James Hansen and the Holocaust Frame: not even heroes are perfect

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Just in case you were wondering, the new Beowulf movie is pretty awful–but there’s at least one thing interesting about it.

It turns a heroic character without any apparent flaws (the original Beowulf) into a guy that, well, has loads of them. In so doing, it modernizes the story (and, as it happens, trashes the original poem).

Weirdly, I thought of Beowulf when I read the latest about NASA‘s James Hansen, our most famous climate scientist, who used an unfortunate Holocaust-related analogy to discuss the impact of global warming on endangered species in recent testimony in his home state, Iowa.

More specifically, Hansen stated:

Recently, after giving a high school commencement talk in my hometown, Denison, Iowa, I drove from Denison to Dunlap, where my parents are buried. For most of 20 miles there were trains parked, engine to caboose, half of the cars being filled with coal. 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.

Quite predictably, this reference to “crematoria” caused a big controversyPDF), albeit somewhat circuitously.

Indeed, even after apologizing, Hansen added this:

A related alternative metaphor, perhaps less objectionable while still making the most basic point, comes to mind in connection with an image of crashing of massive ice sheets fronts into the sea – an image of relevance to both climate tipping points and consequences (sea level rise). Can these crashing glaciers serve as a Krystal Nacht, and wake us up to the inhumane consequences of averting our eyes?

Advice to James Hansen: If you are going to be engaged in public debate on global warming, or as a major public figure on pretty much any subject, you should probably stay away from Holocaust metaphors and analogies, PERIOD.

Why?

Because even if you explain what you really mean–and even if, once explained, it isn’t actually so offensive–you still can’t get away with it. Moreover, such analogies are pretty well guaranteed to distract people from the point you are trying to get across.

I write all this, incidentally, as one of the many, many journalists who has positively gushed about Hansen in the past.

In a feature last year for Seed, I called him the “New Scientist,” and praised his courageous thwarting of political attempts to silence him, as well as his refusal to retreat, as too many scientists do, into technocratic jargon when the fate of the planet is at stake.

So yes, James Hansen is a great hero–but if he is going to be out in front of the media, and if he is going to be engaged in politics, he like anyone else ought to study the unspoken but very real rules of high stakes political debate and engagement in America today. One of those rules is don’t expose your flank, especially when you have a ton of people who’d love nothing better than to take you down (as Hansen most assuredly does).

Another is don’t say things that you don’t need to say that distract from what you really want to say.

On both counts, comparing pretty much anything in the global warming debate to the Holocaust is an utter no-no. You waste time, you lose the force of your original argument, you distract from the main issue at hand…and you probably offend people and may have to apologize.

How is that fun?

It’s not like this is the first time for Hansen.

In March, I watched him get raked over the coals repeatedly before the U.S. Congress after having likened the Bush administration’s suppression of science to…that’s right, Nazi Germany. Instead of just admitting that he shouldn’t have said that, Hansen went on and on trying to clarify and explain and defend himself. And he just kept getting dinged by Republican congressmen. After a while, it became painful to watch.

Another rule of politics: When you do something impolitic or ill-advised, just apologize, fully and without excuses. And move on.

The thing is, Hansen is actually better than most scientists when it comes to communicating. He doesn’t limit himself to only talking about purely scientific matters, when science obviously has implications for policy, ethics, and much else. He doesn’t mince words.

That’s a good thing.

But even a James Hansen could probably use a little media coaching–something all too few scientists receive as a part of their normal career training.

If scientists are going to go into political battle–and, given the rank politicization of science that we’ve seen, it’s doubtful they can avoid it on issues like evolution or global climate change–they have got to learn the rules of the battlefield.

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