James Hansen, climate change and the scientist’s duty

Here’s another contributed post from George Leopold…


The role of scientists in a democracy and whether science is slowly evolving into just another special interest group in the climate change debate were among the issues raised in a recent op-ed by Joe Nocera published in the New York Times.

Nocera’s March 5 column took NASA climate scientist James Hansen to task for his advocacy and outspoken opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Hansen’s public protests against the pipeline have included taking days off from his government job as director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies to participate in demonstrations in front of the White House that have resulted in multiple arrests.

jim hansen

James Hansen

 Nocera argued that Hansen’s actions go too far, thereby undermining the work of other climate scientists. He further asserted that some of Hansen’s NASA colleagues are troubled by his outspoken views on climate change.

Nocera named no names.

At least one reader challenged that assertion in the revealing forum that accompanied the column, “A Scientist’s Misguided Crusade.”


The reader, who’s wife is a climate researcher and who has friends at the Goddard Institute, replied that “most of the scientists there, like the vast majority in the fields of earth and environmental science, know how dire our situation is and respect Hansen’s willingness to speak up.”

Other readers expressed similar sentiments.

Nocera, who supports construction of the Keystone pipeline, also attempted to discredit Hansen with some dubious assertions about emission levels likely to be generated by the oil derived from Canadian tar sands. Several readers challenged Nocera’s claim that Venezuelan oil imported to the U.S. is “dirtier” than tar sands oil that would be carried by the Keystone pipeline.

(For more on well-to-wheels emissions from various sources, see: http://www.netl.doe.gov/energy-analyses/pubs/PetrRefGHGEmiss_ImportSourceSpecific1.pdf  .)

The strong negative reaction to Nocera’s column from the scientific community was striking. The columnist acknowledged that Hansen was exercising his rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances. But many readers viewed the column as a personal attack on Hansen while promoting construction of a pipeline that would pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

All this shined a very bright light on the role of the scientist in public policy debates. Nothing less than the survival of our species may hinge on the policy decisions — based on sound science — we make regarding what to do about climate change.

One can argue whether or not it is more effective to work within the political system to shape our policy choices on climate change. And it remains true that shoe leather won’t save the planet.

Whether you agree with Hansen’s methods or not, he has in fact succeeded in advancing the discussion on climate change. Nocera unwittingly roused the scientific community with his snarky attack on Hansen, thereby eliciting a range of thoughtful, and to my mind, useful, comments from Times readers about the responsibilities of scientists in the high-stakes climate debate.

There is in fact no best way to engage the public on issues like climate change. The urgency of the situation means we must use all the tools at our disposal to affect change. Hansen has his methods, others have taken more conventional routes. The bottom line is that scientists must avoid undermining the growing body of scientific evidence that climate change resulting from human activity is real and poses a threat to humanity.

If the empirical evidence for climate change is eroded, then science may indeed become just another special interest group in the debate. Then we will sink into what another outspoken scientist, Carl Sagan, called, “the demon-haunted world.”

-George Leopold


George Leopold’s post reminds me of a lesson I learned early in my managerial experience. I was still working in the NOAA’s Environmental Research Laboratories.  At the time, the dozen ERL lab directors were well regarded by those in their respective disciplines. They had a shared commitment to scientific excellence, peer review, cutting-edge experiment and observation. But it ended there. Because of differences in their approach to budgeting, to administration, to working with each other, to engaging political leaders and the public, and more, they used to get on each other’s nerves. First from the sidelines, and then later being a bit more in the mix, I realized a larger truth. If all of them had been like any single one of them, it would have been a disaster. But if the leadership hadn’t included someone like each one of them, then ERL, and the collective thought process that led it would have been significantly diminished.


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7 Responses to James Hansen, climate change and the scientist’s duty

  1. Bill:-

    A few years ago when one of my parents died, I was throwing out old “stuff” that I had no use for. I came upon a sort of treasure trove of science writings for young people, one of which was about climate change. There was a piece about Hansen which was instantly recognizable in terms of his style and passionate expression. Of course, the piece was intended to alert everyone to the threat of Global … Cooling. Yes, before he became the “Jim the Baptist” of global warming, he was beating the drum just as loudly about global cooling. Personally, I find his brand of “advocacy-science” very unscientific, and much too uncritical of the orthodox.

    Further, he represents what I believe to be a much greater danger to our world than global warming – the single issue savant. The SIS looks at our wonderfully complex world through a single lens, and declares that his distorted view is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. She excels in linear thinking (“if this trajectory doesn’t change, the world will fall apart 54.2 years from now!”), but too often fails to recognize that the real solutions to wicked problems are most likely non-linear. The SIS has real difficulty resolving – even recognizing – problems outside his domain, when often the most effective solutions will come from outside, and perhaps even be indirect consequences of something else entirely.

    Nocera may have slandered Hansen, I really don’t know. What I do know is that I’m increasingly dubious about anything Hansen says when it comes to policy. There are no quick fixes for this, and – his heated rhetoric to the contrary – there really is no need for quick fixes. If ever there was situation that required calm discussion among rational and the wise, this is it – rants, and protests, and childish posturings are counter-productive.

  2. Michael Cunningham says:

    Bill, you say “One can argue whether or not it is more effective to work within the political system to shape our policy choices on climate change.” If one believes in democracy, one has to accept that collective choices reflecting the vast range of human interests and priorities will often, perhaps almost always, be better than those by specialists heavily focussed on a particular issue and perhaps not well-equipped to assess the trade-offs which constantly arise in our lives. If, by contrast, you think that a particular class of scientists have superior wisdom to the rest of humanity, then you will accept activism which, as Climategate revealed, can lead to hubris and falsehood.

    As an economist, I know that my expertise is limited, and in my professional life I sought to be a neutral adviser rather than an advocate. In the CAGW case, my professional role would be to assess costs and benefits of alternative policies rather than make a determination on the science, cf my invited post re a critique of the Stern Review at Climate Etc a few months ago – http://judithcurry.com/?s=The+costs+of+tackling+or+not+tackling+any+anthropogenic+global+warming

    Of course, having been following, and at times advising on, the AGW issue since the 1980s, I have formed views on elements of the science, but if I comment on it it is as a private citizen, one of the democratic hoi polloi.

    • Thanks, Michael. I liked your comment. I hope you noted that the post was actually a guest post contributed by George Leopold…and I hope he’ll respond directly. Hopefully, a majority of us will work within the system. There seems to be some disagreement about just what “within the system” implies. Some interpret it as “well within the system.” Others adopt an approach that’s more like “wherever I happen to be, that defines the limits of “within the system.” And my perspective as indicated in the footnote to George’s guest post, is that we do well in most conversations on most subjects to police our own thoughts and words with rigor, but be accommodating and accepting of the thoughts and views of others.

      • George Leopold says:

        Thanks for the clarification, Bill. (Readers of Bill’s blog will note that he has thought long and hard on these matters while I am a mere scribbler struggling to separate wheat from chaff.)

        What I had in mind by the phrase “within in the system” was working within our institutions to provide an appropriate set of choices and/or tradeoffs for those elected to represent us.

        My reading of our “system” is that it was designed to be messy and that all sides should be heard (especially those who can’t afford a lobbying firm). James Hansen takes another view of the situation, and has every right to do so as long as he understands the consequences for himself and for the cause he espouses.

        (Readers should also factor in the ratings- and page view-driven media’s tendency to focus on personalities rather than issues.)

        As stated, shoe leather won’t save the planet. Neither probably will being arrested in front of the White House. But I defend James Hansen’s right to dissent.

  3. Michael Cunningham says:

    PS, here’s my post at Climate Etc on 11 March re Judy’s post on New perspectives on climate sensitivity

    A simple layman’s take is that understanding of many aspects of climate is constantly expanding, often in directions which raise more questions, and with findings which suggest that prospective warming has been over-estimated by the IPCC et al. Therefore, in saying for many years that the science is settled, there is 90+ chance of dangerous warming etc, the basis of the warning projectors was inadequate and exaggerated possible outcomes. That is, those who advocated we should not rush into expensive anti-emissions schemes until we had better understanding, and that we should focus effort on better understanding rather than immediate reductions, have been vindicated. Correct?

  4. George Leopold says:

    Here’s an item relevant to this discussion, “From advice to advocacy: scientists in the political arena”:


  5. Michael Cunningham says:

    George, Campbell says, in effect in support of advocacy – that “On such issues, science finds itself having to defend long-accepted theories that fit available evidence extremely well, against well-funded campaigns that seek to confuse, distort, misrepresent and cherry-pick that evidence, to the extent they present any evidence at all. In frustration, some scientists respond with passionate advocacy for policy positions that they believe follow from available evidence.”

    This is a misrepresentation. Since the 1980s, governments have pumped vast amounts of funds into promoting the CAGW case and cause. One US agency spends, from memory, $2.6 bn a year on research in the CAGW camp. There are no comparably funded anti-CAGW groups. Almost everyone I’ve come across who doubts the need for serious and costly anti-emissions policies has approached the topic because of concerned interest, and has been dismayed at the standards of many leading climate scientists compared to what they would expect in their fields of, e.g., physics, engineering, meteorology, systems analysis, statistics and economics.

    I’m in that camp – I was briefed by Sir John Houghton in 1989 or ’90, and as an economist advised governments in Australia on the merits of taking some action while the science was further resolved. Over the years, I’ve come to doubt the benefits of emissions-reduction policies and to question the agenda of some of those advocating them. My funding is a very modest retirement income.

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