It’s been more than 20 years since James Hansen first warned America of impending doom. On a hot summer day in June 1988, Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, announced before a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now.”
The greenhouse effect would have looked obvious enough to anyone watching on television. The senators conducting the hearing, including Al Gore, had turned the committee room into an oven. That day it was a balmy 98 degrees, and as former Colorado Sen. Timothy Wirth later revealed, the committee members “went in the night before and opened all the windows. And so when the hearing occurred, there was not only bliss, which is television cameras and [high ratings], but it was really hot.”
Hansen has been a star ever since. On the twentieth anniversary of his testimony to Congress, and still serving in the same role at NASA, Hansen was invited back for an encore performance where he warned that time was running out. He also conducted a media tour that included calling for the CEOs of fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy, to be put on trial for “high crimes against humanity and nature.”
If you hear the echo of Nuremberg in those trials, it’s because Hansen doesn’t shy away from Holocaust metaphors to make his point. In 2007, Hansen testified before the Iowa Utilities Board not in his capacity as a government employee but “as a private citizen, a resident of Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, on behalf of the planet, of life on Earth, including all species.” Hansen told the board, “if we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains—no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.”
More recently, but presumably still in his capacity as a private citizen and defender of the Earth, Hansen wrote an op-ed for the Guardian in which he described coal-fired power plants as “factories of death.” This on the heels of testifying in a British court on behalf of six Greenpeace activists on trial for causing $60,000 in criminal damage to a coal-fired power station in England.
The Greenpeace activists had offered climate change as a “lawful excuse” for their actions, and with Hansen’s helpful testimony they were acquitted of all charges. Less than six months later, Hansen—a federal employee—would call for “the largest display of civil disobedience against global warming in U.S. history” as part of a protest at the Capitol power plant in Washington.
Hansen, by his own count, has conducted more than 1,400 interviews in recent years. Yet Hansen also would insist, in a speech just days before the 2004 presidential election, that the Bush administration had “muzzled” him because of his global warming activism.
When asked about this contradiction in 2007, Hansen told Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), “for the sake of the taxpayers, they should be availed of my expertise. I shouldn’t be required to parrot some company line.”
But Hansen has never parroted the company line. As the head of NASA’s Weather and Climate Research Program from 1982 to 1994, John Theon was James Hansen’s supervisor. Theon says Hansen’s testimony in 1988 was “a huge embarrassment” to NASA, and he remains skeptical of Hansen’s predictions. “I don’t have much faith in the models,” Theon says, pointing to the “huge uncertainty in the role clouds play.”
Theon describes Hansen as a “nice, likeable fellow,” but worries, “he’s been overcome by his belief—almost religious—that he’s going to save the world.”
Indeed, Roy Spencer, who served as the senior scientist for climate studies at NASA’s Marshall Center, puts Hansen “at the extreme end of global warming alarmism.” Spencer doesn’t know of anyone “who thinks it’s a bigger problem than [Hansen] does.”
Spencer, a meteorologist by training and a skeptic of man-made global warming, was genuinely muzzled during the Clinton administration.
“I would get the message down through the NASA chain [of command] of what I could and couldn’t say in testimony,” he says.
Spencer left NASA with little fuss for a job at the University of Alabama in 2001, but he still seems in awe of Hansen’s ability to do as he pleases. “For many years Hansen got away with going around NASA rules, and they looked the other way because it helped sell Mission to Planet Earth,” the NASA research program studying human effects on climate. Spencer figures that “at some point, someone in the Bush administration said ‘why don’t you start enforcing your rules?'”
Theon says the same kind of models that now predict runaway warming were predicting runaway cooling prior to 1975, when the popular fear was not melting ice caps but a new ice age, and “not one model predicted the cooling we’ve had since 1998.” Spencer insists “it’s all make believe—if you took one look at the assumptions that go into this, you’d laugh.” But none of that seems to matter too much.
Michael Goldfarb ([email protected]) is a Phillips Foundation fellow and online editor of The Weekly Standard. This article is reprinted with permission of The Weekly Standard, where it first appeared in longer form on June 15. For more information, visit www.weeklystandard.com.