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Don't mention the polar bears, Bush tells US scientists

Source:  Copyright 2007, Independent (UK)
Date:  March 10, 2007
Byline:  Steve Connor
Original URL: Status DEAD

The Bush Administration has been accused once again of gagging US government scientists by getting them to agree not to talk about polar bears, sea ice and climate change during official overseas trips.

A leaked memorandum issued by a regional director of the US Department of the Interior states that officials within the US Fish and Wildlife Service will limit their discussions when travelling in countries bordering the Arctic region because of sensitivities about climate change.

"This traveller understands the administration's position on climate change, polar bears and sea ice and will not be speaking on or responding to these issues," says the memo from the regional director Richard Hannon to his boss, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is not the first time that US government officials have been accused to trying to gag scientists on climate change. James Hansen, the director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a world authority on the climate, complained last year that public relations officials appointed by the Bush Administration had tried to limit his access to the media.

The memorandum from Mr Hannon was criticised by the Natural Resources Defence Council in Washington, which wants the US Department of Interior to list the polar bear as an endangered species because of the projected loss of sea ice in the Arctic over the coming century.

"This memo has got to be put into the wider context of what President Bush has done to stifle debate on global warming over the last six years," said a council spokesman, Eben Burnham-Snyder. "The Bush Administration has a long history of restricting scientific discourse on global warming's impacts and solutions. This continued restriction hampers our experts' ability to do their job effectively and aggressively deal with our global warming challenge."

A leaked e-mail from Mr Hannon to his staff warned that any future overseas trips involving or potentially involving climate change, sea ice or polar bears will require an official statement on who in the delegation will be the official spokesman.

Any requests concerning foreign trips to Arctic countries such as Canada, Norway or Russia should also include "a statement of assurance that these individuals understand the Administration's position on these issues", particularly the topic of polar bears.

Hugh Vickery, a spokes-man for the US Department of the Interior, said that the memorandum was "badly worded" and there was no intention of limiting informal discussions. The memo was intended to cover official bilateral talks where there is an agreed agenda and was an attempt to ensure that scientists stick to the areas within their remit, Mr Vickery said.

"It's very important to know what the position of the United States government is on these issues. If two scientists want to talk over a coffee, that's fine. We want them to do that," he said. "But in an official capacity you need to know what your role is. This is not about gagging scientists. We don't want to do that."

Mr Vickery added that polar bears and sea ice were mentioned in the memo because it was addressed to scientists within the Alaska region of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Arctic sea ice and the polar bear are especially sensitive issues at present because American scientists have pointed out that the world's biggest land carnivore is unlikely to survive if the Arctic sea ice disappears in summer, which it is predicted to do by the end of the century.

The Department of Interior is currently engaged in a consultation over whether to list the species as endangered and a decision is expected by January 2008.

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