The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Hansen's Inflammatory Language

While you are trying to decide what to think or do about James Hansen's recent provocations, especially about fossil energy executives who ought to know better, you should take some time to understand who he is and why he might be quite so pissed off.

Hansen is not by origin the sort of person to become a flaming radical. Hansen is a physics Ph.D. from Iowa of high repute nearing comfortable retirement. I don't know if you know any midwestern PhDs or even any midwesterners nearing retirement, dear reader, never mind both at the same time, but I have had the privilege of meeting a few. (Updated his discipline. Thanks, Andrew.)

While there may always be exceptions, I hope you will concede that these are not the sorts of people who are normally given to such strong language.

It might be worthwhile thinking about what, exactly, the man is quite so peeved about.

Okay? Thanks in advance.

33 comments:

Dano said...

Exactly.

Let us also remember, when we are discussing such things, that he was throttled by those in power. Now that the hands are off his throat, the air in his lungs is bursting forth.

Best,

D

Andrew Dessler said...

FYI, I actually think his degree is in space physics or astrophysics.

SomeBeans said...

Those things are true, but most of the uncommitted and skeptical public will not know the back story and will come away most likely feeling put off.

Michael Tobis said...

SomeBeans, agreed. I myself would not have said those things and would have advised him to take them out.

Still, it's worth considering why he left them in anyway.

Steven said...

So, are we to gather that you know what type of person an individual is based on geography and elligibility to receive retirement benefits?

I wonder if psychologists use such a tool.

Can you also feel the lumps on Hansen's head and give us some insight into his courage and temper.

On another front: Did someone chain Hansen to an administration desk? Didn't he have an option to leave and say whatever he wanted?

Michael Tobis said...

Steven,

Admittedly, it is possible Hansen is an outlier. I don't know him personally.

I am just asking you to consider for a moment what might make someone who under normal circumstances would be mild-tempered and restrained say things like that.

He did have the option to leave, but you will note he wasn't working for a coal company. I am sure he considered leaving during the current administration-like thing.

I'm not, again, trying to defend this language in this context. I am just trying to get you to put yourself in his shoes for a minute and understand why he might say something like that.

bi -- IJI said...

Michael Tobis:

"I myself would not have said those things and would have advised him to take them out."

Well, Hansen could've found a PR guy to tweak his diction, but I suspect that the result will be a speech so bland that it's forgettable. As it now stands, Hansen's message isn't just controversial, but -- more importantly -- it's also memorable.

Whatever magic mixture Hansen's using, it's working. He's giving the inactivist PR flaks a run for their money.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Marion Delgado said...

Okay I will kick against Michael's judgment, which I hate to do because it's normally very good, even when I a priori might have not thought so.

What on Earth was intemperate in any of that?

It shouldn't be a repeat of 1988, which did no good. It should acknowledge that we are decades past the settled science issues and into the phase - the harder phase - where the denialists turn into foot-draggers.

The science now is about environmental amelioration and energy conservation and so on.

A very admirable presentation, and frankly, pussyfooting around and soft-peddling the problems wouldn't have done any good.

Dano said...

I am just asking you to consider for a moment what might make someone who under normal circumstances would be mild-tempered and restrained say things like that...I'm not, again, trying to defend this language in this context. I am just trying to get you to put yourself in his shoes for a minute and understand why he might say something like that.

Pity there is too much denialist ululating hay to make with additional demonization of the Hansen totem.

I think the words were ill-chosen, but the guy appears to be a wee bit angry.

Best,

D

Michael Tobis said...

Marion, the controversy is about the two paragraphs beginning "CEOs of fossil fuel companies know what they are doing" and ending with "more desolate planet".

The intervening text advocates trying capitalists doing their capitalism as they best understand it for "high crimes against humanity and nature".

Personally, I think corporations are machines and do what they do. Any conscience they may have is imposed from outside; rarely by shareholders or customers, more usually by legislation.

In the current state of the world, apparently lying and obfuscation are considered fair game. This being the case some corporations will lie.

Trying the managers of such corporations is the sort of changing the rules after the fact that has very serious risks and side effects. Even raising the issue is a troubling matter. Essentially, Hansen breaks Godwin's law a second time by evoking Nuremberg.

Have we reached such a point?

It depends. Those of us steeped in the material sometimes forget how opaque it is to outsiders. What is blazingly obvious to us is equivocal to everyone else. Therein lies the tragedy.

I do think there is active evil afoot among the inactivists, but I don't think it takes very much of it to get the ball rolling.

Pantheist Mom said...

Yes, yes, and yes.

What does he have to lose, personally, really? He's near retirement, after a long and successful career. I guess he feels he's due the option and it's past time to say what he feels.
It may not have been such a good move for a younger scientist, but it seems he's happy with his motivations. More power to him.

Bigger picture? Good gracious - I don't know. Has he said anything that lots of thinking persons haven't already concluded? Does his saying it "officially" really make any difference? Was it a reactive comment, or a proactive one?

I know I'm not contributing anything new. But I'm reading and listening.

bi -- IJI said...

Michael Tobis:

"Essentially, Hansen breaks Godwin's law a second time by evoking Nuremberg."

When I read his speech, I was thinking of stuff like Slobodan Milošević, Darfur, and the Hague.

"Those of us steeped in the material sometimes forget how opaque it is to outsiders. What is blazingly obvious to us is equivocal to everyone else."

That assumes that one can get an accurate profile of the imaginary "outsider" based on fake outrage produced by talking-point mills.

Much better for Hansen to simply speak his mind.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Steve Bloom said...

MT: "Trying the managers of such corporations is the sort of changing the rules after the fact that has very serious risks and side effects."

Or, as in the case of the apparent new FISA law, not trying them. This is to point out that for those managers at least there is no principle involved.

bi -- IJI said...

I did a quick search on Google Blogs to get a very rough idea of what the average "outsider" is thinking. I found

- blogs writing on global warming which endorse Hansen's overall positions;
- the good old `Hansen hates opinions and his data are fake and Al Gore is fat' mantra in its zillions of permutations;
- regurgitations of news about an exhibition titled "Flooded London" coupled with Hansen's warnings; and
- a fake plea for Hansen to tone down his rhetoric, coming from... drum rolls please... the Breakthrough Institute!

I think the main problem's not "outsiders" getting pissed off by Hansen's words -- those who are expressing outrage already hate Hansen anyway for lots of other things. The real problem, I'll say, is that "outsiders" can't even be bothered enough to digest his message and respond to it either way.

Not rejection; apathy.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

bi -- IJI said...

I did a quick search on Google Blogs to get a very rough idea of what the average "outsider" is thinking. I found

- blogs writing on global warming which endorse Hansen's overall positions;
- the good old `Hansen hates opinions and his data are fake and Al Gore is fat' mantra in its zillions of permutations;
- regurgitations of news about an exhibition titled "Flooded London" coupled with Hansen's warnings; and
- a fake plea for Hansen to tone down his rhetoric, coming from... drum rolls please... the Breakthrough Institute!

I think the main problem's not "outsiders" getting pissed off by Hansen's words -- those who are expressing outrage already hate Hansen anyway for lots of other things. The real problem, I'll say, is that "outsiders" can't even be bothered enough to digest his message and respond to it either way.

Not rejection; apathy.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Anonymous said...

So let's see: your house is on fire, the arsonists are messing with the fire department and some folks are upset with the guy who called 911 for wanting the cops to get involved.

Fighting fire with fire seems appropriate to me, given our narrowing window of opportunity

Anonymous said...

Michael:
Your comments about Hansen are singularly lacking in coherence. Hansen has had almost unfettered access to the world stage for over 20 years. His comments, left unsupported, are sheer hubris and are akin to his earlier statements about responding to "jesters". Moreover they have nothing to do with his PhD or where he grew up. Such an assertion is bizarre. What would help me understand Hansen's statement are the facts that legitimate his charge.
His hyperbolic statements in themselves will do little to persuade me that his arguments about AGW are somehow more valid.

bi -- IJI said...

Anonymous, when you start talking about "sheer hubris" it's clear you won't be convinced by facts.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

David B. Benson said...

mt --- This is becoming too confusing. If you banned using 'anonymous' I beleive it would solve my current problem.

Marion Delgado said...

BTW thanks for your response, Michael.

I thought it was such a good presentation I hadn't even noticed that.

CEOs of major energy corporations make their own weather, so to speak. They write laws and bribe regulations out of existence (as an Alaskan with family in the southern coastal tourist industry, I know this firsthand). Hence, the fact that they have a fiduciary obligation IN EXCHANGE FOR THEIR VOLUNTARILY ASSUMING THE MANY RIGHTS (including bastardized rights ripped off illegally by a CEO in a minor railroad decision from the 14th amendment in the US) of incorporation, a duty to, in their eyes, do anything they can that won't actually land them in prison to make the stocks go up after they take their arbitrary cut, won't fly. They can simply disincorporate, at which point the sky does not fall in. They just become no longer creatures of the government, and can be sued for full liability. To say they're just following orders as they lie and bribe and swindle and extort and blackmail, etc. and destroy the commons to make themselves and their families more wealthy than any royalty in history doesn't merit even mockery.

Michael Smith said...

"anonymous" offered this analogy:

So let's see: your house is on fire, the arsonists are messing with the fire department and some folks are upset with the guy who called 911 for wanting the cops to get involved.

I've been listening to claims like this for over 30 years -- not just with respect to global warming, but with respect to a whole litany of doom-and-gloom predictions.

In my lifetime, I've heard predictions of:

1)Mass global starvation (including in the U.S.) from overpopulation.

2)The onset of a new ice age precipitated by industrial particulate emissions.

3)The depletion of oil reserves within 20 years (I first heard that wide-spread claim in the 1970s).

4)The total destruction of environmentally-crucial ecosystems due to oil spills like the Exxon Valdez accident leading disruptions of the food-chain.

5)The "death of the oceans" and the "death of the coral" from man's "pollution".

6)The "death of the lakes" from acid rain.

7)Skin cancer epidemic from ozone depletion.

8)Cancer epidemic from contamination of the water table with pesticides.

9)Numerous unfounded health scares about DDT, cyclamates, DES, nitrites, saccharin, tris, EDB, Alar, etc.

(For an illuminating look at the health scares mentioned in 9, see the American Council on Science and Health: http://www.acsh.org/)

Not a one of these things turned out to be the sort of problem that was claimed at the time.

Now, I don't offer this list as any sort of proof against global warming. I merely offer it as an explanation for why I choose to ignore the current flavor of the month in apocalyptic claims about impending doom.

The issue isn't nearly as clear-cut as one's house being on fire -- and only some sort of self-imposed blindness (or brainwashing) can get one to believe that it is.

bi -- IJI said...

Michael Smith:

"The onset of a new ice age precipitated by industrial particulate emissions."

The one who's inflating this particular "scare" is you.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

David B. Benson said...

Michael Smith --- Your #5 is certainly happening now.

Michael Tobis said...

Michael Smith presents a peculiar list by way of spinning a "crying wolf" story. At least five of his nine crying wolf stories involved actual, real, non-imaginary wolves. Arguably more.

#1) Indeterminate; certainly the world has a maximum sustainable population. Current agricultural productivity depends on nonrenewable resources and it remains to be seen whether this porblem has been avoided or merely deferred.

#2) People did say this. (Scientists for the most part didn't, which is Bi's point.)

#3) Depletion of oil reserves. Hmmm...

#4)I don't know who said this, nor do I know how bad the local impacts were. Global ecosystems are clearly in decline.

#5) Seems to be occurring. Listen to Jeremy Jackson of Scripps.

#6) Has definitely occurred in the past. Such recovery as has occurred is a consequence of regulation.

#7) I would guess probably detectable at far Southern Latitudes; worse effects avoided by global regulatory action.

#8) I don't know about this one way or the other. It would not surprise me if this were detectable.

#9) The idea that concerns about DDT were unfounded is mythology. I don't know about the others. I don't doubt that there have been some cases of exagerration, but your list is not convincing.

For the most part you list areas where regulation is in place, so the worst effects have been avoided. In other cases you list areas where effects are detectable and show signs of getting worse.

You could easily turn around and say, look at all the areas where regulations are in place, and yet we are still doing economically OK.

At least we were until the sudden increase in demand for oil just as production capacity has peaked. It is easy to observe a frantic casting about for scapegoats in that one that might easily have been anticipated.

Good luck. I am sure you or someone like you will let us know once you decide whose fault that one is. I am confident it won't turn out to be the lack of public investment in alternatives, though.

Steven said...

MT:

I'm sorry, but really I was sorta' giving you a hard time about the post, not Hansen himself.

For all I care, he can drop the f-bomb every other sentance. It's not really my concern.

What I want to point out is something I have mentioned before. You treat people on your side differently than you treat people on the other side. Hansen's comments, and your post really introduced no new content.

What your post did do is essentially use Hansen's outburst, contrasted with his supposed placid temperament as evidence in his own favor.

That's like a mom saying "Because my normally angelic child throws a tantrum in class, it obviously shows he must have a legitimate complaint".

If some economics professor paid by Exxon did the same, I'm sure you would not say "Oh, well I generally think these anti-AGW guys are weeines, but since this guy is really flipping out and he's normally such a mild mannered milqutoast, maybe I should consider why he is so excited". (Visualized with chin firmly in hand and lower lip in contemplative position.)

Michael Tobis said...

Anon, Steven, I am not providing any evidence here.

I am just suggesting you think about why the man is angry.

Perhaps it is because he has, along with many of us, spent most of the past 20 years providing supporting evidence, and yet some people seem to think there isn't any.

This confusion is, in part, a consequence of organized obfuscation. Such obfuscation is morally about as dubious an act as can be imagined. At least Hansen apparently believes that, and I among others believe that as well.

I really don't know if this traces to CEOs, but it is hard, in the face to recent history, to avoid the belief that there were and still are bad guys. These would be people who must have known their words to be misleading and with potential for enormously grave circumstances.

bi -- IJI said...

Steven:

When you're finished with the `Clinton did it too!' trope, you can read Lahsen's paper regarding the Marshall Trio who started this whole AGW inactivist hoo-ha. They weren't exactly "mild-mannered milquetoasts" before this anti-AGW business, and that's an understatement.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Michael Smith said...

Mr. Tobis wrote:

I don't doubt that there have been some cases of exagerration, but your list is not convincing.

It’s your responses that I find not convincing.

Consider the nature of your response to the first item on my list of doom-and-gloom predictions that I claim have not come true ( at least no to the extent claimed):

1)Mass global starvation (including in the U.S.) from overpopulation.

Your response:

#1) Indeterminate; certainly the world has a maximum sustainable population. Current agricultural productivity depends on nonrenewable resources and it remains to be seen whether this porblem has been avoided or merely deferred.

It is certainly not “indeterminate” that mass global starvation due to overpopulation has not occurred. It hasn’t, period. Ehrlich was wrong because he underestimated the progress of technology.

But rather than acknowledge that fact -- rather than re-examine why and how vast increases in food production occurred, and rather than take a serious look at whether such increases are possible in the future -- you switch to the simplistic claim that since resources are finite, problems may still crop up in the future.

Thus -- since time extends into infinity and you can always speculate that the problem might still catch up with us the day after tomorrow -- a specific environmentalist prediction is transformed into a non-falsifiable claim. In my book, that puts it outside the province of science.

The bottom line is that if you employ argumentative tactics like this no agreement will ever be possible.

bi -- IJI said...

Michael Smith:

Was there anything near a consensus around Paul Ehrlich's specific claims at the time he made them? Again, it's obviously you who are now playing up this `scare' so that you can criticize it.

And what about your `point' immediately after? Again, there was never any consensus around Rasool and Schneider's claim of severe global cooling due to aerosols. The person playing up the `scare' now is you.

But anyway, since you're absolutely, totally convinced that any scare that's reported in the newspapers must be "crying wolf", what exact criteria do you have to tell whether a "wolf" is, in fact, very likely real? Give us something specific.

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Michael Tobis said...

M Smith; I have touched on the food sustainability question before. In the end that is the big question that subsumes all the others, after all.

We should revisit it in more detail. As usual I like to replace yes/no questions which are inherently divisive with quantitative questions that tend to create a spectrum of opinion.

In this case, I think Joel Cohen's formulation is most useful. "How Many People Can the Earth Support"?

Do you have an estimate? Assume food imports from outer space are constrained to be negligible and that time is, indeed, infinite.

This is the sustainability question, and its answer is not "yes" or "no", it is a number.

Then you need to back down to the more complex question of how many people can be comfortably and sustainably supported, since life too close to the limit might not be worth the trouble. Still a number, though.

TokyoTom said...

Michael, while I don't approve of Hansen's language, I think it's helpful to understand the context - namely, a political fight over public resources in which insiders have long controlled the playfield. I have a blog post up on this.

I think if the good Dr. was a little more careful in his expression he could have gotten in a very good, perfectly apt and easily defended zinger. But perhaps he knows precisely what he is doing - which is a dangerous game that not only raises the heat on the very self-interested fossil fuel industry and tends to make it easier for them and others to brush him off.

I am rather disappointed that no one seems to be paying attention to his 100% rebated carbon tax plan, which is a whole heck of alot better than the massive bureaucratization and pork giveaway that was Warner-Lieberman, as I note in my blog post.

I note that there is a growing wave of support for rebated carbon taxes, even from the likes of right-wing AEI and American Council for Capital Foundation, EXXON and Florida Power, and recent analytical work by Robert Shapiro - and I have pulled a bunch of info together here for those who are interested in actually talking policy.

Some of the criticism of Hansen, especially coming from the fossil fuel side, is rather easily defanged, as I note here in an open letter to Vic Svec of Peabody, who raised crocodile tears to Andy Resnick at Dot Earth about how Hansen is "chepening the debate".

Sincerely,

TT

Bill said...

I see that temperatures have now dropped below where they were in
'88, when Hansen published that famous paper. (according to some of the temperature surveys anyway).

It's understandable if he's feeling a bit pissed off.

Michael Tobis said...

And with that bit of nonsense, moderation is back on.

Bill, leaving aside Spencer's history of understating current temperatures, trends in noisy sequences are not established by connecting convenient end points. See "linear regression".