We Can’t Just Be Scientists: a recollection on a Talk given by James Hansen at Williams College on March 8th

Image from CNN

Image from CNN

By Cole Hersey

There are a lot of things that are running through my mind as I write this. I want to be able to put James Hansen in a good light, but recognize that he is three dimensional, and so has shadows. I would like to mention these shadows in a way that recognize the incredible work that he has done, from discovering that the chemical makeup of the atmosphere in Venus is the cause of its high heat on its surface, relating these findings back onto earth and increasing CO2 levels, his outspokenness about climate change and its effects on our planet and humanity, his lobbying of the U.S. Congress to put down measures to lower our carbon footprint, and his unrelenting critique of the fossil fuel industry. I will commend him for all of this. This is astounding, important and potent work that he is doing.

As he spoke about this at Williams College on March 8th, he seemed to advocate one thing and then in the next sentence contradict himself.

This began with the title of the talk: “How Can Young People Take Charge of their Future?”. Talks usually last about an hour. This one was no different. However, after his long and almost god-like introduction by a faculty member from Williams, he stood at the podium, seemingly tired, his voice slow, deep, and scratchy, and said that young people are taking charge of their future. He said that the youth vote was a large reason why President Obama won the presidency, and that the reason why Bernie Sanders did so well in the most recent Democratic Primary was because of the youth vote. So, he just answered the question right there. The talk, at least the reason for the talk, was over in less than five minutes.

Though he did go on for the full hour. He told us about his childhood, growing up in rural Iowa on a farm. He told us about his time at college and how he was able to do his Ph.D. on the atmosphere of Venus. Eventually he came to a long line of potential solutions for climate change. Unfortunately he went through them so quickly that I was not able to even write one of them down. The gist of all of these potential solutions seemed to ride on the effectiveness, as Hansen sees it, of the free market.

Many of his solutions had less to do with government control, but instead incorporating new rules that force markets to react in ways that curb the use of fossil fuels and rewards the use of renewable resources. But within all of this, he kept on using the term “free market” neglecting the fact that his solutions would not be ideal for a truly conservative and free market. At one point he even made that claim that “we should let the market decide.”

What's more is that he never could make a full jump towards how the current form of capitalism is affecting the climate. He kept mentioning how members of congress had to appease their many fossil fuel lobbyists, but could not make the jump to increasing profits and the simple power of the dollar in bargaining in our current system.

He went on to warn us about the dangers of populism, calling it the “greatest threat to democracy and freedom.” Yet Hansen turned around these statements by claiming that the United States is one of the greatest nations in the world, and that people are most free here. I had a lot of conflicting feelings about his notion of freedom in our current world. It particularly bothered me because of the disproportionate effect of environmental crises all over the United States today in communities of color, or low socioeconomic status (the Flint Water Crisis comes to mind, along with Silicon Valley, the Oroville Dam, and Uranium mining in the Southwest). Aren’t the effects of the crises detrimental to this esoteric notion of freedom?

When I think about it more, it is not that he said these things. People make misinformed statements all the time. But he said it having the political and scientific authority to have others listen to him and take it as truth.

First and foremost James Hansen is a climate scientist. He studies the chemicals in the atmosphere, creating hypotheses, testing them, and then inferring potential causes. He is not a social scientist. He has not devoted his life to the complexities of neoliberalism, nor the history of fascist regimes throughout history. Since Hansen is an outspoken activist, however, he must also deal with the complexities of this other realm of thought. He, and we, cannot make claims using only statistics and facts, we must attempt to understand the other side, why these issues arise systemically in the first place. Whether you are an anthropologist or a chemist, a mammalogist or an economist, you cannot stay within your discipline if you are attempting to fight something as challenging as climate change. If we have a more thorough, or at least broader, view of why climate change is happening and what it means, we will benefit from our better understanding of this world.

I’m not sure that James Hansen even meant to say those things. And, while he did, he was able to recognize that we all need to come together to work against fossil fuel industries, and that we, western nations, must admit responsibility for our causing this great climate change. And while I will continually admire Hansen’s efforts and the work he has done, I will still ask for him to think about our world from a new perspective.