A Free-Market Energy Blog

Scientist Behaving Strangely? The Case of James Hansen

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 21, 2009

Historian of science Thomas Kuhn warned of “scientists … behav[ing] differently” and experiencing “pronounced professional insecurity” when one of their long-held beliefs comes under increasing pressure from new science (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 1962. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 24, 67–68).

Is this the case with NASA scientist James Hansen, who (in the opinion of his many and growing critics, and even some friends) keeps putting his foot where his mouth is?

In an interview just published in The Guardian, he states that President Obama has “four years to save the earth.” This latest incarnation of his great climate alarm is mostly based on a projected rise in sea level rise, a scenario that our Chip Knappenberger analyzed critically in his post yesterday.

Hansen’s latest is related to the ten-year alarm he gave in 2006, in a piece in the New York Review of Books:

We have at most ten years—not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions.

So in two and a half years, ten years has become four years, the exact length of Obama’s first term.

On the political front, Hansen has stated:

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.

He has also analogized conventional electricity-generation to the Holocaust:

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.

Hansen has also defended criminal obstruction at UK coal plants.

Back to the science. The climate mini-alarms concerning hurricanes, sea level rise, ocean circulation disruption, and so forth, are in open scientific dispute. Global warming has stalled, and 2009 will put the trusted warming projections of climate models out of bounds, if the warming does not resume noticeably.

Yet now more than ever, Dr. Hansen is CERTAIN that his high-sensitivity estimate is correct (“Nailed–It’s 3C for 2x CO2,” Slide 15 in a recent Hansen presentation states).

Many climate scientists disagree with Hansen, including the full range of “skeptics,” from Richard Lindzen (below 1C) to Spencer, Christy, and Michaels (between 1C and 2C), to others.

Even members of the “mainstream” disagree with Hansen. For example, Gerald North at Texas A&M has projected 2C for as long as I have known him. Not that his self-described “toy model” is definitive, but intuition from seasoned veterans like North might well be better than climate models that the IPCC itself admits are problematic (“The set of available models may share fundamental inadequacies, the effects of which cannot be quantified,” p. 805).

Is Hansen a scientist behaving strangely, as his increasing bets on climate alarmism are contradicted by Mother Nature? Only the future will tell. But given the inability of the political process to address his alarm, the rest of us may want to shift public-policy course to favor adaptation to climate change rather than (ineffectual) mitigation. Resources are scarce, and tradeoffs must be made.


  1. Ed Reid  

    President Obama could not save the world from CO2-driven global warming, no matter how pure his intentions or how intense his efforts. If the US stopped all CO2 emissions today, the resulting <20% reduction in CO2 emissions would be offset by increases from China within 10 years.

    There is no national solution for a global “problem”. The solution is either global, or it is doomed to failure.

    I am still waiting for a definitive statement about the global reduction in CO2 emissions required to stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations. However, I am not holding my breath.


  2. jae  

    I wonder if ANYONE really takes this guy (or AlGore) seriously.


  3. mlynch  

    Not knowing much about climatology, but with some understanding of scientific psychology, I am reminded of studies of scientific fraud, and how those who find themselves challenged began to resort to ad hominem attacks and become more shrill. Though I can hardly say if this is the case for Jim Hansen.


  4. jorgekafkazar  

    Kuhn may have been referring to the development of Messiah complexes (also known as delusional grandiosity) in scientists, despite their intelligence. See:

    “[A] Messiah complex is a state in which the individual believes themselves to be, or destined to become, the saviour of…a time period, or in an extreme scenario, the world….”


    1. The patient expresses an idea or belief with unusual persistence or force….
    3. Despite his/her profound conviction, there is often a quality of secretiveness or suspicion when the patient is questioned about it.
    4. The individual tends to be humorless and oversensitive, especially about the belief….
    6. An attempt to contradict the belief is likely to arouse an inappropriately strong emotional reaction, often with irritability and hostility.
    7. The belief is, at the least, unlikely….

    The special danger lies in symptom 7, above. A scientist can, by appearance of authority or by expert obfuscation, make assertions seem more likely than they actually are.


  5. Ian W  

    Sometime ago the debate about CO2 initiated global warming ceased to be scientific. It is now a political argument where being correct is unimportant compared to maintaining the public perception of impending doom. This is becoming difficult as the temperatures have not risen in line with their projections and there has been snow in Baghdad and New Orleans.

    The more shrill Hansen and his associates become, the less believable their case. Eventually, some of the mainstream media will break away from the herd and initiate some really open scientific debate. Unfortunately, it appears that the open scientific debate will not be allowed in the ‘scientific’ journals who long ago nailed their colours to the mast.


  6. Tom Tanton  

    It’s interesting that Hansen’s “ten years to act” has become “four years to act” in just under 2 1/2 years. Maybe (we can hope afterall) the four years will become “it’s too late” and all the worry and hand wringing will be over with–we can focus on adaptation as the need actually arises (or not.)


  7. Remembering the Old James Hansen (give him some credit) — MasterResource  

    […] have previously posted on NASA scientist and leading climate alarmist James Hansen as a “scientist behaving […]


  8. "EPA Recognizes Peril of Greenhouse Gases" (Houston Chronicle headline on endangerment finding indicative of alarmist bias) — MasterResource  

    […] 2008 recipient of the Jule Charney Award of the American Meteorological Society). As I previously posted: Even members of the “mainstream” disagree with [James] Hansen. For example, Gerald North at […]


Leave a Reply