Congress Orders Action on DSCOVR

In a stunning break from years of inaction, the US Congress has tabled legislation ordering NASA to finally deal with the critically important Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008 was submitted last week to the House of Representatives. Section 207 of this Act is plainly entitled: “Plan For Disposition Of Deep Space Climate Observatory.

You can bet certain NASA bigwigs are not happy about this remarkable development.

So far the nation's space agency brass has consistently refused to release any internal documents on why they canceled such vital mission, even after spending over $100 million of taxpayer’s money building it. They may have misled the media about the costs of launching the mission. They also apparently refused to respond to another US government agency that wants to take over the mission, at minimal cost to NASA.

If this Act becomes law, NASA is finally going to have to start coughing up some answers. First NASA must break their years of silence on this mothballed mission and come up with a plan that will:

“Include such options as using the parts of the spacecraft in the development and assembly of other science missions, transferring the spacecraft to another agency, reconfiguring the spacecraft for another Earth science mission, establishing a public-private partnership for the mission, and entering into an international cooperative partnership to use the spacecraft for its primary or other purposes. The plan shall include an estimate of budgetary resources and schedules required to implement each of the options.”

Next, NASA will be forced to consult with the myriad of other US agencies and foreign governments that have volunteered to launch this mission themselves or in partnership with a clearly disinterested NASA leadership.

Specifically, NASA must: “Consult, as necessary, with other Federal agencies, industry, academic institutions, and international space agencies in developing the plan.”

Lastly, NASA must report to both the congress and senate within 180 days of the passage of the Act, what their mandated plans are for DSCOVR.

This is a major development in this strange story. For the uninitiated, DSCOVR is already built at a cost of over $100 million to NASA yet has remained mothballed for years, due ostensibly to “competing priorities.”

Dozens of leading scientists were outraged by this decision and wrote letters expressing their support for this critically important mission.

DSCOVR is designed to view the planet from the unique vantage point of one million miles distant, and many of these scientists believe it would immediately settle any remaining honest debate on the origins or seriousness of global warming.

My muck-raking investigation earlier this year showed that this mission could be launched and operated at a cost to NASA of only $55 million – less than 0.3% of NASA’s annual budget.

Last week, I showed that the Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), had a number of “predecisional draft documents that include OSTP’s deliberative comments” relating to the DSCOVR mission.

The Whitehouse refused to release these documents in spite of my Freedom of Information request. Why the Bush administration was involved in consultations about the mission is anyone’s guess, but it does raise some interesting questions...

Was DSCOVR ash-canned by George Bush ?

Partisan beltway politics?

Office politics within the space agency?

We may never know the real reasons why such a vitally important scientific mission like DSCOVR was plagued by so much politics, but I certainly have my suspicions.

In the meantime, this very welcome action from Congress may mean that DSCOVR will finally break free of it’s Earthly bonds and be launched one million miles towards the sun.

Then we will finally be able to accurately measure the energy budget of our warming planet – widely regarded as the most pressing problem facing humanity today. Who could possibly object to that?

This piece was published on DeSmog blog on May 21, 2008.


Whitehouse Withholds DSCOVR Documents

The Bush Whitehouse continues to stonewall around the critically important Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

I recently received a long-overdue response to a freedom of information request about the mission. After waiting six months, thirteen documents were located – and all were withheld from release.

So why did the Whitehouse even have "predecisional draft documents that include...deliberative comments" about the DSCOVR mission? Does this indicate the Bush administration had a direct hand in killing this project?

NASA strangely mothballed this unique spacecraft after spending over $100 million building it. It remains fully completed and in a box at the Goddard Space Center in Maryland. Senior scientists believe this spacecraft could almost immediately resolve any remaining honest debate about the seriousness or causes of climate change.

An investigation by DeSmog Blog earlier this year showed that this mission could be launched and operated at a cost to NASA of only $55 million – less than 0.3% of NASA’s annual budget.

I have been digging for answers on this strange case since 2006. Last October I filed freedom of information request to the Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Executive Office of the President. This seems to be the only office at the Whitehouse that is still subject to Freedom of information legislation.

As usual, nothing happened for months and I emailed them several times to find out what was going on. Government bodies have a duty to respond to requests within 20 working days. By now it was close to 120.

At this point I had not even received an acknowledgement letter. It finally arrived last month. And guess what? They withheld all the documents touching on or relating to the DSCOVR mission.

Specifically, Whitehouse Deputy General Counsel Rachael Leonard stated that their office had “found 13 responsive documents, however, eight of these documents are being withheld pursuant to FOIA exemptions (b)(5) and (b)(2). Specifically, these documents are predecisional draft documents that include OSTP’s deliberative comments, and as such are exempt from disclosure under FOIA exemption (b)(5).”

The other five documents were withheld by the OSTP because they “have been referred to other agencies for their review”.

In other words after six months of delay, the Whitehouse has refused to release any documents relating to DSCOVR.

All of which begs the question, why does the Whitehouse even have any documents relating to the DSCOVR mission? Especially,“predecisional draft documents that include OSTP’s deliberative comments”? What possible comments or input could the Whitehouse have on a specific NASA project like DCSOVR?

Lets have a closer look at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. It is headed by Dr. John Marburger, who has in the past seemed an apologist for the Bush Administration, in response to charges from the scientific community that the Whitehouse manipulates climate science to downplay the dangers of climate change.

Many in the science community are critical of Marbuger for his seeming complicity in scientific censorship.

A report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists stated that "the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented."

A second report in 2007 surveyed 1600 climate scientists in the US and found that “nearly half of all respondents (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words "climate change," "global warming," or other similar terms from a variety of communications.

Marburger himself seems to be taking his marching orders from George Bush to realign NASA’s space programs to focus on missions that will benefit America’s economy rather than the advancement of science, such as climate change.

In a keynote address he gave at NASA headquarters in 2006, he stated:

“As I see it, questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not. Our national policy, declared by President Bush and endorsed by Congress last December in the NASA authorization act, affirms that, ‘The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.’ So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.”

The DSCOVR mission hardly fits that bill. It is primarily designed to accurately measure the energy budget of our warming planet - for the first time ever.

In contrast, the Bush administration seems much more interested in having NASA mine the moon - and actively suppressing rather than advancing climate science.

One thing is certain – this administration is not shy about imposing its will on the scientific community.

Would the thirteen documents withheld by the Whitehouse prove that the Bush administration killed the DSCOVR mission? We may never know, but I will keep digging.

This was published on Desmog blog on May 13, 2008.


Cyclones and Climate Change - The Deadly Legacy of Oil

In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in Burma , the world’s attention is rightly focused on the unfolding human tragedy.

This storm is already one of the deadliest cyclones of all time, with up to 100,000 people loosing their lives, and another 1.5 million left destitute and homeless.

The incompetence and corruption of the Burmese military regime is exacerbating an already gruesome situation. The impact of the storm was also made worse by the fact that much of the coastline had been denuded of trees, making areas more vulnerable to the deadly storm surge.

But what about the storm itself? Sadly, it seems we can expect many more tragedies like this in the future as human induced climate change proceeds apace.

Nargis was the first named storm of the 2008 North Indian Ocean cyclone season , forming on April 27 in the central Bay of Bengal. Nargis rapidly intensified to attain peak winds of at least 165 km/h (105 mph) on May 2; the Joint Typhoon Warning Center assessed peak winds of 215 km/h (135 mph) - making it a rare category 4 storm.

Sea surface temperatures were over a full degree Celsius above average in the region where Nargis intensified before landfall, as can be seen from this May 1 National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration satellite map.

Cyclone Nargis was close to a “perfect storm”. According to Mark Lander , a meteorology professor at the University of Guam. “When we saw the (storm) track, I said, 'Uh oh, this is not going to be good. It would create a big storm surge. It was like Katrina going into New Orleans."

The storm pushed a 12 foot wall of water onto the densely populated Irrawaddy delta in central Myanmar. The result was the worst disaster ever in the impoverished country.

It is impossible to link any single storm to climate change but there is mounting scientific evidence that our warming world will produce more intense storms such as Nargis, with a predicable human toll. Last year, Cyclone Sidr slammed into Bangladesh, killing as many as 10,000 people and leaving 20,000 homeless.

"While we can never pinpoint one disaster as the result of climate change, there is enough scientific evidence that climate change will lead to intensification of tropical cyclones," said Sunita Narain, director of the Indian environmental group Center for Science and Environment.

"Nargis is a sign of things to come," she said. "The victims of these cyclones are climate change victims and their plight should remind the rich world that it is doing too little to contain its greenhouse gas emissions."

The science is already there. The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had clearly observed that cyclones will increase in their intensity as a result of global warming. According to the IPCC: “There is observational evidence of an increase of intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since about 1970, correlated with increases of tropical sea surface temperatures.”

The IPCC also noted that based on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical sea surface temperatures.

Professor Kerry Emmanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported in the journal Nature in 2005 that warmer oceans worldwide are making devastating storms such as Hurricane Katrina more likely by making cyclones on average more powerful and longer lasting. He found that the destructive power of tropical cyclones worldwide had increased by 70% in the last 30 years.

Another paper was published in the prestigious journal Science , backing up Emmanuel’s disturbing findings. These researchers found that the number of deadly Category 4 and 5 storms worldwide has almost doubled in the last 35 years.

This is no act of God. The authors of both these papers attributed this disturbing trend at least in part to human-induced climate change.

Imagining cyclones becoming more powerful is like imaging Cher with a more flamboyant wardrobe. Even an average sized hurricane packs 200 times more energy than the electrical generating capacity of the entire planet.

While this cold statistic is hard to imagine, the physical evidence of that massive power sadly is not. As the human tragedy unfolds in Burma, we should remember that these grim disasters are becoming more likely due to our warmer world - and our continued addiction to fossil fuels.

This was published on Desmog Blog on May 9, 2008