Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Can Jim save the world?

James Hansen is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan. The research mission of the Institute is to study global climate change. Hansen has been director since 1981. He was among the first climate scientists to call attention to the climatic consequences of increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and he is widely regarded in the climate science community as one of the outstanding figures in the field. He collaborates widely with other scientists.

In the June 29, 2009 issue of The New Yorker magazine Elizabeth Kolbert has written a profile of Hansen in a piece entitled “The Catastrophist”. She recounts how Hansen has over the years become increasingly concerned about the threats to society from global warming. As the models have become more sophisticated, as the data regarding climatic change accumulates, the projected effects of climate changes that will occur if humanity continues on its current trajectory of fossil fuel consumption look progressively more ominous. Kolbert relates how Hansen has over the years become increasingly frustrated with the failure of the political system to act on the basis of scientific evidence for the dangers that lie ahead. Political activism is not Hansen’s métier; he is reportedly rather shy, and does not at all enjoy being in the public eye. Nevertheless, he has become one of the most vocal and insistent voices arguing for immediate and sweeping changes on a global scale. During the years of the Bush administration Hansen was repeatedly pressured to restrict his contacts with public media. Instead of buckling under to these pressures, he went public about the pressures being exerted. Today he is frequently at the battlefronts of the climate wars; speaking to groups of all persuasions and sizes, on radio talk shows, testifying before governmental committees, and participating in demonstrations against construction of new coal-burning power plants. All of this activity has brought him a world of headaches.

James Hansen’s story illustrates vividly the distinction between epistemic and moral authority that I have been at some pains to make in Imperfect Oracle. I can’t imagine that there are any credible climate scientists who would challenge Hansen’s credentials or record of accomplishment, even if they didn’t agree in full with his positions on scientific issues. So he obviously has epistemic authority. But he has gone far outside that range in his vigorous advocacy for large-scale societal responses to the threats posed by fossil fuel emissions and other factors that promote global warming. His 2008 testimony before a congressional committee gives the flavor of his advocacy. His statement is replete with the scientific evidences for impending climate change driven by increasing fossil fuel consumption. That is well and good for “This is the way the world is, and where it is heading” – for epistemic authority. But he then goes on to argue urgently for what must be done if we are to avoid what he envisions as a calamitous future. His frustration with the inaction he sees is evident in statements like this: “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.”

I won’t comment here on the wisdom of using such language in arguing for social change on the basis of scientific evidence. It is the case that Hansen has been vilified in the conservative news and opinion outlets , most of which contest the reality of climate change or disagree with the measures proposed to curb CO2 emissions . For example, in 2007, a NewBusters columnist saw strains of hysteria and mis-information in Hansen’s public pronouncements on climate change going back more than two decades . Look at this piece, and ask yourself, whether or not you are a scientist, just what it conveys about the reliability of Hansen’s predictions. We could dissect this kind of critique to our heart’s content, but it is undeniably true that Hansen has been challenged repeatedly over his forecasts of regional climate change, and changes in the global temperature over the past few decades. Note that these challenges, prompted by Hansen’s highly visible advocacy and sometimes strident opining, deny his epistemic authority. For the fans of those sources, Hansen’s status in the scientific community counts for zilch. Beyond this, however, there is a veritable blizzard of stuff out there questioning his motivations, calling him a liar and a fraud and more - for example.

What can we learn from James Hansen’s story? It is, of course, not over by any means, but if offers an object lesson. Scientists are often at a place where they need to decide whether to advocate, as scientists, for a position or policy in the public realm. Even when scientists are not expert in a given subject area, such as climate science, they are in a position to appreciate much more than non-scientists can the depth of research findings, the extensive accumulations of data over time, the continual back and forth within the scientific community on specific research questions - all that goes into forming a reliable scientific opinion on a complex problem such as global climate change. Scientists who are informed can thus in good conscience promote a serious audience for those scientific findings in the halls of government and in the public sphere. Scientists are also perhaps in a better position than most non-scientists to appreciate the consequences of taking an action or not taking it; for example, reduction of fossil fuel emissions. So they can argue for policies that mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases of all kinds, that promote alternatives to fossil fuels, and that make plans for dealing with the consequences of climate change. In short, scientists can attempt to exercise moral authority in the public sphere. I believe, however, that we will make the most progress by a steady reliance on the science, and on continued efforts to inform non-scientists on what the best scientific opinions is telling us. It is not very useful to get caught up in arguments of the sort that contrarians tend to raise, based on details: the temperatures in the Midwest this past summer, year-to-year changes in the thickness of the Arctic ice sheet, and so on. Rather, it should be focused on explaining how the scientific community comes to the consensus embodied in the IPCC reports, and on the bigger, longer-range course of change. That means that we should individually take a look at those documents as they appear. You can find the latest at IPCC.

In the end, science may prove to have little leverage in shifting societal priorities. There seems to be widespread agreement that the climate is changing, in some places more rapidly than was predicted. But actually making sacrifices to deal now with the seemingly distant threats of climate change will not come easily. The science will eventually out; we will just have to keep on keeping on. At a minimum society will need scientific expertise to help it figure out how to cope with the changes ahead. I know that sounds a bit wimpy; a sort of Kurt Vonnegut response. So be it.

No comments:

Post a Comment