NASA’s James Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is no stranger to controversy. But in September, Dr. Hansen took his activism to another level by endorsing “ecovandalism” in a British court.
Dr. Hansen, who holds an M.S. in astronomy and a Ph.D. in physics, comes billed as one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, an issue his 1988 testimony to Congress helped launch. More recently, however, his expert status has taken some hits.
Last year, Dr. Hansen was forced to revise NASA’s surface temperature records after an independent researcher pointed out that Hansen’s analysis incorrectly identified the 1990s as the hottest decade on record. A new analysis of the data showed that the 1930s were in fact the warmest decade. That correction confirmed that even leading NASA astronomers and physicists can be wrong, but it did not lead Dr. Hansen to cool his activism.
In 2005, six Greenpeace campaigners were accused of causing £30,000 of damage (about $53,000 U.S.) to a chimney on a power plant in Kent where a coal-fired unit was under construction after spray painting “Gordon” on the side of the power station’s stack. Their slogan, “Gordon, bin it,” was intended to urge British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to disallow the continued construction of the plant, but they got only as far as the first word before being stopped. Still, they forced a shutdown until the activists were made to come down off the chimney. The Greenpeace activists claimed they intended to close the plant down to prevent carbon emissions responsible for climate change.
When the case came to court, the defense called James Hansen as an expert witness. Dr. Hansen has been an outspoken critic of coal-based energy generation and gladly complied. He testified that the proposed Kingsnorth station alone would be responsible for the extinction of no fewer than 400 species. He further told the court that he viewed the Kingsnorth trial as a test case for campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic to close down coal-fired power stations.
Jurors in the case decided that the defendants had a “lawful excuse” to damage property at the power station in order to prevent event greater damage resulting from climate change, and the six activists were acquitted.
There are a number of strange elements about this story, not the least of which is the equating of spray-painting slogans with acts like breaking down a house door to combat a fire, the type of situation for which the “lawful defense” justification was written. Dr. Hansen’s contention that the power plant in question would itself be responsible for a quantifiable amount of species extinction is a stretch of scientific uncertainties and specificity. And presumably, Dr. Hansen felt that the carbon emissions resulting from his overseas flight were fully justified, or perhaps irrelevant.
But of particular interest to American taxpayers should be the incongruence of Dr. Hansen’s activism with the mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.” Dr. Hansen has a right to espouse his viewpoints as a private citizen. The basis for his expert status, however, has been his role at NASA, and when he makes claims and gives opinions, he is almost always identified as a NASA scientist.
That gives his increasingly extremist views the ring of federal authority. Unfortunately, that also leaves the American public as sponsors of Dr. Hansen’s proselytizing, which has now grown to encompass not only his viewpoints on climate science, but also his advocacy of vandalism and damage to property.