Reducing Carbon Emissions Through Science

James Hansen, NASA’s preeminent climate scientist, has long advocated for reducing carbon emissions below 350 parts per million.  For this work, he was recently awarded the Sophie Prize.  The Prize is awarded to an organization or individual who "has created awareness of alternatives to modern-day development and/or initiated such alternatives in a pioneering or particularly inventive manner."  This is a great achievement for Dr. Hansen.

I admire Dr. Hansen’s work.  His research and testimony before Congress about climate change have been integral to putting the international spotlight on the issue. Dr. Hansen has also been outspoken about his politics and what should be done to reduce our emissions.  While I actually agree with some of Dr. Hansen’s politics, I believe they ultimately undermine his credibility as a researcher. If Dr. Hansen wants to create more of an awareness of and inspire action to use alternative energies that reduce carbon emissions, then he should stick to doing provocative research and scale back the provocative politics.

Many firm believers in climate change have hailed Dr. Hansen’s views and actions, such as chaining himself to a coal plant, as proof that we’re in dire straights and that we need to reduce emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  However, skeptics have used these same opinions and actions as a sign that climate science has become compromised.

I’d put myself in the firm believer category (why else would I be writing here?). However, I don’t need James Hansen chaining himself to a fence in front of a coal plant or advocating for a carbon tax to convince me that we need to take action to reduce carbon emissions.  And I don’t think an image like that is likely to win over many people on the fence about climate change.  In fact, it might have just the opposite effect.

Scientists have every right to express their political opinions.  Everyone does.  If Barack Obama decided to chain himself to a coal power plant to show his opposition to dirty energy, he could go right ahead.  My guess is that this hasn’t happened yet because President Obama sees other, more effective ways of getting the public to agree that we need to reduce carbon emissions.

I wish Dr. Hansen realized this as well.  As one of NASA’s lead climate researchers, Dr. Hansen has an incredible opportunity to be an advocate for science.  From his position, he could promote some of the stronger certainties in climate science and explain to the general public why they warrant action.  He could also highlight some of the more uncertain aspects of the science and explain how researchers are working to resolve them.

This would promote greater faith in and understanding of climate science.  This in turn would help convince the American public that actions to reduce carbon emissions are important to a more secure, stable future.  It would then be up to voters and policymakers to determine the best course of action.

Dr. Hansen could even remain one of the main faces of the “350” movement, which advocates for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide below 350 parts per million.  He has already highlighted the effects higher carbon dioxide concentrations will have on the climate system.  However, his political actions have overshadowed some of that work and in the process, weakened his position as a credible scientist.

By putting climate science first and leaving the policy details of how to reduce carbon emissions on the backburner, Dr. Hansen would be far better able to advance the cause of reducing emissions.   Showing the strengths of climate science is more powerful than a scientist chained to a fence advocating policy prescriptions.

Photo Credit: Greenpeace