Tag Archives: James Hansen

Memo to Scientists: Don’t March. Educate!

Women marched on Washington to demonstrate their deeply held feelings for our just minted President.  And it was eugh!  The pussy caps endure, but what else survives of that exhilarating  moment to improve any of the conditions that brought them there?

Now scientists are on the march, first in Boston; then with a climactic event planned for Earth Day.  Some unsolicited advice: save your sneakers; you’ve got much more important things to do with your time.  Don’t march.  Educate!

Marching is a great visual, but it’s not likely these days to move legislation in your direction. The President doesn’t give a damn.  I doubt that he watches Neil de Grasse Tyson or Science Guy Bill Nye on cable.  Senator Snowball from Oklahoma doesn’t give a damn. Chief of Staff Priebus will tell you to go home, shut up and listen. Lamar Smith isn’t likely to show up at the Mall for a listening exercise.  And conducting teach-ins among the devoted is just sooo sixties!

So here’s your marching orders, if I may be so bold.

Educate yourselves.

Learn how to communicate with the average person.  You may be whizzes at what you do, but too many of you are too often incompetent about how you communicate what you do to the average person in terms that are relevant and meaningful to him or her.  Why should you care?  Joe and Jane six-pack don’t pass appropriations and climate legislation and environmental regulations.  But they elect the clods that do, and that’s where the battle needs to begin. If you can’t communicate with them and make science important in their lives, you’re toast.  You’re just another part of the elite they’ve come to despise, and with some good reason.

We didn’t become a nation of science dolts over night. It has taken sixty years for the lessons of Sputnik to wear off.  That’s what whip-lashed us into caring about science then.  It will take something equally existential to bring us back.. Climate Change should be doing it, but you’ve been too complacent as a group for too long, and what is existential to you does not seem too important to a lot of other people.

Prepare for  the Long March.

That’s what you’re on.  Not just some giddy road trip to DC with some selfies and cool t-shirts.

The Long March is to Town Halls and State Capitols where decisions are still made close enough to constituents that the perpetrators may have to look them in the eye.  The Repugnantlans made that Long March over the past twenty years,  and we now have what we have in D.C. by way of local voting precincts and state legislatures. The Democrass couldn’t organize enough people with enough energy and focus around a theme to constitute a march.  The result has impacted science and much more.  The cure will have to tread the same path. And the cure will have to fix much more than science; it’s just part of the syndrome.

 Educate Others

Get out of your labs. Embed yourselves in your community’s affairs.  If not your specific subject matter ( string theory and quantum physics is tough to apply at the Planning and Zoning Commission), bring your discipline of critical thinking, of cause and effect, of data informed (but not data driven) decision-making.  Equally importantly, observe and learn from the actions of non-scientists in the competition of ideas in the broader community. That’s the theater in which the politics of science will play out, as with everything else.  That’s where it must begin to find respect and acceptance, and gradually transform processes and results.  But it will take time…as does much of your research.

Clean Up Your Act.

The ethical constructs of the broadly and loosely organized ‘scientific community’ have come under scrutiny and strain of late,  as well as assault.  You need a code of ethics and a governing body as never before to protect you and your science from the onslaught of interests and self-interest that have perverted science as it has most other human endeavors in our complex and contentious society.

The forces of fear and desecration are about in the land, capable of inflicting fatal harm on reputations and causes with or without justification. That shouldn’t be news to you any longer.  Don’t give them justification.

Clean up the peer review process.  Avoid hyperbole in putting forth your hypotheses and projections.  I know you’re only as good as your last grant or publication, as is true of salesmen in any other field, but let your product sell itself.  Don’t oversell it in order to break through the din.

Inform the Political Process, But Don’t Become Political.

You can be scientists or you can be political activists.  But you can’t be both without compromising your position as scientists.

I was deeply disappointed when Dr. James Hansen concluded his career in science with an act of civil disobedience in defense of his science. I could empathize with his frustration, but I viewed his act as an affirmation that his science was insufficient.  Rather than advance his science and his proper message, he diminished it, in my view. Please do not follow his example. You risk far more in the March on Washington and its potential for unintended consequences in our current environment than you stand to gain.

Stand Your Ground.

Defend what you know. Acknowledge what you don’t know. And fight at every  opportunity the falsehoods perpetrated by others with the weapons your science provides. I have witnessed climate scientists in public forums sit passively while self-styled nabobs of science denial rose to proclaim this or that piece of nonsense courtesy of the Heartland Institute or some other propaganda mill, when they should have risen to professionally counter false assertions.  As we have seen too often of late, lies perpetrated and left unchallenged become accepted as truths among the ill-informed.  Successful lies encourage their liars to more audacious levels.

Maintain Your Sense of Humanity and Humility.

Knowledge without purpose is no better than wealth or power without purpose. Scientific knowledge that does not advance the human condition cannot justify its call on the commitment and resources of others that it depends on to advance.

Your knowledge confers on you significant power, but it is ephemeral.  Do not forget the difficulty of attaining your achievements.  Do not become the difficulty impeding the next step of progress.

With all this said, I have no doubt that the Short March on Earth Day will proceed as intended.  But if it is not followed by the Long March, a Death March will surely await us.





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.



Clim-Ergy: Competing Trajectories Toward An Unknown Convergence…or Collision

Since I became immersed in Climate Change impacts in 2004 and energy transition in 2006, I have been waiting for the moment when both paradigms might converge in a common strategy framed in a shared context of awareness.  That destination in time, space and understanding seems as remote as ever. I am reminded of this in a convergence of articles in yesterday’s New York Times.

Joe Nocera writes of a coal gasification project in Texas that holds promise of bringing coal back into the realm of tolerable energy options by reducing its carbon footprint and other collateral damages of pollution.  He lists five benefits of a project currently under way in Texas.  My auditor’s skepticism (cynicism) senses that the actual applicability of the technology will fall considerably short of its theoretical promise, as have so many before it. But that is my assumption. Like His, it will be confirmed or refuted by experience.

Mr. Nocera engages Bill McKibben to weigh in on the proposal. Mr. McKibben responds, in essence, that a half bad solution is not a good solution from an environmental perspective.  In this exchange is embedded the crux of Clim-Ergy’s most immediate dilemma: Do we sacrifice the economy for the environment, or the environment for the economy? This should not be cast as a binary choice, but as yet we have not found the sweet spot of a compromise.

Mr. Nocera in essence argues for coal gasification on the grounds that it makes tolerable a resource that will be used in any case by economic necessity. Mr. McKibben, by contrast, in many of his pronouncements dismisses the economic implications of taking actions that will prevent an environmental catastrophy.  Unfortunately, more people understand the negative impacts of a radical economic transformation leading to contraction and dislocation far better than they understand the implications of an environmental catastrophy which will inflict its own economic consequences.  Even with the benefit of recent climatic events, most people remain in denial of the severity that could await us under Mr. McKibben’s, and the scientific community at large, projections of climatic consequences.  This is not new, and that is disturbing.  While more people are coming to accept that we are experiencing accelerating climate change, relatively few are willing to sign up for Mr. McKibben’s prescription.

Which brings us to President Obama’s proposal yesterday of a $2 billion program to explore automobile technologies to replace the use of fossil fuels.  These are to be funded by federal royalties on the extraction of more fossil fuels to power the cars we have and further support global warming in the interim. This is the essence of society’s deal with the devil.  We will commit a sin to secure a virtue. It is a contorted logic indeed, but the one we are operating under.

Mr. Obama is only half the fool his critics in both parties make him out to be. He knows the score as well as anybody.  He knows that to promote alternative auto technologies to sustain America’s competitive (job) edge tells joe and Jane six pack that he’s got their back on jobs, and their happy motoring illusion of freedom is not in jeopardy.  In truth, the technology that will transform autos and reduce environmental impact will transform many other realms of energy consumption.  Whether the personal auto will survive in a constrained economic future, by any means of propulsion, is a truth for the future to reveal. But he also knows that he must move us toward a new energy future for environmental and economic reasons, even if he will not spell out explicitly the forces that compel our transition and the destination that we must reach of necessity (‘the moral [and economic] equivalent of war’).

Finally, an article, The Facts on Fracking  is a generally well-balanced and descriptive definition of the process and of selected findings regarding its impacts.  The authors, Susan Brantley and Anna Meyendorff, bring their expertise to give some context to a subject that is too often addressed by partisans with no intention of balance. Still, much remains to be understood.

They note that:

– fracking and enhanced recovery methods have actually been around for a while;

– the new methods of enhanced recovery introduce toxic cocktails of chemical agents, often containing undisclosed ingredients;

– the drilling for gas occurs at levels well below the water tables for potable water, reducing risk of contamination;

– methane releases occur naturally for various reasons, and that such releases may not necessarily be the result of co-incident fracking per se;

– some pollution has occurred as a result of faulty installation of casings and failures of proper waste disposal practices, but is believed to be relatively infrequent.

All of this is true, as far as it goes.

But all of the preceding does not authoritatively answer a host of questions and observations:

– Regulation across the industry and across state regulatory boundaries is spotty and inconsistent at best, and state regulators, with few exceptions, are no match for the companies they are overseeing in expertise or resources or political clout to fulfill their public mandate.

– While fracking has been around for a while, the increase and intensity in recent years and the enabling new technologies introduce potentially new dynamics which are not fully understood and will not be until further history evolves.

– The industry has too often knee-capped necessary studies to get a more authoritative and objective handle on the consequences of its practices. The studies to date, and the statistics cited by the authors are informative, but not necessarily conclusive.

– While it may be true that we are not seeing measurable negative results of fracking at the moment, we are dealing with a technology that is permanently altering geological structures with unknown and unknowable consequences until it ages and reveals them, as is often the case with many technologies in many fields.  To be sanguine about its safety at this point in its evolution is a tad premature.

The most unsettling part of the article was in this passage:

“Pennsylvania has seen rapid development of the Marcellus shale, a geological formation that could contain nearly 500 trillion cubic feet of gas — enough to power all American homes for 50 years at recent rates of residential use.”

This is the seduction of assumption that the gas industry has used to achieve what borders too often on carte blanc for its practices and aggressive exploitation of a limited resource: the hope and hype that we can go on as we have been. But it cannot be a promise until proven, and there are many equally authoritative professionals who question that the projected reserves will be realized, either because they are less than believed, or they cannot ever be economically extracted at some point.  This argument has legs, because we are seeing it in the oil industry now, which is why we have an exploding gas industry (pun intended), even as it simultaneously implodes on depressed market prices.

So the question is: who do you trust?  The average citizen questions the environmental position of McKibben and James Hansen as an unknowable projection that is probably exaggerated. But the average citizen wants to believe fervently in that 50-years-of-business-and-life-as-usual energy scenario, even if he/she doesn’t think about what lies beyond, because he/she will then be in the Great Beyond where heat and air conditioning and transportation are irrelevant. Besides, the President has also touted that same 50/60 year horizon of continued bliss. It must be true, even if you don’t believe he was born in Hawaii.

But what if the average citizen is wrong? What if the President is wrong? What if McKibben and Hansen are wrong? What if the energy companies follow the same code of ethics and responsibility as the financial services industry of late?

*  *  *

I struggled to discern whether Ms. Brantley and Ms. Meyendorff were delivering a balanced, if incomplete, critique of fracking, or a subtle defense of it. But the final paragraph seemed an appropriate conclusion, regardless of intent.

“But if fracked gas merely displaces efforts to develop cleaner, non-carbon, energy sources without decreasing reliance on coal, the doom and gloom of more rapid global climate change will be realized.”

That is the risk that Mr. Nocera’s article seems to ignore. That is the risk that Mr. Obama’s $2 billion bet seems to want to hedge. That is the destiny that Mr. McKibben and Mr. Hansen fear, with consequences that can neither be proven nor dismissed at this time, any more than the availability of gas reserves.

We are all participants in a communal game of craps in which we individually and collectively throw the dice, in ways great and small, and wait for the consequences which will befall us all.



Houston, We have a problem.


This blog is inspired by a post from Barry Ritholtz. Mr. Ritholtz, in his usual top-down, holistic approach to issues, attempts to put into context a claim that 49 'NASA scientists'  dispute their agency's position on Climate Change.  He easily infers that the number is insignificant in the context of the total number of NASA employees who are scientists and engineers, and notes that such out-of-context assertions are all too typical of the Climate Change Deniers' cohort.  But that is inference, however correct.

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