Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Yesterday, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, called for oil executives to be tried for “high crimes against humanity and nature.” He also pledged to campaign against members of Congress with “poor” climate-change records, reported the Guardian. This follows comparisons of adversaries to Holocaust deniers and bosses of organized crime and a long record of adversarial relations with the elected officials who, in theory, oversee him. In short, Mr. Hansen sounds like a member of Congress, or perhaps Al Gore - which, indeed, points to two of the legitimate options a vocal, caustic public advocate such as Mr. Hansen has in a representative democracy. High technocrat for global warming is not one of them.

The question is: Would Mr. Hansen’s blatant political advocacy be tolerated anywhere else in the federal government? Could a decorated general advocate an invasion of Iran or North Korea, calling his congressional opponents weak or traitorous, without violating his office? Of course not.

The NASA climate-science chief should stop trading on the public trust of an unappointed federal scientific position and try running for one of the offices that possess the legitimate powers he seeks to usurp. Short of that, he could convince George Soros to fund a think tank. In some respects, we tilt at windmills to even make the suggestion, since certainly there is no political will to sack Mr. Hansen for violating the public trust. Mr. Hansen makes more media appearances than the average cabinet secretary. He knows how to get attention.

Certainly no one should expect Mr. Hansen to act upon the merits of this argument on his own. A scientific institution such as the Goddard Institute for Space Studies is perhaps the ideal place for an ambitious empire-builder to push the limits of political advocacy while retaining the credibility of science. Housed in New York City’s Columbia University and affiliated with its well-funded, well-connected Earth Institute, Mr. Hansen’s operation is far removed from Washington’s political tentacles at Goddard’s main campus in Beltsville, Md.

The United States is still a representative democracy. The sort of high-priest technocrat that Mr. Hansen presumes to be stands outside that tradition. An advocate is an advocate.

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