Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Nocera, Hansen, Pipelines and Activism

Joe Nocera of the NY Times doesn't seem to like James Hansen much, and the feeling perhaps is mutual. Yesterday in the NY Times Nocera wrote, in a piece that calls Hansen's activism a "crusade" that is "misguided"
"Finally, and most important, Hansen has placed all his credibility on one battle: the fight to persuade President Obama to block the Keystone XL pipeline. It is the wrong place for him to make a stand. Even in the unlikely event the pipeline is stopped, the tar sands oil will still be extracted and shipped. It might be harder to do without a pipeline, but it is already happening. And in the grand scheme, as I’ve written before, the tar sands oil is not a game changer. The oil we import from Venezuela today is dirtier than that from the tar sands. Not that the anti-pipeline activists seem to care."
I don't think his point is true at all. It's no doubt true that if the Keystone XL pipeline isn't built the Canadians will find another way to get the tar sands oil to the market -- perhaps by a pipeline to the West coast, or by rail and barge. But it will be more expensive, which, like a carbon tax, would incentivize, in its way, a transition to other fuels.

I'm not sure how I feel about the pipeline -- or rather, I have opinions about it all but they go in different directions and, like a quantum cat in Schrodinger's box I'm in several different states at once because my wave function hasn't collapsed -- but I can certainly see why activists have chosen it for their "crusade." It's a definite piece of the big problem, something you can point to instead of all the thousands of smaller supplies all over the world. It impacts private properties, so they can get those concerned about that on their side. It's a definite decision that has to be made by the President, so they can apply attention and pressure to that specific decision instead of asking nicely if we all wouldn't burn so many fossil fuels, and you too China, please.

From the point of view of strategy, it's a smart place to plant your crusade.

Nocera concluded:
A carbon tax might be worth getting arrested over. But by allowing himself to be distracted by Keystone, Hansen is hurting the very cause he claims to care so much about.
But a carbon tax is too broad a target for activism, too abstract, too, well, wonkish. You can protest U.S. torture policies in the abstract, or you can protest that Guantanamo prison ought to be shut down. The latter is always going to get more attention, because it's a definite place were people can picture definite people where definite acts take place.

And if any scientist in the world has the right to be speak out on this issue, surely it is James Hansen. He's been working to understand all this since forever, and has forgotten more than Nocera will ever know on the subject. (Same goes for those ex- NASA employees, who may have walked on the moon but don't seem to know the science yes I'm talking about you Harrison Schmidt.)

Should scientists just collect data and piece it all together and not speak up if they see a huge problem happening because their work is ignored? Really? Should Oppenheimer not have expressed his concerns about the bomb? Linus Pauling? Should the Director of, say, the NIH not speak up about concerns over vaccinations rates, or just tell us how many people aren't getting them?

Should Edward Teller not have expressed his belief we needed more and bigger bombs? That was a form of activism too.... Same for scientists who spoke out in favor of SDI back in the 1980s, some of whom worked for Los Alamos.

Hansen is the Director of a major climate research institution. Aren't we paying for their expertise and judgement as well as their data?

I suspect Hansen made a decision some time ago that the carbon problem is so huge, so potentially harmful, that not speaking out would be deeply immoral. How can you be a scientist (not to mention a human being) who sees society driving itself into the ditch and not advocate we turn the wheel?

And the thing is, if people like Hansen don't speak out and we do go into this ditch and maybe even over the cliff, you just know that everyone in the future is going to look back on these guys and say, you knew all this could happen and you didn't say anything?? You, with all that data, with your expertise, with your position, and you didn't risk speaking out and giving everyone a warning? You should have standing on your desk screaming your head off! Thanks a lot, pal.

So in a way, James Hansen can't win. I (strongly) suspect that the future will unanimously see him as prescient, correct and even courageous, and they will probably wonder what all the controversy was about anyway, much like we have a difficult time understanding how anyone back when could advocate for slavery or smoking, and until Joe Nocera knows what James Hansen does and can do as good a job explaining it all, Hansen should just ignore him. Which can't be easy, but he should.

Update: Joe Romm has more (albeit typically hysterical) words for Nocera.


Lemon2 said...

I think the future will see Hansen as a goof and a dweeb - he will die in a state of personal humiliation.

thingsbreak said...

"I suspect Hansen made a decision some time ago that the carbon problem is so huge, so potentially harmful, that not speaking out would be deeply immoral."

You suspect correctly- this is something Hansen has stated openly.