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It normally does not make news when the American Meteorological Society (AMS) gives out awards at its annual meetings, but this year is an exception. At their 2009 meeting in Phoenix earlier this month, the AMS bestowed its highest honor, the "Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal," to James (Jim) E. Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen is arguably the country's (if not the world's) most prominent climate scientist, but he also is a well-known climate activist who has been pushing for significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Keep reading for more on Hansen, and why AMS was mistaken in granting him its top honor...
By honoring Hansen, the AMS has raised questions about the proper role of scientists in a world that is facing complex challenges that mix science and politics. A key issue is whether it is appropriate for prominent scientists to serve dual roles as researchers and advocates for political change, or if must there be a clear separation between the two. In Hansen's case, the line between science and politics has been blurry, as I discussed in a column last summer.
In bestowing the Rossby medal upon Hansen, the AMS cited his "outstanding contributions to climate modeling, understanding climate change forcings and sensitivity, and for clear communication of climate science in the public arena."
His body of work is not at issue, as Hansen is widely admired in the climate science community for his breakthrough advances in climate modeling and for his contributions to the knowledge of changes in atmospheric composition. Rather, the problem arises due to the AMS' recognition of Hansen's public communication work on climate change.
On the one hand, Hansen has done more than any other scientist to bring the challenge of global climate change to the public's attention, starting with his congressional testimony in 1988 when he stated unequivocally that human activities were causing the climate to warm up. But his tactics and tone have sharpened considerably as policy makers have moved slowly (much too slowly, in his view and the view of many others) to enact emissions curbs.
Last year, for example, Hansen testified in a British court in support of six Greenpeace climate activists who were on trial after they scaled a smokestack at a coal-fired power plant and painted the name "Gordon" down the stack (in reference to the U.K. Prime Minister, Gordon Brown). The activists were cleared of charges in September. Hansen has called for a global freeze of coal fired power plant construction due to the associated carbon dioxide emissions, and issued a public letter [pdf] to the Obama administration containing his scientific views and policy recommendations. Further examples of his politically-oriented work can be found on his Columbia University web site.
Some AMS members have taken issue with Hansen's outspokenness and political advocacy on climate change, and the reaction from some meteorologists has been harsh. Meteorologist Joe D'Aleo was quoted on the New York Times' Dot Earth blog as saying that the AMS' decision to honor Hansen was "a sad day and embarrassment for a once great society that has lost its way." D'Aleo, like many meteorologists who specialize in day-to-day weather rather than long-term climate trends, is skeptical that human activities are causing climate change, and indeed has disputed whether the climate is warming at all. However out of step he may be with mainstream climate science, he represents a significant constituency of the AMS.
Remarkably, NASA issued a press release regarding the Rossby Medal that lauded Hansen's role as a spokesman for climate science. This is the same agency that tried to squelch his free speech during the Bush administration, in a controversy that blew up on the front page of the New York Times.
"The debate about global change is often emotional and controversial, and Jim has had the courage to stand up and say what others did not want to hear," stated Franco Einaudi, director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "He has acquired a credibility that very few scientists have. His success is due in part to his personality, in part to his scientific achievements, and in part to his refusing to sit on the sidelines of the debate."
In general, scientists tend to steer clear of political advocacy, in part because of the risk that their subsequent work will be seen as conforming to their political agenda rather than being based on scientific evidence. Hansen's vocal support for steep greenhouse gas emissions cuts and a ban on coal-fired power plants has caused some critics to dismiss his scientific findings as biased in favor of his political goals.
Such sentiment was expressed by Craig James, an AMS member and retired television meteorologist who discussed his views on the "Icecap" blog. "I believe Dr. Hansen's political ideology has taken over his science and renders him no longer qualified to be the keeper of the global temperature data," James said.
Personally, I am torn by Hansen's situation. He is an eminent scientist who has spent decades studying the global climate system, only to grow more and more alarmed by what he has been observing. Yet at the same time, many politicians have failed to heed his and other researchers' warnings that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. In the face of this situation, it's understandable that he has turned to more activist-oriented activities in order to avoid the potentially disastrous fate that his scientific research predicts.
But the AMS, which is a scientific society comprised of about 12,000 atmospheric scientists who mainly specialize in weather and have disparate views of climate science, erred in honoring such a lightning rod of controversy, despite the tremendous value his research has been to the scientific community.
The AMS failed to recognize that by giving him the Rossby medal and citing his "clear communication of climate science in the public arena," they may have actually sanctioned his political advocacy. Such advocacy, which is Hansen's right as a citizen, threatens to paint the AMS as having a political agenda too.
The AMS would be wise to publicly set the record straight on where it stands regarding the separation between a scientist and a political advocate, and how that relates to Hansen's award.