James Hansen’s Dilemma…and Ours

James Hansen has left the building. The Elvis of Climate Change has departed his scientific life to become a social activist in the cause to which he has devoted his scientific life.  I understand his motivation, but view his new role with some concern.

I was disappointed when he chose to get arrested as an act of civil disobedience. It diminished his stature as a purveyor of reason to yet another player on emotions. That’s what demonstrations and street theater speak to. Emotions. They represent the surrender of reasoned discourse.

In a recent article reporting his imminent retirement, Mr. Hansen is quoted to have said “At my age, I am not worried about having an arrest record.”  If this glib comment reflects the definition of his future activities, he should be worried, for it will diminish his scientific stature at a time when we need an authoritative voice more than ever.

In recent months the press has presented a series of stories which would appear to cast doubt on the validity of climate change and much of Mr. Hansen’s work and advocacy…assuming you don’t read beyond the titles, and then between the lines.

For example, a recent article in the Economist suggests that the divergence in trends between atmospheric warming and the rise in greenhouse gases may be undermining the validity of the theory of greenhouse gas warming.  The article supported this observation with a model that claims to demonstrate a lower sensitivity of warming to CO2 than alternative model that has previously dominated the discussion. The interesting point is that both models have inherent advantages over the other, and both suffer from constraints of those advantages.  We need a tie breaker.

Yet another article lays out various contradictions between model projections and facts on the ground.  There are various observed anomalies that demand explanation, but it is premature to say that they dismiss the fundamental premise of accelerating climate change, or its hypothetical driver of hydrocarbons.  Further, whatever the discrepancy between theory and fact, there remains the accumulating facts that weather trends and natural transformations consistent with expectations of climate change are occurring at an escalating rate and pace.

Climate science has had the benefit of intensive escalation of projects, addressing many issues for the first time, and reaching a level of data that provides greater direct assessment that has previously relied heavily on proxies with their own limitations, inferences, and inherent questions of relevance and reliability. I suspect that we are arriving at a time in climate science that often happens in other scientific and quantitative areas where we have more data than insight.  We need to digest much new-found information to reach relevant conclusions.  We need to know that the process of that assessment is transparent, professional, objective and verifiable.

This brings us back Dr. Hansen, and his second act. His reputation as a credible voice has been sustained to date by his science, and not by his passion for his cause.  If he now chooses out of frustration to forsake his scientific standing to speak to ‘other passions’, he will surrender his most powerful influence.  We need now more than ever scientists who can not only comprehend this complex and rapidly evolving subject, but can communicate it to those of us who are not scientists but endeavor to translate it into policies and strategies that can effectively address its implications.

I can appreciate Dr. Hansen’s frustration.  In my own small realm of endeavor, I have observed public officials at various levels of government exercise concerted ignorance of credible information in order to pursue policies of short term convenience with long term detriment, or to avoid the challenge of educating their constituencies to contingencies that they must plan for. Even in the wake of realities of Storms Irene and Sandy, they strive to sustain the notion of business as usual.  I wonder how many more Sandys it will take to strip the public and its purported leadership of their self-delusions and deceptions.

But where facts and logic do not work, street theater and civil disobedience will not succeed. I think of the Vietnam War. Did protests end it? The left would like to believe so.  I think it was cold hard facts: our body count, and our walking wounded and living dead who gave mute testimony to the futility of that effort.  Perhaps it will be the same with Climate Change. It will not be accepted until the body count and casualty statistics and economic costs reach a point that registers with even the dullest of minds.

An arrest record will not enhance Dr. Hansen’s scientific standing, and it will deny serious advocates a credible source of information at a time when credibility is in extremely short supply.  There are plenty of climate change adversaries who will be delighted to see Dr. Hansen become a side-show in a climate change melodrama. Dr. Hansen has a dilemma. He can remain true to his science, or succumb to his passion.  But he cannot do both.

Choose wisely, Sir.




1 thought on “James Hansen’s Dilemma…and Ours

  1. MattinValencia

    Excellent post. When I was younger, I was a climate change skeptic. I was put off by the emotionally charged, hysterical activism. Then, when serious scientists started to reach the consensus that global warming is real, I changed my views.

    Governments need to review policies quickly if we’re going to solve this problem. Activism won’t change anything. Unequivocal facts and education will.



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