WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Polar bears, sea ice and global warming are taboo subjects, at least in public, for some U.S. scientists attending meetings abroad, environmental groups and a top federal wildlife official said on Thursday.
Environmental activists called this scientific censorship, which they said was in line with the Bush administration’s history of muzzling dissent over global climate change.
But H. Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said this policy was a long-standing one, meant to honor international protocols for meetings where the topics of discussion are negotiated in advance.
The matter came to light in e-mails from the Fish and Wildlife Service that were distributed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, both environmental groups.
Listed as a “new requirement” for foreign travelers on U.S. government business, the memo says that requests for foreign travel “involving or potentially involving climate change, sea ice, and/or polar bears” require special handling, including notice of who will be the official spokesman for the trip.
The Fish and Wildlife Service top officials need assurance that the spokesman, “the one responding to questions on these issues, particularly polar bears” understands the administration’s position on these topics.
Two accompanying memos were offered as examples of these kinds of assurance. Both included the line that the traveler “understands the administration’s position on climate change, polar bears, and sea ice and will not be speaking on or responding to these issues.”
Polar bears are a hot topic for the Bush administration, which decided in December to consider whether to list the white-furred behemoths as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, because of scientific reports that the bears’ icy habitat is melting due to global warming.
Hall said a decision is expected in January 2008. A “threatened” listing would bar the government from taking any action that jeopardizes the animal’s existence, and might spur debate about tougher measures to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming.
Hall defended the policy laid out in the memos, saying it was meant to keep scientists from straying from a set agenda at meetings in countries like Russia, Norway and Canada.
For example, he said, one meeting was about “human and polar bear interface.” Receding Arctic sea ice where polar bears live and the global climate change that likely played a role in the melting were not proper discussion topics, he said.
“That’s not a climate change discussion,” Hall said at a telephone briefing. “That’s a management, on-the-ground type discussion.”
The prohibition on talking about these subjects only applies to public, formal situations, Hall said. Private scientific discussions outside the meeting and away from media are permitted and encouraged, he said.
“This administration has a long history of censoring speech and science on global warming,” Eben Burnham-Snyder of the Natural Resources Defense Council said by telephone.
“Whenever we see an instance of the Bush administration restricting speech on global warming, it sends up a huge red flag that their commitment to the issue does not reflect their rhetoric,” Burnham-Snyder said.