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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Flood-Gate: Perry Officials Try to Hide Sea Level Rise from Texans with “Clear-Cut Unadulterated Censorship” of Rice University's John Anderson's chapter on sea level rise in the Galveston Bay

Flood-Gate: Perry Officials Try to Hide Sea Level Rise from Texans with “Clear-Cut Unadulterated Censorship”

In one of the most flagrant recent instances of scientific censorship, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) refused to publish a report chapter unless all mention of climate change and its impact on sea level rise were eliminated.  The author — Rice University oceanographer John Anderson, a leading expert on sea level rise with more than 200 publications — refused.  As a result, TCEQ killed his chapter in The State of the Bay, a regular publication of the Galveston Bay Estuary Program.
Climate Progress interviewed Anderson along with other Texas scientists who revealed thatthis is not the first time officials removed references to climate change in a state report.  Dr. Wendy Gordon, a scientist who spent 8 years working for the TCEQ and its predecessor agencies, told me she was not surprised by this censorship at all.  She related the story of one of her colleagues whose attempt to incorporate climate change into a state water planning report was “eviscerated by the higher-ups.”
Governor Rick “4 Pinocchios” Perry is a proud denier of climate science, as is his appointed head of TCEQ, Bryan Shaw, so it’s no surprise his entire administration walks in lock step.  No doubt this is what the country should expect from a Perry presidency.  After all, we saw similar climate science censorship the last time an anti-science Texan was in the White House.
What makes this especially tragic is that Texas is one of the states most at risk from unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions — because of its vast low-lying shoreline, its vulnerability to hurricanes, and, of course, its vulnerability to devastating drought and heat wave.
But this is censorship of sea level rise, which is why I call it Flood-Gate.  Indeed, Anderson told me that “In Texas, I find people far less informed on sea level rise than even in Louisiana.   The state is not allowing this information to get out there.”  As he told Mother Jones:
“Sea level doesn’t just go up in Louisiana. We’re the next in line.  We are in fact starting to see many of the changes that Louisiana was seeing 20 years ago, yet we still have a state government that refuses to accept this is happening.”
Here is a 2009 analysis of the “The Socio-Economic Impact of Sea Level Rise in the Galveston Bay Region” by Texas scientists of what a Category 2 Hurricane like Ike would do after sea level rise (SLR) of 0.69 meter (27 inches) — click to enlarge:
And 27 inches is, optimistically, half the current business-as-usual SLR projection for 2100 (see here).
Anderson was particularly “shocked” at how ham-fisted all of this was.  His discussion of sea level rise is focused entirely on  peer-reviewed data that isn’t controversial at all.  Indeed, his discussion focused on sea level rise estimates from thermal expansion of the ocean — even though he is an expert on the West Antarctic ice sheet and thinks we are at great risk of catastrophic sea level rise this century.
The paper stated in the Summary (page 19):  “Current rates of sea level rise … are  approaching 3 mm per year and may well exceed 4 mm per year by the end of this century.”  In fact, SLR is projected to be several time faster than that by the second half of the century.  Anderson was bending over backwards to avoid exactly what happened.
We can’t even present a conservative viewpoint,” he told me.  Below is the final draft he submitted and the stunning line edits demanded by senior TCEQ officials:
Chapter 5 Rewrite Final 9-20-11
A heading that said “Impact of Sea Level Rise” becomes “Sea Level Change” and most of its contents are deleted along with a figure from the journal Science.  The fact that the disappearance of Texas wetlands is “due mainly to direct human intervention” — gone.  Ecological impact of Hurricane Ike — gone!
If only that worked in real life.  As one Texas scientists emailed me:
If we didn’t like the results of a test the doctor ran on us, would we exclude that test from our diagnosis–even if that meant we would end up with a different diagnosis that potentially missed identifying the root of the problem? No sensible person would do that. But that’s exactly what we seem to be doing with climate change these days. Removing relevant and potentially important information from a public report puts the public at risk and squanders valuable knowledge the acquisition of which was paid for, in part, by the public.
Indeed, Anderson told me “I did this as one of those things we do for public outreach.   Scientists are often criticized for being ivory tower and not communicating with the public.   The idea here is to have a knowledgeable public. That’s the reason I do it.”  But he was thwarted.
He told me, “This is just clear-cut unadulterated censorship.”
The edits were made by top TCEQ officials.  Mother Jones notes:
As the document shows, most of the tracked changes came from Katherine Nelson, the assistant director in the water quality planning division. Her boss, Kelly Holligan, is listed as a reviewer on the document as well…
Holligan and Nelson are top managers at Perry’s commission; lower-ranking staff at the agency had already approved the document, according to the publication’s editor. The changes came only after the two women reviewed the issue. TCEQ’s commissioners, who are direct political appointees of the governor, select the top managers at TCEQ. Although the director and assistant director jobs aren’t technically political appointments, those hires are usually vetted by the governor’s office.
Why did it happen?  “We have a governor who goes around saying he doesn’t believe in global climate change.”
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