James Hansen – Come Back Down to Earth

February 16, 2009

It’s not often that climate scientists get the guru treatment. James Lovelock is one, for sure, but that’s more to do with his exposition of Gaia theory to explain the development and maintenance of life on/as earth. There’s more than a hint of the guru about a lot of the mysticism that gets attached to his theory, lending him an elder statesman sort of aura that is not really backed up by his recent brand of pro-nuclear catastrophism.

James Hansen is another. Hansen’s a favorite target for global warming-deniers, who often label him as a guru for their own nefarious (sarcastic) purposes, but we’ll put that aside. More pertinently, Hansen is indeed a respected, almost talismanic figure for those fighting to secure an effective global climate deal. It was Hansen who jetted to Kent in 2008 to testify before a court in defense of protesters who had scaled the cooling towers at Kingsnorth power station to unfurl a banner highly critical of plans to reconstruct the coal-powered beast.

The case was won, providing a useful precedent for activists to pursue more radical forms of protest in the future. Hansen’s major defense, as he explains in a recent article for the Guardian newspaper, came as “I estimated that in its lifetime it would be responsible for the extermination of about 400 species – its proportionate contribution to the number that would be committed to extinction if carbon dioxide rose another 100 ppm.”

In that same article, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies also wrote that “The trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains. Coal-fired power plants are factories of death.”

Earlier on, he wrote that “Our planet is in peril. If we do not change course, we’ll hand our children a situation that is out of their control. One ecological collapse will lead to another, in amplifying feedbacks.”

We’ve come to expect this kind of strident, scientifically informed rhetoric from Hansen, who lays a fair claim to being the world’s most eminent climate scientist. Climate activists have come to expect, and to an extent depend upon, the support of Hansen, whose prominence provides cover for climate-friendly politicians in a world where scientists are often too afraid (or inarticulate) to make public their anxieties. Hansen is neither of those things, which makes him such an important part of the activist scene.

From others, the likening of trains carrying coal to power stations to wagons carrying holocaust victims would represent an extremely dicey dalliance with hyperbole. But Hansen can do it, which is good, because he’s most likely absolutely right.

On this score, at least. Preventing Kingsnorth and helping China, India etc.. to wean themselves of new coal plants (while fiercely combatting the rhetoric of “clean coal” proponents) is a priority for all who want to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Where it’s harder to agree with Hansen, is his position on aviation. The Guardian also reported on a speech made by him earlier in February in which Hansen appears to have taken an extremely worrying position on airport expansion. In an article headed “Climate Expert Snubs Heathrow Protesters,” the NASA maven reportedly told an audience in New York that “anti-aviation campaigners that their protests will not help the battle against global warming and do not deserve support.”

The context here is the ongoing resistance in England to the expansion of several major, and minor, airports. Chief among them is Heathrow, where a third runway is planned, and at Stansted as well. Both schemes have provoked major activist campaigns and popular mobilizations, while political support for the expansions has trickled away.

His reasons appear to be partly tactical, partly technical. On the one hand, Hansen explained that “The number of runways you need for your airports depends on their traffic. You don’t want to be so restrictive that you end up burning more fuel because planes are having to circle and wait to land because of lack of runway space.”

Fair enough. But that’s tendentious. Obviously, we don’t want hordes of planes circling endlessly over our airports, spewing carbon dioxide as they peer through the London mists, waiting for a spot on the tarmac below. But the expansion of the airports is not being framed as, and indeed is simply not, a means of alleviating congestion in the skies.

The reason is that larger airports means more flights, means more profits and, naturally (or not so “naturally” if you will), more emissions. As The Times reported in January, the Heathrow expansion alone is projected to lead to 60,000 more flights per year.

Hansen is being extremely disingenuous about this. His is the language of a politician who has made the decision to expand airport capacity yet simultaneously wishes to fight climate change. It’s almost new Labour. Or Gore-speak.

Tactically, Hansen states that because “Coal is 80% of the planet’s problem…You have to keep your eye on the ball and not waste your efforts.” Furthermore, as the Guardian’s Robin McKie reported Hansen to have stressed, “Aviation was not a danger, and he would not fly to the help of those who disrupted airports and flights.”

Well, one would look a little silly flying to the assistance of anti-aviation protesters, but the point is clear: aviation protesters are wrong and, in fact, counter-productive. They are taking our eyes off the ball, which is made of coal, and doesn’t fly at 10,000 feet.

Hansen is dead wrong, however, to take this tack. Aviation is in fact a massive threat to the environment, for reasons which go beyond climate change, yet aviation is also the fastest growing source of carbon emissions worldwide. It’s also projected to double within 15 years, according to the campaigning group Airport Watch. Moreover, as the government still refuses to incorporate emissions from aviation into its own national audits (and claims because of it that UK emissions are falling), there is an imperative need to campaign against increasing its extent.

Aviation is also an international issue, meaning that the most effective way to curb it is via an international treaty. As Copenhagen will be the venue for the IPCC talks in December, and it is hoped that these talks will lead to a Kyoto mark II, we need to be campaigning now to ensure that aviation is included in the deal.

Moreover, at least in the UK, aviation related issues have mobilized more people to become involved in influencing politicians than has any other source of emissions. 70,000 people responded to a government-led “consultation” on Heathrow’s expansion, over 90 percent of which were critical of the plans. Concerns over the impact of aviation on the climate have spurred the Tories to back massive rail expansion plans, while the whole of West London’s roster of MPs fears eviction from their seats if they support such schemes. Protests have drawn thousands onto the streets of communities around Heathrow to resist.

With all of that in mind, Hansen’s reticence to join calls to halt the expansion of aviation is puzzling. Surely he does not want to dampen popular mobilization over climate change? Nothing could be more damaging as Copenhagen approaches. Surely too, Hansen does not see campaigning against coal power stations and aviation as mutually exclusive? Such pedantry and, in Hansen’s case, monomania, about the relative threats of different emissions sources is truly counterproductive.

It also begs a broader question. Whither biofuels? or imported, rainforest sourced mahogany furnishings? or farting cows? Surely not all a waste of our activist energies? Say it ain’t so Jim!

But, flippancy aside, I think that what Hansen’s stance risks is twofold. Firstly, it is divisive. Climate change has many causes, all of which merit strong opposition, and the movement to counter climate change incorporates many different groups. Dismissing one, particularly active, section of the movement, is extremely poor strategy. Secondly, owing to Hansen’s extreme prestige in political and media circles, his stance provides cover for Barack Obama, Gordon Brown etc… to settle for a watered down international agreement, which avoids issues like aviation or international shipping.

After all, if James Hansen said it’s not a priority….

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