell him to inform the researchers that the release has been rejected because it is not news worthy, that there were already too many press releases on the issue, or “some other excuse.” In some cases, where rejecting a press release would be too conspicuous, political appointees have sought to undermine the press release by having another press officer repeatedly mark up the document with requests for changes and corrections in an effort to delay the release until it is too outdated to publish. (Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 89-90 pdf file)

When reporter Kitta MacPherson contacts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a story she is writing about the NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Plainsboro, New Jersey, she is told that she will be granted “unprecedented access” to the lab’s scientists. She interviews nine scientists for 30 minutes each. However a request to interview Richard Wetherald, a scientist who has complained about censorship (see September 26, 2002), is rejected, and her interview with scientist Ants Leetmaa is only permitted on the condition that a press official is present. (MacPherson 12/6/2006)

Bill Sammon, the Washington managing editor for Fox News, sends an internal email instructing his journalists and producers to slant their coverage of climate change stories in favor of questioning the validity of climate change claims. Sammon’s order is given during a series of global climate change talks, and less than 15 minutes after Fox News correspondent Wendell Goler told viewers that the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) had announced that 2000-2009 was “on track to be the warmest [decade] on record.” Sammon’s email says in part: “Given the controversy over the veracity of climate change data… we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.” The email also comes amidst a steady promotion by the network of the so-called “Climategate” scandal, which hinges on misrepresentations of emails sent between climate scientists and supposedly casts critical doubts on the science behind the claims of climate change and global warming. Ultimately, all independent inquiries will clear the accused scientists of misconduct and manipulation, though these reports will receive less attention from Fox. And, though Sammon portrays his directive as an attempt to be fair and balanced, the “debate” is largely in the media, and fueled by conservative politics and by corporations and investors that would be impacted by regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. No national or international scientific body disputes that global warming is caused by human activities, and it is the consensus view of the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists that greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of the rise in the Earth’s average temperature since the 19th century. Goler had noted during his broadcast that in spite of “Climategate” claims, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) prove that the climate is indeed heating up due to a man-made increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Despite the facts, minutes after Goler’s report, Sammon sends his email to the staffs of Fox News’s “straight” news shows and others, ordering them to report that claims of human-caused climate change are controversial. That evening, news anchor Bret Baier introduces another report by Goler by saying in part that as “Climategate-fueled skeptics continued to impugn global warming science, researchers today issued new and even more dire warnings about the possible effects of a warmer planet.” After Goler’s evening report, Baier tells viewers that “skeptics say the recordkeeping began about the time a cold period was ending in the mid 1800s and what looks like an increase may just be part of a longer cycle,” and runs a clip by American Enterprise Institute scholar Kenneth Green impugning the credibility of climate change science. And a few minutes later, correspondent James Rosen falsely claims that climate scientists “destroyed more than 150 years worth of raw climate data” in order to promote the theory of climate change. (Dimiero 12/15/2010)
Sammon Previously Manipulated Fox News Reporting - Less than two months ago, Sammon ordered journalists and producers to use the term “government option” instead of “public option” to describe a specific health care proposal by Senate Democrats, as his preferred term had been shown to be less favorable to that proposal (see October 27, 2009 and After).

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