The Island of Doubt

Hansen arrested

Here’s the headline I would have written if I was editing the West Virginia Gazette‘s coverage of Tuesday’s protest against mountain-top coal mining:

Top government climate scientist arrested in coal protest

Here’s the headline the editor(s) chose instead:

Daryl Hannah, scientist among 30 arrested at W.Va. mine protest

Sigh. Have we slid so far down the hole of celebrity worship that a second-string Hollywood personality (who hasn’t made a memorable appearance on the silver screen since 1982’s Blade Runner), gets top billing over the country’s most senior and respected authority on the subject of the story? Apparently.

One can also question the Gazette‘s decision not to use the word “coal” or “climate” in the headline. The whole point of the protest was the draw a connection between the two concepts. Instead, even in the first paragraph a nameless scientist is arrested for a generic “mine protest.”

We get Hansen’s full name in the first paragraph, but the c-word is still absent. “Mountaintop removal” is, of course, a foolish thing for a civilized society to permit. Hansen and Hannah are both very much opposed to the practice. But Hansen is easily the most authoritative and one of the loudest voices in the campaign to free the world of its addiction to coal-fired power generation because of its role in global warming. And yet still no connection between coal and climate. It takes seven paragraphs for the Gazette to give climate change a mention, in the form of a quote from Hansen about the greenhouse effect.

This helps explain why West Virginia’s congressional delegation will among the last to support the ACES bill, which is scheduled for a vote in Congress this Friday. It’s now up to 1200+ pages and full of painful compromises that mean much more serious legislation will be necessary to get the U.S. on the right path to mitigating catastrophic climate change. Hansen says the bill is far too weak. He may be right. But you wouldn’t know that from the WV Gazette’s coverage, which includes no mention of the bill.

Compare with the headline over New York Times reporters Andy Revkin’s blog post: “Hansen of NASA Arrested in Coal Country.” Although why Revkin praises the Gazette’s story baffles me.

Why is Hansen’s decision to risk a criminal record important?Why is his arrest more news-worthy (even in a celebrity-obsessed media environment)? Here’s an excerpt from the current New Yorker:

When Hansen began his modelling work, there were good theoretical reasons for believing that increasing CO₂ levels would cause the world to warm, but little empirical evidence. Average global temperatures had risen in the nineteen-thirties and forties; then they had declined, in some regions, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. A few years into his project, Hansen concluded that a new pattern was about to emerge. In 1981, he became the director of GISS. In a paper published that year in Science, he forecast that the following decade would be unusually warm. (That turned out to be the case.) In the same paper, he predicted that the nineteen-nineties would be warmer still. (That also turned out to be true.) Finally, he forecast that by the end of the twentieth century a global warming signal would emerge from the “noise” of natural climate variability. (This, too, proved to be correct.)

Later, Hansen became even more specific. In 1990, he bet a roomful of scientists that that year, or one of the following two, would be the warmest on record. (Within nine months, he had won the bet.) In 1991, he predicted that, owing to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, in the Philippines, average global temperatures would drop and then, a few years later, recommence their upward climb, which was precisely what happened.

That’s why.


  1. #1 tl
    June 24, 2009

    who hasn’t made a memorable appearance on the silver screen since 1982’s Blade Runner

    What about “Kill Bill”?

  2. #2 Don
    June 24, 2009

    Its like a disaster movie script!

  3. #3 JohnG
    June 24, 2009

    Very well done bit of reporting. I laughed quite long at the wit in your presentation, yet it was a bit painful. It’s also tragically amusing that the first comment has to do with Hannah’s acting career.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    June 24, 2009

    Daryl who?

    Actually, I worked with a guy who was baby sat by Daryl Hannah. Or maybe it was James Hansen. Can’t ever get those two straight.

  5. #5 eNeMeE
    June 24, 2009

    Have we slid so far down the hole of celebrity worship that

    …this should really be the start of a good series of jokes ala “You might be a if”, but I’m too tired to supply ’em.

  6. #6 dg
    June 25, 2009

    mining is a big economic base for WVa; though locals probably love the state more for its beautiful mountain scenery. heres their new state motto:

    “W.Va.: stuck between a rock and a hard place”

  7. #7 Ian
    June 25, 2009

    You’re missing the point about celebrity: it has nothing whatsoever to do with social utility. Hansen isn’t a celebrity – yet. Most people have never heard of him. You can argue that most people have never heard of Hannah either, but she is known for getting involved in a variety of causes, whereas Hansen isn’t.

    Those of us who appreciate science may wish that the scientists were the celebrities and Hollywood was simply a form of entertainment, but maybe it’s better for science that it isn’t that way?

  8. #8 Aaron
    June 25, 2009

    Ian, yes it is better that scientists are not well-known celebrity-like figures who words are taken to be more important than the process. I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Hansen especially after a lifetime of service to his country and science, but taking such action and claiming that he is taking as action ‘as a scientist’ is going to cause a great deal of confusion as to the role science plays in our political system. In my opinion, a confusion we hardly need.

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