News your connection to The Boston Globe

Ignorance on global warming

A family of mallards swam in Mount Auburn Cemetery this week. (Derrick Z. Jackson/Globe Staff)

IF RACHEL CARSON were alive and writing 45 years after "Silent Spring," her new book would be "Stagnant Summer."

Among her subjects would be NASA administrator Michael Griffin. His own top climate scientists reaffirmed in a study last month that "global temperature is nearing the level of dangerous climate effects." The study concluded that "little time remains to achieve the international cooperation needed to avoid widespread undesirable consequences."

This week, National Public Radio asked Griffin whether climate change was a problem mankind should "wrestle with."

Griffin responded as if one of NASA's deep-space probes had dropped him off on Pluto. "I have no doubt that a trend of global warming exists," he said. "I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with."

Digging his toes deeper into his mouth, 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 to take. . . . Nowhere in NASA's authorization . . . is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change. . . . NASA is not an agency chartered to, quote, 'Battle climate change.' "

Berrien Moore, director of the Institute for the Study of Earths, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire, said Griffin's comments were "bizarre," "baffling," and "mind-boggling."

"It is such a strong statement based on such a high level of ignorance," Berrien said yesterday in a phone interview. He has been a lead author in past reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "It indicates he doesn't have any knowledge on the topic he's talking about. Even a cursory reading [of the research] would not support what he said."

Griffin came off as the newest bad cop to remind people where the Bush administration stands on global warming. Griffin said this on the same day that President Bush, with his popularity among Americans dropping to its depths among Europeans, said he wants to commune with the planet on climate change. But in advance of next week's G-8 summit, Bush has already rejected the call by Germany, Britain, and Japan to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

This is a modern version of what Carson, who would have been 100 years old this week, wrote about in 1962 when she woke up the world to the dangers of pesticides. "We are accustomed to look for the gross and immediate effect and to ignore all else," she wrote. "Unless this appears promptly and in such obvious form that it cannot be ignored, we deny the existence of hazard."

The day before Griffin denied the existence of hazard, I spent 90 minutes observing two mallard families at Mount Auburn Cemetery. One mother had four chicks. The other had 10. We take mallards for granted as our most common duck, with 7.3 million of them in the United States and Canada, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. But they did plummet from about 11 million birds to about 5 million between 1958 and 1965. The total number of ducks, 36 million today, was down to 25 million when Carson wrote "Silent Spring."

In noting the pesticide residues building up in some wildlife refuges, she wrote, "such poisoning of waters set aside for conservation purposes could have consequences felt by every western duck hunter and by everyone to whom the sight and sound of drifting ribbons of waterfowl across an evening sky are precious."

She would have warned us that climate change is the new poison. In his stagnation, Griffin last year oversaw the deletion of the words "to understand and protect our home planet" from NASA's mission statement. Now he is asking which human beings should accord themselves the privilege of fighting climate change. Carson would have asked right back from "Silent Spring":

"Who has made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings, this ever-widening wave of death that spreads out, like ripples when a pebble is dropped into a still pond? . . . Who has decided -- who has the right to decide -- for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?"

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is