Science Group Erred Giving Hansen Top Honor

Written by Andrew Freeman


February 2, 2009
by Andrew Freeman
Washington Post Capital Weather Gang

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.


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