by Bill Onasch
A bit early this time—but expect future delays. (See below)
Can Scientists Also Be Activists?
Scientists Warn of Perilous Climate Shift Within Decades, Not Centuries was the headline of a “balanced” article in the New York Times. It began,
“The nations of the world agreed years ago to try to limit global warming to a level they hoped would prove somewhat tolerable. But leading climate scientists warned on Tuesday that permitting a warming of that magnitude would actually be quite dangerous. The likely consequences would include killer storms stronger than any in modern times, the disintegration of large parts of the polar ice sheets and a rise of the sea sufficient to begin drowning the world’s coastal cities before the end of this century, the scientists declared.
‘We’re in danger of handing young people a situation that’s out of their control,’ said James E. Hansen, the retired NASA climate scientist who led the new research. The findings were released Tuesday morning by a European science journal, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.”
A draft of their conclusions was widely circulated last year before the Paris Climate Summit. The Paris gathering made a symbolic gesture toward it when they said they should strive to cap warming at a global average of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels–while for sure going no more than the previous target of 2C. Since we are already at about 1.4, and Paris produced only hazy goals, not mandated quotas for each country, Hansen dismissed the treaty—yet to be ratified—as a fraud. Not many climate scientists are as outspoken as Hansen but most share his disappointment and apprehension.
While few scientists would risk an outright challenge to Hansen and his collaborators the Times piece devotes considerable ink/pixels to hesitations raised by some.
“‘Some of the claims in this paper are indeed extraordinary,’ said Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. ‘They conflict with the mainstream understanding of climate change to the point where the standard of proof is quite high.’”
The “extraordinary claims” don’t break any totally new ground. The traditional narrative that global warming is driven primarily by burning fossil fuels is still valid. The new paper does upgrade the threat of methane—a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide—that is growing rapidly as a waste emission from fracking. And the study updates analysis and predictions about side-effects of fossil pollution–feed-back loops generated by warming itself.
As we noted in the last WIR, warming has affected the coldest regions the most, speeding up the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, releasing still more methane from thawing PermaFrost, that along with expanding the volume of now warmer water affects sea level rise and weather patterns throughout the world. As some Australian climate scientist rappers put to music—feed-back is climate change on crack. We have even less time than once assumed to stop climate change short of irreversible catastrophe.
The “mainstream understanding” Mann refers to is actually the political compromises that have been demanded in publishing United Nations scientific reports. They have tended to be relatively conservative. Of course, there can never be too much proof. But the laboratory for verifying or rejecting climate hypotheses is our biosphere—and there’s no mulligan do-overs in the experiments. So far, the Hansen school scientists have been pretty much spot on in their predictions.
The Times finds another current of uneasiness among some scientists,
“Among Dr. Hansen’s colleagues, some of the discomfiture about the new paper stems from his dual roles as a publishing climate scientist and, in recent years, as a political activist. He has been arrested at rallies, and he has joined with a group of young people who sued the federal government over what they said was its failure to limit global warming. Dr. Hansen argues that society is in such grave peril that he feels morally compelled to go beyond the normal role played by a scientist and to sound a clear warning. That stance has made him a hero to college students fighting climate change, but some fellow scientists fear he has opened himself to the charge that he is skewing his scientific research for political purposes.”
All climate scientists have been attacked by the deniers fronting for corporate climate wreckers for having a political agenda—or greed in getting lush grants. This includes all former and present candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. It is no service to either science or society to timidly limit scientific discussion to an ivory tower. And Hansen is certainly not the first prominent scientist to take dire warnings to the public.
Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes—one for Chemistry, the other for Peace. He was a nuclear disarmament activist admired by many college students—some inspired to become scientists.
Barry Commoner was an eminent biologist, a winner of the prestigious Newcomb Cleveland Prize. But he was above all an activist scientist. To test his supposition that radioactive strontium 90 from nuclear weapon test fallout was being passed through grazing cows in to their milk—and in to children’s teeth and bones—he called for donations of baby teeth for testing. He got the cooperation of a union leader—Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers—and OCAW members sent in plenty of samples from their Tooth Fairy. This study had a major impact on nuclear powers agreeing to ban above ground tests. In 1970, Time magazine featured Commoner on their cover and described him as the “Paul Revere of Ecology.” His lay lingo works still deserve study.
I think we could use a lot more climate scientists like these two examples who used their science to determine their political agenda—the opposite of the deniers and the timid. Activist scientists who would bury or exaggerate scientific truth would be of no use to us. But neither would we benefit from confining discussion of the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced to an isolated elite.
The Times article closes,
“Even scientists wary of the specific claims in the new paper point to Dr. Hansen’s history to argue that his ideas need to be taken seriously. ‘I think we ignore James Hansen at our peril,’ Dr. Mann said.”
He got that right. Unfortunately, there is a lot of perilous ignorance out there. It’s up to those of us who know better to try to turn that around—and I’m glad we have Jim Hansen on our side.
On to the City of Broad Shoulders
This Thursday, hopefully around 7:30AM, I will be aboard Amtrak’s Southwest Chief leaving Kansas City, headed to Chicago’s Union Station. I always enjoy a trip to the city where I lived in the early Sixties when it could still claim Second City status. It was where I joined the now defunct Young Socialist Alliance at about the same time as Bernie Sanders was in the just as defunct Chicago Young People’s Socialist League. I don’t recall ever meeting Bernie who was enrolled at the University of Chicago while I was settling in for a life of blue collar employment.
But I won’t see much of the attractions of the Windy City this time. I’ll be headed to the Labor Notes Conference in Rosemont, adjoining O’Hare airport. There will likely be upwards of a couple of thousand labor activists, including many from outside North America, so it seems like a good place to be.
Like I have for the last three such biennial events, I requested a “vendor” table. This time there was unprecedented demand for table space. This good news unfortunately caused me some problems. By the time my table request was confirmed the union printer I use couldn’t guarantee my piddly jobs would be done in time–because of a backlog created by election related work. So instead of the union bug we’ve always had on our free hand-outs this time we acknowledge they are printed “in house.”
This is literally true. I’d be empty handed if our resourceful site Safety Editor—a member of the National Writers Union who also happens to share her home with me—hadn’t done yeowoman’s work cranking out on her printer the three leaflets that will be on the kclabor.org table. We’ll also have an assortment of buttons—with a union bug—for a dollar each, Stop Global Warming tote bags for five bucks, and we’re pleased to have a small consignment of labor and climate books from MayDay Books in Minneapolis. If you are attending the conference I hope you will drop by and say hello.
Because I am old and slow, there will be no WIR next week, and I won’t be posting news on the Labor Advocate blog over the next two weeks.
That’s all for this week.
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