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Science and Politics

Dr. James Hansen is perhaps the best-known climate scientist in the world and was one of the first to bring global warming to the world’s attention. The title of his 2009 book, “Storms of My Grandchildren – The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity,”  succinctly expresses his views on human-caused changes to climate. The book also details his public policy work since he began testifying before Congress in the 1980s.

Dr. Hansen is a serious scientist, who says he much prefers doing pure science over talking to the rest of us about earth science facts. As a scientist, he projects our climate future based on detailed observations of present conditions and on the Earth’s climate history, preferring to rely on what icecaps and geology can tell us about the past rather than on computer climate models. Despite some reluctance, he has spoken and written often about the climate change dangers to our civilization. “Storms” is Dr. Hansen’s first book.

The title and content of the book’s first chapter, “The Vice President’s Climate Task Force,” outlines challenges in persuading policy makers to hear climate science findings and then act. Dick Chaney, who had been a consistent advocate of the oil industry throughout his career, was the Vice President in charge and Dr. Hansen was a member of the task force. Predictably, there was a successful effort to find outside experts to “balance” Dr. Hansen’s assertions about global warming. The task force did not act as Dr. Hansen’s recommended.

As a trial lawyer, I know it’s possible to find an “expert” to give whatever expert testimony the lawyer wants, if the expert is properly compensated. The jury, which lacks expert knowledge, then has to look at conflicting expert testimony and determine the truth as best it can. Dr. Hansen reports that good science is often muddied by publicists with scientific credentials.

As an example, Dr. Hansen states that he has “found no Arctic researcher who believes that sea ice will survive if the world continues with business-as-usual fossil fuel use.” The future being the future, there is doubt about when the ice will be lost and what the exact consequences will be. Contrarian scientists emphasize selected uncertainties and, as Dr. Hansen opines, “spout their interpretations of data, sometimes mangling the truth, usually demonstrating a lack of insight about what is important, and often succeeding in confusing the public.” The contrarians’ views are encouraged by important economic and political groups which like the status quo, and their influence is magnified by the media’s tendency to give equal weight to both sides of a controversy. Conflicts make news, and the reporter seeks out contrarians on important issues, such as whether human activities are causing global warming which threatens civilization.

There will be disputes, at least until the planet more decisively reacts to our burning millions of years of buried hydrocarbons within the past two centuries. What we can do is to listen carefully and without bias to the facts and, like a good jury, put aside our prejudices and make our best judgments about what to do. We need to do that critical listening – there are no public policy issues which are as important.


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