As noted climate scientist Michael Mann observes, to do climate science is to enter the “climate wars.” War is an apt descriptor for this sociopolitical milieu, in which veracious research is routinely obfuscated by entrenched interests. It is the battleground in which Exxon has been accused of coordinating “campaigns of confusion,” for decades casting doubt on the science of climate change even as company data pointed to its existence.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker once opined that the defining practices of scientific
inquiry “are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable.” But in the contentious political environment of the climate change era, segregating scientific pursuits from the pandemonium of the human world is not so easy. Irrespective of how meticulous and methodologically sound the science of climate researchers is, it will be denounced tendentiously by detractors. The question, according to Mann, is what scientists should do.
There is perhaps no more seasoned navigator of this fray than James Hansen. Hansen, now the Director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University, has been at it for awhile. In 1988, while he was the Director of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, Hansen became the first expert to testify to a Congressional committee about the need to take political action on climate change, which he claimed was anthropogenic. He has been hailed as the “father of global warming” and his reputation as one of the world’s premier climate scientists has never faltered during his decades-long career.
But there is another side of Hansen: the activist and advocate. He has been an outspoken critic of the recent Paris Agreement for not taking forceful enough steps to halt the burning of fossil fuels. Similarly, he has been arrested on several occasions for demonstrating against proposed, large-scale fossil fuel projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline. Hansen exhorts other climate scientists to follow suit, stating that a concern with scientific certainty should not prevent researchers from urgently advocating political progress on the burning issues that they study.
Maligned by many, but lauded by more, Hansen’s biography offers an instructive example for scientists wishing to navigate the climate wars. His pathbreaking scientific papers attest to the severity of anthropogenic climate change. His indefatigable advocacy merely indicates that he takes his science seriously.
To learn more about Hansen’s science and activism, check out his 2012 TED talk.
Peer edited by Kathryn Pietrosimone