Climate: the astronaut letter

This is an interesting anomaly:

Some prominent voices at NASA are fed up with the agency’s activist stance toward climate change.

The following letter asking the agency to move away from climate models and to limit its stance to what can be empirically proven, was sent by 49 former NASA scientists and astronauts.

The letter criticizes the Goddard Institute For Space Studies especially, where director Jim Hansen and climatologist Gavin Schmidt have been outspoken advocates for action.

“The unbridled advocacy of CO2 being the major cause of climate change is unbecoming of NASA’s history of making an objective assessment of all available scientific data prior to making decisions or public statements.”

“We believe the claims by NASA and GISS, that man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated.”

“We request that NASA refrain from including unproven and unsupported remarks in its future releases and websites on this subject.”

It’s true there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding abrupt and runaway climate change scenarios. That’s true almost by definition, since they represent major deviations from the functioning of the climate as we know it and we have no ability to conduct experiments on a planetary scale. It also seems fair to say that the possibility of abrupt and runaway climate change scenarios cannot be entirely excluded, if the world continues to emit vast amounts of greenhouse gas pollution.

While they are clearly objecting to some of the worst-case scenarios raised by James Hansen and others, I don’t think the people who signed this letter are likely to be of the view that climate change isn’t a problem at all. Unfortunately, it’s certain that this letter will circulate for years as a tool used by climate change delayers to argue that we should do nothing about the problem of accumulating CO2.

Other thoughts?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “Climate: the astronaut letter”

  1. I posted this item at 5:40 pm and 15 minutes later received an email from NASA GISS researcher Gavin Schmidt. I asked him if he’d like me to post his email as update and he sent me the version below:

    “Neither GISS, nor NASA in general, ever take ‘positions’ on scientific matters. This is well explained by the Chief Scientist, Waleed Abdalati,

    and is basically a restatement of the ex-Adminstrator’s comments many years ago:

    What the letter writers are advocating for is for the NASA bureaucracy to limit other scientists’ freedom of speech, and that is something that I am surprised that you would support.

  2. The full text of the letter:

    March 28, 2012

    The Honorable Charles Bolden, Jr.

    NASA Administrator

    NASA Headquarters

    Washington, D.C. 20546-0001

    Dear Charlie,

    We, the undersigned, respectfully request that NASA and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) refrain from including unproven remarks in public releases and websites. We believe the claims by NASA and GISS, that man-made carbon dioxide is having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated, especially when considering thousands of years of empirical data. With hundreds of well-known climate scientists and tens of thousands of other scientists publicly declaring their disbelief in the catastrophic forecasts, coming particularly from the GISS leadership, it is clear that the science is NOT settled.

    The unbridled advocacy of CO2 being the major cause of climate change is unbecoming of NASA’s history of making an objective assessment of all available scientific data prior to making decisions or public statements.

    As former NASA employees, we feel that NASA’s advocacy of an extreme position, prior to a thorough study of the possible overwhelming impact of natural climate drivers is inappropriate. We request that NASA refrain from including unproven and unsupported remarks in its future releases and websites on this subject. At risk is damage to the exemplary reputation of NASA, NASA’s current or former scientists and employees, and even the reputation of science itself.

    For additional information regarding the science behind our concern, we recommend that you contact Harrison Schmitt or Walter Cunningham, or others they can recommend to you.

    Thank you for considering this request.


    (Attached signatures)

    CC: Mr. John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for Science

    CC: Ass Mr. Chris Scolese, Director, Goddard Space Flight Center

    Ref: Letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, dated 3-26-12, regarding a request for NASA to refrain from making unsubstantiated claims that human produced CO2 is having a catastrophic impact on climate change.

    /s/ Jack Barneburg, Jack – JSC, Space Shuttle Structures, Engineering Directorate, 34 years

    /s/ Larry Bell – JSC, Mgr. Crew Systems Div., Engineering Directorate, 32 years

    /s/ Dr. Donald Bogard – JSC, Principal Investigator, Science Directorate, 41 years

    /s/ Jerry C. Bostick – JSC, Principal Investigator, Science Directorate, 23 years

    /s/ Dr. Phillip K. Chapman – JSC, Scientist – astronaut, 5 years

    /s/ Michael F. Collins, JSC, Chief, Flight Design and Dynamics Division, MOD, 41 years

    /s/ Dr. Kenneth Cox – JSC, Chief Flight Dynamics Div., Engr. Directorate, 40 years

    /s/ Walter Cunningham – JSC, Astronaut, Apollo 7, 8 years

    /s/ Dr. Donald M. Curry – JSC, Mgr. Shuttle Leading Edge, Thermal Protection Sys., Engr. Dir., 44 years

    /s/ Leroy Day – Hdq. Deputy Director, Space Shuttle Program, 19 years

    /s/ Dr. Henry P. Decell, Jr. – JSC, Chief, Theory & Analysis Office, 5 years

    /s/Charles F. Deiterich – JSC, Mgr., Flight Operations Integration, MOD, 30 years

    /s/ Dr. Harold Doiron – JSC, Chairman, Shuttle Pogo Prevention Panel, 16 years

    /s/ Charles Duke – JSC, Astronaut, Apollo 16, 10 years

    /s/ Anita Gale

    /s/ Grace Germany – JSC, Program Analyst, 35 years

    /s/ Ed Gibson – JSC, Astronaut Skylab 4, 14 years

    /s/ Richard Gordon – JSC, Astronaut, Gemini Xi, Apollo 12, 9 years

    /s/ Gerald C. Griffin – JSC, Apollo Flight Director, and Director of Johnson Space Center, 22 years

    /s/ Thomas M. Grubbs – JSC, Chief, Aircraft Maintenance and Engineering Branch, 31 years

    /s/ Thomas J. Harmon

    /s/ David W. Heath – JSC, Reentry Specialist, MOD, 30 years

    /s/ Miguel A. Hernandez, Jr. – JSC, Flight crew training and operations, 3 years

    /s/ James R. Roundtree – JSC Branch Chief, 26 years

    /s/ Enoch Jones – JSC, Mgr. SE&I, Shuttle Program Office, 26 years

    /s/ Dr. Joseph Kerwin – JSC, Astronaut, Skylab 2, Director of Space and Life Sciences, 22 years

    /s/ Jack Knight – JSC, Chief, Advanced Operations and Development Division, MOD, 40 years

    /s/ Dr. Christopher C. Kraft – JSC, Apollo Flight Director and Director of Johnson Space Center, 24 years

    /s/ Paul C. Kramer – JSC, Ass.t for Planning Aeroscience and Flight Mechanics Div., Egr. Dir., 34 years

    /s/ Alex (Skip) Larsen

    /s/ Dr. Lubert Leger – JSC, Ass’t. Chief Materials Division, Engr. Directorate, 30 years

    /s/ Dr. Humbolt C. Mandell – JSC, Mgr. Shuttle Program Control and Advance Programs, 40 years

    /s/ Donald K. McCutchen – JSC, Project Engineer – Space Shuttle and ISS Program Offices, 33 years

    /s/ Thomas L. (Tom) Moser – Hdq. Dep. Assoc. Admin. & Director, Space Station Program, 28 years

    /s/ Dr. George Mueller – Hdq., Assoc. Adm., Office of Space Flight, 6 years

    /s/ Tom Ohesorge

    /s/ James Peacock – JSC, Apollo and Shuttle Program Office, 21 years

    /s/ Richard McFarland – JSC, Mgr. Motion Simulators, 28 years

    /s/ Joseph E. Rogers – JSC, Chief, Structures and Dynamics Branch, Engr. Directorate,40 years

    /s/ Bernard J. Rosenbaum – JSC, Chief Engineer, Propulsion and Power Division, Engr. Dir., 48 years

    /s/ Dr. Harrison (Jack) Schmitt – JSC, Astronaut Apollo 17, 10 years

    /s/ Gerard C. Shows – JSC, Asst. Manager, Quality Assurance, 30 years

    /s/ Kenneth Suit – JSC, Ass’t Mgr., Systems Integration, Space Shuttle, 37 years

    /s/ Robert F. Thompson – JSC, Program Manager, Space Shuttle, 44 years/s/ Frank Van Renesselaer – Hdq., Mgr. Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters, 15 years

    /s/ Dr. James Visentine – JSC Materials Branch, Engineering Directorate, 30 years

    /s/ Manfred (Dutch) von Ehrenfried – JSC, Flight Controller; Mercury, Gemini & Apollo, MOD, 10 years

    /s/ George Weisskopf – JSC, Avionics Systems Division, Engineering Dir., 40 years

    /s/ Al Worden – JSC, Astronaut, Apollo 15, 9 years

    /s/ Thomas (Tom) Wysmuller – JSC, Meteorologist, 5 years

  3. This bit stands out:

    As former NASA employees, we feel that NASA’s advocacy of an extreme position, prior to a thorough study of the possible overwhelming impact of natural climate drivers is inappropriate.

    I respect the idea that we should have a high degree of confidence before speaking about something important. At the same time, the world moves quickly and we do not always have time to answer every question before we begin to take action. I think the evidence collected so far strongly suggests that climate change is dangerous, and does so to a sufficient degree to warrant strong preventative action.

  4. Can’t think why former test pilots and rocketry affectionados might be opposed to strong limits on greenhouse gas emissions


  5. Yesterday, the latest one popped up: a letter from a bunch of ex-NASA astronauts, engineers, and assorted employees that calls on NASA to stop saying carbon dioxide causes climate change. They call this — probably the most well-understood and firmly grounded fact in all of climate science — an “extreme position.”

    Yeah, whatever. Yawn.

    But then along comes David Freeman, Huffington Post’s science editor, who credulously repeats the charges and then, I kid you not, finishes with this:

    What do you think? Is NASA pushing “unsettled science” on global warming?

    Uh. David. I mean no insult to Huffington Post readers when I say that they are probably not the best arbiters of this question. Instead, you might consult, oh, any science academy from any country in the world. Or the 2010 survey from the National Academy of Science that found that 98 percent of working climate scientists affirm anthropogenic climate change. Or the Climate Change Task Force. Or, I dunno, the entire published corpus of atmospheric science.

    As you are a journalist, I feel confident that you could ferret out this information with, say, a Google search. Typically this is what journalists do: find out what’s happening and tell readers. They do not typically ask readers what the facts are, though I admit I may not understand “new media” in all its facets.

    I don’t want to ruin the ending of what I’m sure will be an exciting journey of intellectual discovery for you, but [SPOILER ALERT]: Yes, carbon dioxide does cause global warming. My readers told me so.

  6. Attacks on climate science by former NASA staff shouldn’t be taken seriously

    A letter from former administrators, astronauts, and engineers at NASA expressing climate change scepticism does not deserve parity with the agency’s peer-reviewed climate scientists

    Dana Nuccitelli for Skeptical Science, part of the Guardian Environment Network, Thursday 12 April 2012 11.21 BST

    Almost exactly two years ago, John Cook wrote about the 5 characteristics of science denialism. The second point on the list involved fake experts.

    “These are individuals purporting to be experts but whose views are inconsistent with established knowledge. Fake experts have been used extensively by the tobacco industry who developed a strategy to recruit scientists who would counteract the growing evidence on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke.”

    We have seen many examples of climate denialists producing long lists of fake experts, for example the Oregon Petition and the Wall Street Journal 16. Now we have yet another of these lists of fake experts. 49 former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) employees (led by Harrison Schmitt, who was also one of the Wall Street Journal 16) have registered their objection to mainstream climate science through the most popular medium of expressing climate contrarianism – a letter. As is usually the case in these climate contrarian letters, this one has no scientific content, and is written by individuals with not an ounce of climate science expertise, but who nevertheless have the audacity to tell climate scientists what they should think about climate science.

    It’s worth noting that when the signatories Meet The Denominator, as is also always the case, their numbers are revealed as quite unimpressive. For example, over 18,000 people currently work for NASA. Without even considering the pool of retired NASA employees (all signatories of this list are former NASA employees), just as with the Oregon Petition, the list accounts for a fraction of a percent of the available pool of people.

  7. “49 former NASA scientists and astronauts”

    How many such people are there in total? And what does 49 make as a fraction of that?

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