Griffin regrets global warming comments, sorta

By Phil Plait | June 7, 2007 7:00 pm

Mike Griffin — head of NASA, and who famously stuck his foot in it last week when he said that maybe we shouldn’t do anything about global warming because it would be "arrogant" to assume things will get worse — said he regrets saying that. But I think he apologized mostly for the wrong reason and only partly for the right one.

At JPL, at a closed door meeting, he said:

…unfortunately, this is an issue which has become far more political than technical and it would have been well for me to have stayed out of it.

I disagree with him again. He should not have stayed out of it! NASA is charged to scientifically investigate the Earth, and if this planet is warming up, then part of NASA’s whole purpose is to investigate it. Certainly, this has become a political issue. Duh. But that does not mean he should stay out of it, especially out of the scientific aspects. If he doesn’t want to comment on the politicization of global warming, that’s fine, even appropriate since as head of an agency he shouldn’t comment, unless the politicization is interfering with the science.


But that does not change the fact that what he said was ridiculous (though perhaps not as awful as some of his apologists). And he didn’t apologize for saying something so ridiculous; he apologized for commenting on the political aspects of global warming — which, as I said, I think is appropriate, but not enough.

What I find funny is what he went on to say:

“Doing media interviews is an art. Their goal is usually to generate controversy because it sells interviews and papers and my goal is usually to avoid controversy,” he said.

The interviewer, from NPR, did nothing at all to generate controversy. He asked simple questions, and was not trying to sandbag Mr. Griffin at all. Read it for yourself. These were straightforward questions, and Mr. Griffin, for what it’s worth, appeared to reply honestly. But half-apologies now — and c’mon, blaming the media?? — is silly.

Besides, blaming the media will only get you in trouble… or attention from the wrong people. Like, say, Steven Colbert.


Comments (32)

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  1. Gaijin51

    I think global warming should be studied, but it is also true that climate change is nothing new. Unless the changes are obvious and significant, I think eventually people are going to get tired of hearing about it. I don’t think the answer lies in collective action, because if altruism was a sufficient motivation, then communism would be a viable economic system. There are too many self-interested people to coordinate. So the answer will have to be found in some gee-whiz scientific solution, or not at all. If not, species will have to adapt, and those that cannot will go extinct. There are precedents for this.

  2. That Colbert piece was hilarious. Although that goes for most Colbert pieces.

  3. The problem isn’t that there aren’t obvious and significant changes, it’s that the obvious and significant changes aren’t happening in the back yards of most Americans. There’s an old rhyme I learned from a political cartoon when I was a kid: “I don’t know and I don’t care, if I can’t see it it’s not there.”

  4. Colbert certainly ripped Griffin a new one on both segments. This problem is so consistent throughout modern culture though. The obviousness if so overwhelming yet the residence to change persists. That and ego. Who wants to admit that they were wrong? In the political world, no one. In the scientific world, most would welcome being told wrong if it meant progress.

  5. What would you have him do, Phil? Rewrite the NASA charter to make Global Warming the focus of the agency? What centers would you shut down so that Griffin would have the money to add global warming to NASA’s plate? Would you shut down manned spaceflight?

    NASA being concerned with global warming makes as much sense as the EPA being concerned about a killer asteroid. It is not in the NASA charter. It is not something that NASA should be concerned with, and if they do take some action on global warming then they are stepping outside of their charter.

    And BTW, NASA isn’t the only one with satellites. The NOAA has lots of them, and climate change IS within their sphere.

  6. Drew

    The phrase “To understand and protect our home planet” is in NASA’s mission statement.

    Excuse me, WAS in the mission statement. Until last year, when it mysteriously disappeared. Wonder how that happened.

  7. Ben

    As a government official, his loyalties are not to science and objectivity but to his bosses. Why is anybody surprised his personal feelings do not mesh with the current consensus? I foolishly hope that the current atmosphere of ego-involvement dissipates…

  8. Gaijin51

    From the article linked by Drew:
    [quote]From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers … as only NASA can.”

    In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”
    David E. Steitz, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the aim was to square the statement with President Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars. [/quote]

    BTW, I’m kind of new here. I wonder what the Bad Astronomer’s position is on the relative priority of a manned space program? Personally, I think robots and unmanned vehicles are the future because they keep getting better while human remain what they are. Just as the best chess players are now computer programs.

  9. Rob

    The Royal Astronomical Society obviously aren’t impressed:

    “Europe’s space scientists, astronomers and solar system scientists, will be dismayed by Michael Griffin’s position … I call on Michael Griffin to withdraw these comments.”

  10. gopher65

    I saw the second half of that Colbert report on TV the other day. Hilarious. As soon as I saw this post I was going to comment on it, but I’m disappointed to see that you already know about it;).

  11. Kullat Nunu

    Why don’t we have anything like Colbert…

  12. Gary Ansorge

    Griffin made a couple of accurate statements.

    1) We don’t know the OPTIMAL climate for this planet. Perhaps with global warming, there will be enough increase in planetary precipitation to make deserts bloom, as was once the case(700,000 years ago???).

    2) NASAs mission IS the exploration of space. PROTECTING the planet is a political decision(which MAY be based in part on NASA discoveries).

    With all the flak he has received, is it any wonder why there are so few really talented, honest people serving in government? Nobody likes receiving criticism, especially when they’re expressing an honest opinion. So we end up with people who are essentially sociopaths and don’t give a rats ass who yells at them.

    Like George Bush,,,

    Gary 7

  13. technochill

    Over population and the rise of industry and technology is going to cause global warming.
    Governments don’t care that they’re spewing greenhouse gases in the air. Kyoto is just a meaningless piece of paper, designed to distract and make us look like the bad guys. Most of the countries that have signed on have increased greenhouse gas emissions.
    Nothing is going to change, it’s only going to get worse.
    Scientist need to focus on how we are to survive the upcoming changes.
    Griffin’s right, NASA needs to focus it’s resources on getting us off this rock. I’d hate to see any part of thier budget wasted on something we can’t and won’t do anything about

  14. Quiet_Desperation

    Wow. I really think this is much ado about nothing.

    >>> With all the flak he has received, is it any wonder why
    >>> there are so few really talented, honest people serving in government?

    Givew Gary a gold star. He nailed the *real* problem here. Everyone goes bat**** over every litte utterance.

    It chills honest debate, like people suggesting GW critics be put on trial.

    >>> The phrase “To understand and protect our home planet”
    >>> is in NASA’s mission statement.

    That was about alien invasions, though. :)

  15. Amy

    The people at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies might beg to differ on climatology not being NASA’s concern…

  16. Gary Ansorge

    Climatology is the STUDY of climate, which may be in NASAs perview but DOING something is not. Unless or until the US government mandates such, which should be read as FUNDING.

    Gary 7

  17. DJ

    Gary Ansorge has it right. If we want really talented and capable people to assume positions of responsibility in our society, we need to treat them and their ideas with respect, even when we strongly disagree. We must limit our disagreement to the science. Whether many who frequent this website want to admit it or not, there is a real difference of opinion among scientists (which includes many climatologists) as to whether there is really a “historically unprecedented” warming going on and if there is, what is causing it. As far as scientific consensus goes, there was once scientific consensus that the sun revolved around the earth.

    What we see too often on this site is what we see in so many other areas of political discourse. That is an attempt to silence differing opinions by demonizing (mostly by name calling) those who don’t agree rather than presenting cogent arguments to the contrary.

  18. DennyMo

    “he said that maybe we shouldn’t do anything about global warming because it would be “arrogant” to assume things will get worse”

    That’s not what he said. He said it would be arrogant of us to choose any particular climate and say “This one is the best, we must preserve it like this.” The folks living near the Sahara might be upset if we said “1980 was the best worldwide climate we’ve ever seen”, because the Sahara has been encroaching on people’s homes and towns for a lot longer than human-induced global warming has been going on. Folks in Greenland might like it the way it is now because of a longer growing season – and actually having dirt to grow things in instead of ice. Maybe we should dial back the clock 70 years, decide *that* was the best. Sorry all you midwest US farmers, you’ll just have to get used to the dust again.

    So the question implied by Griffin’s statement is right on the money: who gets to decide?

  19. Rob

    We know the climate is changing rapidly and that this change is anthropogenic. We know that all the species currently on Earth have adopted to our current climate, thus this is the ‘optimal’ climate for them – that’s what evolution does, it chooses the best adoptions for the current circumstances.

    We also know that Griffin did not choose the option of saying “I’m sorry, that’s outside my remit so I’m not going to answer it” – he chose to take a political stance. The argument that he shouldn’t be criticized because protecting the planet is a political decision and not something the NASA administrator should comment on is total baloney. He chose to answer the question.

  20. Chip

    The question implied by Griffin’s statement shows a dangerous naivety regarding large scale climate trends and known climate history today. It shows a dangerous naivety also regarding the nature of climate change. The global climate is not a push-button digital clock-radio that lands squarely on one time or another, one radio station or an alarm setting.

    Is Mr. Griffin actually that naïve, or is he the one who is being arrogant? Framing it as a question of selecting the best climate over history is just another political frame.

    Who stands behind those who evade, distract and question climate change and its effects? Not Earth Science (which, as a field is part of NASA.). Those behind the reframing of distraction from the problem as a criticism are the near-sighted political supporters who may have to spend money or loose money and political power in order to help prevent the potential damage that could result over decades of neglect. Ironically, if the most dire predictions based on scientific consensus were to occur, financial and industrial interests, which often tend to have self-centered, politically conservative administrators, will loose their money and power.

  21. Brant D

    Quiet_Desperation- “Honest debate” over global warming’s causes very occurred last decade. Possible alternatives like “the sun did it” and “it’s a natural cycle” were thoroughly investigated, and rejected on the basis that no explanation that does not include anthropogenic effects can explain the recent warming trend as accurately as the anthropogenic CO2 model. “Honest debate” was done. It was recorded, and you can look it up if you doubt me. The current contrarian antics are not “honest debate”. Their antics include dragging up old discredited claims, manipulating a few data sets and then pretending like they have new virgin scientific evidence disproving anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The public falls for it, the media fall for it, some people on this website have apparently fallen for it, but most scientists don’t. That’s why contrarians are not taken seriously by scientists. They aren’t interested in “honest debate”. It might create an illusion of a scientific “dogma”, but it is not.

    Significant new arguments presented this decade that AGW include Lindzen’s IRIS hypothesis and galactic cosmic ray (GCR) influences on clouds. That’s it. GCR effects are questionable at best, and this has been addressed elsewhere. The IRIS hypothesis was not only exposed as being based on bad data analysis methods, but its creator and author later reversed his underlying claims on global warming entirely. Richard Lindzen attempted to use the IRIS hypothesis to prove that global warming cannot physically happen, and now he claims that global warming has happened many times in the past and is an unstoppable natural occurrence – even as he cites the IRIS hypothesis as an example of “disproof by dogma” without addressing the flawed methodology or his contradiction in claims! Does this look like “honest debate” to you?

  22. Quiet_Desperation

    >>> The current contrarian antics are not “honest debate”.

    So proposing Nuremberg type trials isn’t “antics”?

    There’s antics on both sides. I ignore them, instead of cherry picking them like you.

    All I said was some of the behavior is chilling honest debate.

    If we can’t even meet on thatpoint , there’s no hope. This is why I generally don’t argue with ideologues, be they political, religious or scientific.

  23. Dave Huntsman

    Within the US government, NASA does climate (always has); NOAA does weather, and folds the climate stuff in. Studying something IS part and parcel of doing something about it. Any implication otherwise is, as my wife would say, ‘ignorance’.

    Saying that it’s arrogant for humans to think they can affect the climate is dumb. We already are; and we’re doing it in many negative ways. It’s not ‘ok’ for ExxonMobil, through its policies (including buying politicians, disinformation comapaigns, etc.) to affect the climate; and then to accuse those trying to fix things as ‘arrogant’ for trying.

    Mike Griffin, during his March 15th testimony to the full House Science Committee, said it was not NASA’s job to protect Earth. When one surprised Congressman pointed out to him that climate studies were protecting the Earth (and American taxpayers), and that detecting Near-Earth Objects was protecting the Earth (and American taxpayers), Mike just stared at him.
    (The playback is online at the Committee’s website).

    It is the duty of every Federal employee – and every government Agency – to protect the American people (current, and future), within their areas of responsibility. In fact, that’s enshrined in an American law:

    Any person in Government service should:
    I. Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to
    country above loyalty to persons, party, or Government

    Using Mike’s argument, if we discovered a Near-Earth Asteroid barreling in towards Earth – a natural event, after all – it would be ‘arrogant’ to try to do something against that.

    That policy has, in fact, been tried at least once before; by the dinosaurs. It was a good policy for us…but bad for the dinosaurs. Mike’s implication – in fact, his actions, such as removing Earth protection from NASA’s mission, scrubbing all attempts to try to find the majority of dangerous NEOs, etc. – is that we should emulate the dinosaurs.

    That not only may not be wise; but one can argue that by actions and statements in support of one person’s policy, but contrary to the safety needs of the country (and, planet), he’s breaking Federal law.

    Dave Huntsman
    my opinion only

  24. Brant D

    >So proposing Nuremberg type trials isn’t “antics”?

    I do not recall such a suggestion being made in any statement by the IPCC, by the NAS, by other national science institutions, by any atmospheric science research institutions, or by anyone else actively researching and vocally supporting climate change science. If I have missed something, please correct me. But as far as I can tell, you are attempting to discredit the rigor of modern atmospheric science knowledge with the words of a few clueless environmentalists who don’t know what the term “latent heat” means. That is a sloppy and lazy substitute for a legitimate point of contention.

  25. slang

    “he said that maybe we shouldn’t do anything about global warming because it would be “arrogant” to assume things will get worse”

    That is a horrible quote-mine of what Griffith said. He said it would be arrogant for one person to decide that the current climate is optimal for all other human beings. That’s all he said about arrogance, nothing more, nothing less. He said nothing about manmade climate change there, nor about things getting better or worse.

    What did Griffith say after being asked about his concerns? Evidence seems to pretty well nail down that humans are currently causing global warming. He’s an engineer, and administrator, not a climatologist, so of course he cannot say definitively if it is a long term concern. But he’s not saying it’s NOT a long term concern, despite all the suggestions otherwise.

    As to mankind wrestling with global warming, in my opinion Griffith’s main concern in that question was that we cannot fully control climate change. In that sense he is right, we are powerless to compensate for solar and cosmic events (and maybe even earth events like catastrophic volcano eruptions) causing climate change. He said nothing about reducing or not reducing current human influence. Perhaps he should have, in his position, if only to clarify his reply.

    And what is wrong about his last answer on the NPR page? It is clearly connected to the earlier questions in the interview about the NASA budget, and here he’s answering as NASA administrator again. He simply says it is not in NASA’s charter to battle climate change, and does not offer an opinion on whether it should or shouldn’t be. As I see it, he responds to the question of how he puts together the budget, saying he does that based on the agency’s charter (and thus not on his personal concerns).

    Listening to the interview makes it clear to me that he was asked questions as administrator, and personal questions. (If you did not listen to it then shame on you, instead relying on excerpts on the NPR website, or worse, relying on Phil’s partial quoting of them, or, even worse, some commenter’s understanding of them.) Taking his media comment on its own, without the context of it applying to the mixing of personal and professional questions making media interviews difficult (as the Yahoo News page shows), is in my opinion pretty unfair.

    Where does that leave us? Griffith made no positive statement that manmade climate change should be reduced. I think he should have. Also, he did not argue to NOT reduce it. Even if anyone thinks that’s what he meant, he did NOT say so. To suggest what he meant is pure assumption, and I would have thought that the fallout after the initial Shannon Malloy story would be enough warning against assuming too much based on a few quotes.

    btw Dave Huntsman: “Saying that it’s arrogant for humans to think they can affect the climate is dumb.” It’s a lot dumber to suggest Griffith said that, when in fact he said the exact opposite in response to the first question on the NPR page. Pretty much your entire post falls apart because you mix up words from several sentences in the interview and then respond to it as if they were Griffith’s words.

  26. Robert Carnegie

    Sure, let’s make the deserts hotter and watch them turn into farmland.

    Suggestions for NASA to do something about global warming go along the lines of putting a mirror shield in space in front of the Earth to keep the sunshine off, or maybe adulterating the atmosphere. Dumsping iron powder in the ocean to promote… algae I think… worked but not very well. The algae – if it’s algae – are supposed to eat carbon dioxide.

    Hey, could we still bomb ourselves to a nuclear winter? Solved! But we’d have to do it again like every ten years.

  27. Gord

    The Mike Mann (Hockey Sick) fiasco and possible scientific fraud is obvious proof that the theory of Man-made Global Warming is false.

    If they had any real proof of the the MMGW theory, they would not have had to resort to such a distortion of science and the scientific method to make their claims.

    If the MMGW advocates were concerned about scientific truth:

    – Mike Mann and the “hockey stick team” would have made their raw data available to others for peer review, not used “selective and corrupt data” and not created a computer model that created a “hockey stick graph” when random data was fed into the computer model.
    -The MMGW group would not try to censor disenting scientific opinion, they would encourage it.
    -They would not resort to “public scare tactics” by manipulating the Media to propogate their beliefs.
    -They would not make “false and misleading” statements to the Public and Public Officials.
    -They would recognize that Science is based on verification of observed phenomena, not arbitrary manipulation of computer models.

    Worst of all, the IPCC is complicit in this scam by encouraging and actively participating in this distortion of Science.
    The last IPCC report was released after the conclusions (The Summary For Policy Makers) were released.
    They “altered” the report to fit the pre-determined “conclusions”!
    Sounds like good science to me!

    Other Inconvenient Truths:
    – The Oregon Petition..17,800 scientists signed a petition saying they Don’t Believe in man-made global warming.
    – The most recent IPCC report states that they 90% certain of their claims. The previous report stated that they were 95% certain.
    – The IPCC claims they are right because they have a “consensus” of scientists who agree with them (ie. 2500 scientists).
    Obvoiously, they don’t have a concensus since the “real consensus” is that 87.7% scientists don’t believe in MMGW!
    Further, the small percentage of those scientists who do believe in MMGW (12.3%), are “less certain” than before!

  28. veritas36

    The phrase in NASA’s mission statement “to preserve and protect the Earth” recently disappeared quietly, although the previous mission statement had been much discussed and developed by employees.
    Griffin’s bizarre statements are more evidence that he is willing to participate in the Bush administration policy of minimizing climate science results. Like the order to government scientists not to talk about polar bears!
    I would also note that climate research in NASA has been cut by 1/3. I am disappointed in Administrator Griffin.

  29. Global Warming Impact Day 1 – Some say the full brunt of the global warming storm will hit on the day we least expect it!

  30. marsmani

    how do we get the ‘preserve and protect earth’ put back into the mission statement?
    As far as I know, NASA is still doing climate research.

  31. sabreTruthTiger

    Global warming is a scam, fact. The global temperature is decreasing not increasing!!!! The most reliable sets of global temperature data we have, using microwave sounding units show no appreciable temperature increases, especially during the critical period 1978-97 when surface temperatures jumped, which makes it likely that that surface anomaly was due to Urban Heat Island effect. The models used by the IPCC do not take into account the most important ocean oscillations which clearly do affect global temperatures, namely the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, and the El Nino Southern Oscillation. The PDO coincides with Global temperatures and has turned negative in the last few years along with Global temperatures.
    The models also ignored the significant effect of solar radiation ions that cause clusters of Ozone, Sulphur Dioxide, and water vapour that attract water vapour and form clouds. Studies on the Greenland Ice shelf show there is no increased velocity of ice movement whatsoever! According to the erroneously named “Large and Rapid Melt-Induced Velocity Changes in the Ablation Zone of the Greenland Ice Sheet” There was one extremely and suspicious large ice movement over one week in Aug 2006, but up until and since then it’s been as it always was.
    The idea that the doubling of CO2 concentrations would cause more water vapour to form which in turn would block (OLR)outgoing long wave radiation creating GW is false. As Upper level temperature and CO2 have increased, water vapour has a tendency to decrease in the Upper Troposphere which overall allows the same amount of OLR to escape.
    The Climate models also predict an unrealistic amount of water vapour in the upper atmosphere due to faulty sub-grid parameterization and the overestimation of the role of cumulonimbus convection in bringing vapour to the upper atmosphere.
    Cumulonimbus convection only occurs in 2-3 percent of the global area, The mass that goes up in the deep convective clouds is then advected out and sinks due to radiational cooling and the need for mass balance. ALSO the Cumulonimbus convection actually leads to more return flow subsidence, enhance upper level subsidence actually acts to REDUCE upper layer water vapour and enhances the Outgoing Longwave Radiation!!
    The grid which is a Global unit of area measurement in the Climate models does not take into account sub-grid convective/subsidence and produces a false average activity. These faulty parameterization schemes underestimate the amount of
    activity and Outgoing Longwave Radiation and lead to a warmng effect. The Models also predict a large corelation between the upper and lower Troposphere which causes them to artificially moisten the Upper region when in actual fact observations show little or no correlation! This is important as it’s not the total amount of precipital water that matters(this goes up with temperature) but the amount near the Upper Tropospheric emission level that’s important as this determines the amount of Outgoing Longwave Radiation.

    Computer models also predict that Greenhouse wrming will cause a hotspot between 8-12 kms over the tropics between 30 N and 30 S. This hotspot has been proven not to exist!

    To Summarise: 1.Global temperatures are decreasing

    2. Oceanic Oscillations, most notably the PDO play a much bigger part in Global temperature than CO2.

    3. Solar radiation plays a bigger part in Global Temperature than CO2

    4. Greenland Ice is not increasing in velocity.

    5. Ice samples prove Global temperature changes precede CO2 changes showing that CO2 is not the major driver of climate change.

    6. Relative humidity in the Upper Troposphere is incorrectly predicted by Computer models,using faulty sub-grid parameterization, and incorrectly ignoring the Cumulonimbus convective subsidence effect, also ignoring the radiative cooling effects of the upper Troposphere region. These errors lead to exaggerated water vapour, Outgoing Longwave Radiation and thus warming.

    Conclusion: Such scientifically erroneous procedures and conclusions that CO2 is responsible for a warming that doesn’t even exist are most likely politically motivated and part of a scheme to make billions/trillions from carbon taxes, raising power/food prices and providing a threat that scares the population into letting the government pass restrictive laws


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