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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Run for your lives! The armadillos are coming!

The July 13 issue of the New York Review of Books features an essay by Jim Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, on The Threat to the Planet. The best way to describe the essay is scary, impressive and "gutsy".

The gutsiness label applies more to Hansen himself rather than the article. He is definitely crossing a line with the Bush Administration which has been attempting to apply its strategic control of information emerging from federal government offices to science agencies. Agencies such as Goddard have traditionally allowed its experts to operate with the relative freedom of their academic colleagues when it comes to presenting and publishing their research, but under the Bush Administration the clearances and filtering processes have been tightened to make certain that anything emerging from these agencies was consistent with Administration policy positions. In this case, Hansen circumvents those filters and clearances by declaring that the opinions expressed in this review are offered "as personal views under the protection of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution."

Those expressed views are impressive given their source and the fact that his is the latest of a growing chorus of equally impressive persons to sound the alarms over global warming. Despite the implication in its title that Goddard deals with "space" stuff -- as in interplanetary and astrogeophyiscal matters -- Hansen's Institute is more focused on things "global", as in climate patterns and change over time. Occupying the several floors above "Tom's Restaurant" (of Seinfeld fame) at the corner of West 112th and Broadway in New York, this little agency has considerable credibility within the scientific community and has become increasingly vocal about what recent research about global climate change is telling us (for example, click here).

The scary part is that the scenarios Hansen and his colleagues are presenting are becoming increasingly clear about current and immediate trends we are facing -- that global warming is not a speculation about things that might happen thousands of years from now, but is actually in evidence today. Hansen opens his essay with an observation by an individual who wrote him after seeing him on 60 Minutes and writes that each year there is a noticeable shift northward in the habitat of armadillos as they follow the average rise in global temperatures (which is manifest as well in the slow recession of the polar ice caps, etc -- you get the picture). As a self-proclaimed skeptic, I have typically taken "chicken little" scenarios in stride (although I have hardly been as dismissive as others...). But with armadillos moving north -- now that is an image to get me thinking more seriously about global warming....

Perhaps it is time for me to see Gore's movie....

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