NASA administrator Michael Griffin continues to draw the ire of preeminent climate scientists inside and outside of NASA, as well as members of Congress, after apparently downplaying the need to combat global warming.
In an interview broadcast yesterday on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" program, Griffin was asked by NPR's Steve Inskeep whether he is concerned about global warming.
"I have no doubt that a trend of global warming exists," Griffin told Inskeep. "I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with."
"To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change," Griffin said. "I guess I would ask which human beings — where and when — are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take."
Griffin's comments immediately drew stunned reaction from James Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.
"It's an incredibly arrogant and ignorant statement," Hansen told ABC News. "It indicates a complete ignorance of understanding the implications of climate change."
Hansen believes Griffin's comments fly in the face of well-established scientific knowledge that hundreds of NASA scientists have contributed to.
"It's unbelievable," said Hansen. "I thought he had been misquoted. It's so unbelievable."
Several other NASA climate scientists contacted by ABC News echoed Hansen's comments, saying an overwhelming majority of their colleagues believe global warming is an urgent issue that society should be addressing. The scientists asked that their names not be used because they did not want to jeopardize their careers.
Griffin's comments also angered scientists outside of NASA.
"I was shocked by the statement and I think the administrator ought to resign. I don't see how he can be the effective leader of a science agency if he doesn't understand the threat of global warming," said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University atmospheric scientist and lead author of some of the latest reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. The international body, made up of thousands of climate scientists is considered one of the most authoritative bodies on global warming.
News media inquiries to NASA headquarters about Griffin's comments prompted the space agency to make the unusual move of issuing a news release late Wednesday night.
"NASA is the world's preeminent organization in the study of Earth and the conditions that contribute to climate change and global warming," Griffin said in a statement. "The agency is responsible for collecting data that is used by the science community and policy makers as part of an ongoing discussion regarding our planet's evolving systems. It is NASA's responsibility to collect, analyze and release information. It is not NASA's mission to make policy regarding possible climate change mitigation strategies. As I stated in the NPR interview, we are proud of our role and I believe we do it well."
Hansen, featured prominently in Al Gore's global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," has been warning of the potential dangers of climate change since the 1980s.
In late 2005, he accused NASA of trying to improperly censor him after he warned that Earth's climate might be approaching a dangerous "tipping point."
A public affairs employee, a political appointee of the Bush administration, later resigned over the incident.
Members of Congress also weighed in, criticizing NASA for cutting the budgets of satellite programs that help monitor the effects of climate change.
"Setting aside NASA Administrator Griffin's personal views on the significance of global warming, I remain concerned that NASA is not doing as much as needs to be done on climate change data collection and research," said Rep. Bart Gordon, D.-Tenn., in a statement. Gordon is the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, which oversees the space agency.
Last year, many NASA scientists were upset when reports surfaced that the agency had quietly deleted the phrase "to understand and protect our home planet" from the NASA mission statement. The scientists believe research on issues like climate change will suffer as NASA shifts priorities toward exploration missions to the moon and Mars.
"Earth has always been central to NASA's science," Hansen said.