October 28, 2004

Blowing Your Own Whistle

Filed under: Climate Politics

Prominent scientist James Hansen criticizes President Bush’s climate change policy, despite the fact that the policy is in part based on Hansen’s own findings.

This is unheard of: A prominent scientist in the pay of the federal government attacks the President in a crucial state (Iowa) one week before the election. Not just any prominent scientist, either, but James Hansen, recipient of $250,000 in pocket change from the Heinz Foundation, run by Mrs. John Kerry. Don’t worry, though, he said he was speaking as a private citizen because he paid his own way. With Mrs. Kerry’s money, we might add, in his family nest egg.

According to the October 27 New York Times, Hansen said the administration wants to hear only scientific results that “fit predetermined, inflexible positions” on global warming.

Huh? Hansen was invited twice to the White House to brief Vice President Cheney. They wanted to hear him.

And although we weren’t there, we can only assume he summarized the results of his research on global warming, which were very succinctly stated in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2001:

Future global warming can be predicted much more accurately than is generally realized…we predict additional warming in the next 50 years of ¾ +/- 1/4ºC, a warming rate of 0.15ºC +/- 0.05ºC per decade.

That is precisely the same low figure that the so-called “skeptics”—the writers of these alerts and our apparently few friends—have been touting for years (readers will note that the White House never asked us!). Hansen’s figure sits at the bottom limit of projections made by the teeming horde of scientists and bureaucrats from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So, what’s the problem with the Administration? They accept Hansen’s argument that warming is likely to be modest.

Well, Hansen, a NASA scientist, is unhappy with Bush’s policy. Meanwhile, the White House is perfectly happy with Hansen’s science because it informs their policy.

Hansen is also upset that NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe interrupted him when he spoke of “dangerous interference” in the climate system. Hansen told the Times that “he told me that I should not talk about dangerous anthropogenic interference, because we do not know enough or have enough evidence for what would constitute dangerous anthropogenic interference.”

O’Keefe is precisely correct. There is certainly no convincing evidence that the sum-total of all climate change to date has been either a net cost or a net benefit to society. In fact, many would argue it’s pretty much been a net nothing. After all, in the last 100 years, as the planet warmed three-quarters of a degree Celsius (the same amount it will warm in the next 50), life expectancy in developed nations doubled, some crop yields quintupled, and today’s average citizen enjoys an affluence simply undreamt of in 1900. If global warming were so gosh-awful bad that it is, as Hansen says, “a colossal risk” if we don’t cut our emissions immediately, then why was it so darned inconsequential in the last 100 years?

Truth be told, Hansen doesn’t have a clue as to what the “best” temperature for the earth’s surface is. Today’s? That of 150 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution that presumably warmed the planet? We were at the end of the Little Ice Age and it was darned chilly. Two degrees warmer, which was the temperature that accompanied the rise of civilization?

The fact is that no one knows what the best temperature is, and we are going to have to decide that in this century, because the technology will likely evolve that will permit us to set that temperature where we want it. And, given that we can’t stop emissions enough now to even slow warming down a measurable amount (without totally different and unforeseen technology), that is the course that we will have to take.

All of this makes Hansen look pretty unsophisticated and ham-handed. According to the Times, “Dr. Hansen, 63, acknowledged that he imperiled his credibility and perhaps his job by criticizing Mr. Bush’s policies in the final days of a tight presidential campaign.”

There’s no way he’s going to get fired for this. That’s not the point. It’s just bad form, going to a critical state where the candidates are deadlocked and bad-mouthing your boss in an attempt to influence the election.

And it’s even worse form to criticize the Boss for accepting your science and, as is his responsibility, forming his own policy in light of that science—after having cashed a $250,000 check signed by the wife of his opponent in the Presidential election.


Hansen, J.E., and M. Sato, 2001. Trends of measures climate forcing agents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 14778-14783.

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