On Friday, at 3:40 p.m., the State Department released its "Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement" for the highly contentious Keystone XL pipeline, which Canada hopes to build to move its tar sands oil to refineries in the United States. In effect, the statement said there were no environmental impediments that would prevent President Barack Obama from approving the pipeline.
Two hours and 20 minutes later, I received a blast email containing a statement by James Hansen, the head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA — i.e., NASA's chief climate scientist.
"Keystone XL, if the public were to allow our well-oiled government to shepherd it into existence, would be the first step down the wrong road, perpetuating our addiction to dirty fossil fuels, moving to ever dirtier ones," it began. After claiming that the carbon in the tar sands "exceeds that in all oil burned in human history," Hansen's statement concluded: "The public must demand that the government begin serving the public's interest, not the fossil fuel industry's interest."
As a private citizen, Hansen, 71, has the same First Amendment rights as everyone else. He can publicly oppose the Keystone XL pipeline if he so chooses, just as he can be as politically active as he wants to be in the anti-Keystone movement and even be arrested during protests, something he managed to do recently in front of the White House.
But the blast email didn't come from James Hansen, private citizen. It specifically identified Hansen as the head of the Goddard Institute and went on to describe him as someone who "has drawn attention to the danger of passing climate tipping points, producing irreversible climate impacts that would yield a different planet from the one on which civilization developed." All of which made me wonder whether such apocalyptic pronouncements were the sort of statements a government scientist should be making — and whether they were really helping the cause of reversing climate change.
Let's acknowledge right here that the morphing of scientists into activists is nothing new. Linus Pauling, the great chemist, was a peace activist who pushed hard for a nuclear test ban treaty. Albert Einstein also became a public opponent of nuclear weapons.
It is also important to acknowledge that Hansen has been a crucial figure in developing modern climate science. In 2009, Eileen Claussen, now the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, told the New Yorker that Hansen was a "heroic" scientist who "faced all kinds of pressures politically." Today, his body of work is one of the foundations upon which much climate science is built.
Yet what people hear from Hansen today is not so much his science but his broad, unscientific views on, say, the evils of oil companies. In 2008, he wrote a paper, the thesis of which was that runaway climate change would occur when carbon in the atmosphere reached 350 parts per million — a point it had already exceeded — unless it were quickly reduced. There are many climate change experts who disagree with this judgment — who believe that the 350 number is arbitrary and even meaningless. Yet an entire movement, 350.org, has been built around Hansen's line in the sand.
Meanwhile, he has a department to run. For a midlevel scientist at the Goddard Institute, what signal is Hansen sending when he takes the day off to get arrested at the White House? Do his colleagues feel unfettered in their own work? There is, in fact, enormous resentment toward Hansen inside NASA, where many officials feel that their solid, analytical work on climate science is being lost in what many of them describe as "the Hansen sideshow." His activism is not really doing any favors for the science his own subordinates are producing.
Finally, and most important, Hansen has placed all his credibility on one battle: the fight to persuade 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.