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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 06/30/2008

Freedman: Why Is James Hansen So Worried?

By Andrew Freedman

James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, has had it with policymakers' lack of progress to address global climate change, and he is not afraid to let them know it.

In commemoration of landmark climate change testimony he gave in 1988, which first alerted Washington to the risks of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, Hansen returned to Congress in a peculiar vindication tour last week. He called for the trial of fossil fuel company CEOs, advocated for a carbon "tax and dividend" proposal, pushed a complete coal moratorium by 2030, and, oh yeah, also discussed some climate science information.

Keep reading to better understand Hansen's perspective. For local weather, see our full forecast, and our special July 4th forecast.

Hansen's appearance in a congressional briefing and before the national media demonstrated the fascinating transition that Hansen has made since his landmark testimony twenty years ago. He has evolved from a traditional scientist who is content to publish his work in scientific journals and share only his scientific views with the general public, and a new breed of climate citizen-scientist, who is equally at home discussing the data showing the increasing heat content of the world's oceans and analyzing the case for a new carbon tax.

The question is, which version of a scientist is more effective at moving the world closer to solving the climate challenge?

Dr. James Hansen. Courtesy NASA

We may not know the answer for several years, but Hansen is charging ahead regardless of the pitfalls in speaking out. By advocating for certain policy solutions, Hansen's new incarnation may risk undermining the public's trust in climate scientists to provide them with unbiased scientific information.

Concerns over Hansen's evolution have popped up occasionally on the Capital Weather Gang, with some readers arguing that he has lost his credibility as a scientist. His name has occasionally been used in the same sentence as Al Gore's, which is a sure sign that one is seen as politically biased on climate science.

Consider some of Hansen's provocative statements from last week's "I was right, now do something about it!" tour (my title). In written remarks from his appearances at a congressional briefing as well as at the National Press Club, Hansen said, "CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature."

He also offered up the nugget that Americans should "turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen" in order to move forward on climate policy.

With statements like these, might the public have trouble distinguishing NASA's top climate scientist from a spokesperson for Greenpeace?

I suppose I would also be extremely frustrated if, like Hansen, I had spent decades studying climate change, only to see very little progress made in addressing the problem, in part because of the influence of entrenched interests in Washington. However, calling for putting CEOs on trial is not all that different from a climate change contrarian's effort to sue Al Gore for misrepresenting climate science in his film and speeches. Both are attention-grabbing, but ultimately frivolous and distracting efforts.

His performance in Washington last week was similar to his other recent activities. Based on his judgment that coal is a top tier threat to humanity, Hansen has written a legal brief against a new coal-fired power plant in Iowa, and letters to world leaders and state governors on the need to move away from coal and towards renewable energy.

He fires off frequent emails (many of them are available on his web site) that read like stream of consciousness discussions on all matters climate-related, and are frequently highly critical of political leaders. On May 29, for example, he called an answer that Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman provided to Congress on energy policy, "so ignorant and foolish as to suggest that he has been living on another planet or is stone deaf to scientific information."

Yet, despite giving ample ammunition to those who seek to marginalize him, Hansen is not easy to sideline. Just ask the Bush administration, whose efforts to shut him up failed spectacularly. For one thing, he just happens to have credible data to back up his assertions (although maybe not the high crimes against humanity charge). For example, in presentations and journal articles he lays out the case that the climate system is much more sensitive than previously thought, and he argues for a much lower "safe level" of carbon dioxide concentrations than what politicians are currently considering. Therefore, his political statements make some sense given his scientific information.

He also may, as this journalist senses, have tapped into the deep-seated frustration within the climate science community that policymakers are not moving remotely fast enough to respond to the climate change threat. Indeed he seems motivated almost entirely by that frustration these days.

Perhaps Hansen, like any other rational actor, is just doing what he thinks is necessary to do, after decades of seeing his message ignored at the end of the day. He shouldn't be silent if all of his research is pointing one way and the world is moving in the other direction.

Still, one wonders if he could accomplish more if he were to tone it down a bit. For example, maybe he could ditch the high crimes allegation and go for civil penalties, and steer clear of the dinosaur references?

By Andrew Freedman  | June 30, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman  
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