Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

James Hansen Drags NASA into His Personal Politics

In a democratic society there are endless ways to protest lawfully and creatively. When people deliberately choose to break the law for political reasons, they do so knowing that criminal penalties apply. If they feel strongly enough to pay those penalties, they sometimes earn the grudging respect of those who disagree with them.

Dr. James Hansen is the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Yesterday he signed a letter (along with Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Terry Tempest Williams) which declares that a young man whom everyone admits broke the law should not be prosecuted next month in Salt Lake City. Not because he is remorseful and has seen the error of his ways – but because, in the words of the letter: “We don’t want Tim on trial—we want global warming on the stand.”

The letter acknowledges that Tim DeChristopher “bid for the oil and gas leases on several parcels of federal land even though he had no money to pay for them” thus sabotaging a federal auction and violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act.

Hansen thinks DeCristopher performed “a noble act, a profound gesture made on behalf of all of us and of the future.” He sees this young man as someone “who blew the whistle” on a process that was “corrupt”. No evidence of any corruption is supplied (or linked to). Instead, we’re supposed to be persuaded by vague allegations:

Tim’s action drew national attention to the fact that the Bush Administration spent its dying days in office handing out a last round of favors to the oil and gas industry. After investigating irregularities in the auction, the Obama Administration took many of the leases off the table, with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar criticizing the process as “a headlong rush.”

The letter that Hansen signed further declares:

  • “Tim’s upcoming trial is an occasion to raise the alarm once more about the peril our planet faces.”
  • “Outside the courthouse, there will be a mock trial, with experts like NASA’s Jim Hansen providing the facts that should be heard inside the chambers.”
  • “Demonstrators will be using the time-honored tactics of civil disobedience to make their voices heard outside the courthouse in an effort to prevent “business as usual”—it’s business as usual that’s wrecking the earth.”
  • “we won’t sit idly by while the government tries to scare the environmental movement into meek cooperation. This kind of trial is nothing but intimidation…”
  • “Tim DeChristopher deserves and needs our physical and spiritual support in the name of a just and vibrant community.” [bold added]

It would be difficult to find many people heartless enough to condemn this young man to the ten years in prison the letter claims he’s at risk of.

But it may be equally difficult to find many who are comfortable with the way Hansen, via this letter, has dragged NASA’s good name into this matter.

Hansen’s personal political views are his own business. But NASA belongs to – and is supposed to serve – all Americans. When a senior NASA official declares that lawbreakers “deserve” support for their “noble” gestures – well, you know what they say about Houston having a problem.

Feb. 10, 2010 UPDATE: On reflection, I think it’s useful to emphasize that the body of this letter doesn’t mention the credentials of the three other signatories. It doesn’t say that Naomi Klein, a best-selling author and world-renowned left-wing intellectual, will give evidence at the mock trial activists plan to hold outside. It doesn’t say that Bill McKibben, who wrote the first book on global warming for a mainstream audience and who is now the director of, will take an active part in the demonstrations. It doesn’t tell us about the credentials of author, activist, and naturalist Terry Tempest Williams and what his contribution to the protests will be.

There’s a blurb at the top of the screen that discusses everyone’s credentials, yes. In that context, we’re grandiosely advised that Hansen is “regarded as the world’s leading climatologist.” But the letter itself highlights only the participation of Hansen – drawing attention to his association with NASA and his allegedly “expert” standing in the context of what is a highly political – rather than a scientific – discussion.

Many professionals routinely preface their public remarks outside of their workplace with a disclaimer that says, in essence, that the views they’re expressing are not the views of their employers. In this letter, however, a deliberate effort is made to lend the entire affair respectability by trading on NASA’s reputation.

I would never suggest that Hansen doesn’t have the same right to free speech as any other citizen. What I have a problem with is people who confuse a scientist’s personal political views with science itself.

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