Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham knows a lot about science and the importance of getting it right. Walt has earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics. He has also completed all coursework for a doctorate in that discipline, but those studies were interrupted by other commitments before completing thesis requirements. In addition, he is a graduate of the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program.
Walt put his science and technology background into real action as a Marine Corps fighter pilot and Apollo Lunar Module pilot. He has logged more than 4,500 hours of flying time of including more than 3,400 in jet aircraft, and more than 263 hours in space. (I’m not sure how many hours he has logged flying closer to Earth over Texas highways in his Corvette.) Walt was called upon to further apply his mission training and flight experiences as Chief of NASA’s Skylab Branch of the Astronaut Office.
Col. Cunningham, like many other scientifically and technologically experienced space program professionals, is an outspoken critic of pseudo-scientific climate alarmist claims. In this interview he explains why.
Larry Bell: Walt, you kindly contributed an endorsement of my book commenting that, “Those of us fortunate enough to have traveled in space bet our lives on the competence, dedication, and integrity of the science and technology professionals who made our missions possible…In the last twenty years, I have watched the high standards of science being violated by a few influential climate scientists, including some at NASA, while special interest opportunists have abused our public trust.”
What issues stand out most as reasons for arriving at this conclusion?
Walt Cunningham: Larry, I come from a background where responsible science and technology are the difference between life and death. The Apollo Program relied on quality data and objective interpretation to advance knowledge in areas of science and technology that had never before been explored. All of us had complete trust in the competence, integrity and accountability of those we worked with to create the systems and hardware we depended on in the most extreme environment. We did not allow the media to affect our conclusions; our conclusions influenced the media.
Over the years, NASA has slowly, but inexorably changed its culture and filled management positions with those compatible with the new culture. They absorbed their “new ways of thinking, new people, and new means.” They have contributed to a society that is becoming less and less capable of measuring up to the motivation, inspiration, challenge, risk acceptance and accomplishments of Apollo.
We didn’t expect our scientists and engineers to know everything, or that their hypotheses would always be right. Hypotheses are ideas to be challenged, and to ultimately be proven or disproven by empirical evidence.
During a 2008 CBS 60 Minutes interview, Al Gore, who was launching a major global warming crisis advertising campaign at the time, responded to a question by Leslie Stahl about skeptics by stating: “I think those people are in such a tiny, tiny minority now with their point of view. They’re almost like the ones who still believe that the Moon landing was staged in a movie lot in Arizona and those who believe the world is flat.”
Having seen the Earth from orbit, I don’t expect you are one of those “flat- Earther” skeptics Gore referred to, are you?
Cunningham: No, Larry, I can emphatically vouch for the fact that the Earth is spherical. But, when it comes to global warming, the public-at-large really doesn’t know whom to believe anymore. And NASA has contributed to that confusion.
With lots of help from James Hansen and others at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), alarmist camps have been hammering us for years. The media is made up mostly of “true believers”. Politicians, in the absence of understanding and knowledge about climate science, have put themselves out on a limb from which it is difficult to retreat. Given the economic interests and the political powers involved, this dilemma will not go away quietly or anytime soon. In the court of public opinion, media and money play powerful roles.
The biggest problems I see with the sorry state of “climate science,” as the public comes to know it through the media, are the alarmist claims, unsupported by data and history, being presented as facts. When these claims cannot be validated by empirical data, they attempt to justify them by equally dishonest claims of proof by “consensus”. These alarmist claims create unwarranted fear in order to promote their political and profiteering agendas, while establishing regulatory policies that kill business and grow government – all at a terrific cost to taxpayers and energy consumers.
Without the science to back up their wild forecasts and claims, and the overwhelming evidence for natural temperature variation, alarmists try to exploit this unwarranted fear by resorting to the precautionary argument: “We must do something just in case we are responsible, because the consequences are too terrible if we are to blame and do nothing.”
Those of us who challenge alarmist claims of accepted theory and “consensus” are referred to as “skeptics”, as if that’s a bad thing. Responsible scientists are supposed to be skeptical. Those who aren’t qualify as demagogues. In the days of Apollo, astronauts, engineers, flight controllers and managers were skeptical of anything that might impact landing a man on the Moon. That attitude led to success in one of the biggest challenges in history.
If you buy a phony conclusion, as Al Gore obviously did, the consequences can be terribly costly.
Bell: It’s interesting to me that while NASA, particularly GISS, has contributed much to this misinformation and public confusion, there are also quite a number of NASA professionals, mostly retirees, who aren’t drinking the human-caused climate crisis Kool-Aid. Last year you and others lodged formal complaints to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Jr., regarding the dismal and embarrassing state of the agency’s climate science programs.
Cunningham: Many of NASA’s retirees have grown increasingly concerned that GISS, a NASA organization located in a midtown Manhattan office building, was allowing its science to be politicized, compromising their credibility. Our concern, beyond damage to the NASA’s exemplary reputation, was damage to their current or former scientists and employees, and even compromising the reputation of science itself.
We developed a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and obtained signatures from seven Apollo astronauts, several former Headquarters managers and Center directors, and 40 former management-level technical specialists. We asked that he restrain NASA from including unproven claims in public releases and on websites. Statements by NASA that man-made carbon dioxide was having a catastrophic impact on global climate change are not substantiated, especially when considering thousands of years of empirical data. It is clear that the science is NOT settled.
The unbridled advocacy of CO2 being the major cause of climate change is inconsistent with NASA’s history of conducting an objective assessment of all available scientific data prior to making decisions or public statements. They should be emphasizing to the media that human-caused global warming is a hypothesis, not a scientific fact.
Bell: And the second letter?
Cunningham: Well, NASA Chief Scientist, Dr. Waleed Abdalati, testified at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing that the sea level was projected to rise between 0.2 meter and 2 meters within the next 87 years. This was based upon the warmest temperature scenarios, derived of course, from highly theoretical computer models.
A group of NASA retirees responded with another letter charging that NASA in general, and GISS in particular, has failed to objectively assess all available data on climate change, while relying too heavily upon complex climate models that have not succeeded in predicting climate. The letter specifically asked that GISS, then headed by James Hansen, not incorporate unproven remarks in public releases and websites.
Thankfully, James Hansen has since resigned. He was an embarrassment and disgrace to the agency.
Bell: So that behavior struck you as playing to a political Obama administration agenda?
Cunningham: That would be a fair observation. We felt that NASA’s commitment to climate science should be consistent with the agency’s reputation for rigorous science. When they don’t have real facts, as in this case, they should be honest about what they actually do and don’t know.
Understanding global climate and what, if anything, humans can do to affect it are scientific questions that can be answered only by honest science and scientific data. Yet, global warming alarmists invariably try to make their case through rhetoric, dogma, opinion, and emotion. They like to cite their climate models, and the public buys it.
Shouldn’t we be emphasizing that models are not data, and that climate models have never successfully predicted anything? Models are built upon assumptions (opinions), and if the bases for the assumptions are wrong, the results can never accurately predict future behavior.
Anytime the “evidence” is debatable, we should push for open and honest public debate in an effort to get to the “truth.” Unfortunately, believers in human caused global warming avoid debate like the plague.
Bell: Of course, your NASA colleagues, along with any other crisis skeptics outside the politically correct “climate establishment”, can be expected to have their debate credentials derided (not the “right stuff” in this case), and often their motives challenged as well. I’m aware that you have encountered that just as I have, along with several of our mutual friends.
Cunningham: The human contribution to climate has to be put into context with the 18 to 20 highly complex, natural climate drivers constantly at work. Most of those who study climate are specialists in one special discipline or another. They are not “big picture” people who see and connect all of the dots. I’m a geophysicist, which provides the skills and understanding of important principles. I know how to collect and analyze technical/scientific data. And, while I don’t claim to be a “climate scientist,” I do follow the subject closely enough to recognize incongruities in data and logic.
A response to one of my articles on climate change acknowledged my education in physics and then concluded with, “Nothing in your bio leads anyone to believe that you are remotely any sort of an authority on climatology.”
To paraphrase one response to our NASA letters: “Why should we pay attention to what you say? You’re just a dumb astronaut.”
The aerospace culture is comprised of technically sophisticated, problem-solving professionals who work together to connect the dots so that what they create can be verified to work. The people who signed those letters to Administrator Bolden are those kinds of individuals. Many of us conducted the science, designed and managed the manufacture of enabling hardware and software systems, tested their reliability, launched them, and flew colleagues to another body in our solar system a quarter of a million miles away and safely back again.
Bell: It’s not as if our government isn’t already throwing enough money at a contrived climate crisis. The National Research Council just released a report based upon a 2-year-long study that concluded that President Obama’s sweeping new Green energy subsidy program costing tens of billions to combat “climate change” is virtually useless. This new spending is on top of an estimated $48 billion spent in just the past two years.
Arguments to justify this ongoing waste depend upon data from compliant fright factories like NASA’s GISS. But what is a legitimate role for NASA in the climate science arena?
Cunningham: NASA should be at the forefront in the collection of scientific evidence and debunking the current hysteria over human-caused [anthropogenic] global warming [AGW]. Unfortunately, it is becoming just another agency caught up in the politics of global warming, or worse, politicized science. Advocacy and support for the White House agenda is replacing objective evaluation of data, while scientific data are being ignored in favor of emotions and politics.
The conflict over AGW has deteriorated into a religious war — a war between true believers in a human-caused global warming problem and nonbelievers; between those who accept AGW on faith, and those who consider themselves more sensible and better informed. “True believers” are beyond being interested in evidence; it is impossible to reason a person out of positions they have not been reasoned into.
Much of this may be due to today’s lowered educational standards in scientific literacy, skepticism and critical thinking. Many people today are unable to distinguish between science and non-science, leaving them vulnerable to the emotional appeal of human caused global warming. Unfortunately, most students today are fed a lot more hype about self-esteem and global warming than real information about history and science. Let’s finally recognize that “self-esteem” is no substitute for common sense, and “indoctrination” is no substitute for education.
With the right leadership, with the right science, and with the right commitment to excellence and integrity, we will go much farther. And, it’s high time to do so.
Bell: Walt, I think that says it all. Thanks for not only walking the talk, but for flying the dream as well.