NASA scientist James Hansen, who galvanized the environmental movement decades ago with his congressional testimony about the dangers of climate change, said yesterday that President Obama has a rare opportunity to show he is not a "hopeless addict."
The climatologist, who will appear at the National Press Club on Monday before joining protests at the White House, where he expects to be arrested, told ClimateWire in an email interview that the Keystone XL pipeline awaiting approval from the president is like a dirty needle from a fellow oil addict, Canada.
The pipeline, if built, would run 1,700 miles from Canada to Texas and bring in a form of crude to the United States that releases more carbon dioxide emissions in the production process than traditional oil.
"If Obama chooses the dirty needle it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing all along, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians, with no real intention of solving the addiction," Hansen said.
Hansen will join dozens of protesters engaging in civil disobedience in front of the White House as the Obama administration weighs whether to grant Keystone XL a cross-border permit by the end of the year. As of yesterday, more than 300 people had been arrested, with 1,000 or so planning to go to jail before sit-ins end on Sept. 3.
In a sense, Hansen has been present at the protests all along, as other activists engaging in sit-ins frequently restate his words from a June public statement that the oil sands could mean "game over" for the planet when combined with greenhouse gases from coal.
In criticizing Obama, Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, is taking potshots at his employer, but that's nothing new for the scientist, who said he was punished during the George W. Bush administration for not following the White House policy lead on climate change.
For Hansen, the current protests were an easy choice, as he said TV interviews and public op-ed pieces have been "ineffectual" in grabbing the public's attention on climate change. The pipeline, which would roughly double the amount of Canadian crude coming into the United States, is important because its fate rests solely with Obama, not Congress or "anyone else," said Hansen.
"Obama can explain things to the public. He has the communication ability, but he has not used it. If he went to the public and honestly explained the situation, he could get their support," he said.
When asked how the pipeline decision would effect Obama politically, Hansen said, "That's the question he will not ask if he is to be a real leader. Would Harry Truman have asked that question?" The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Is anyone listening?
The key question for Obama, according to political analysts, is whether the protests signal a serious problem with his base in 2012. With the protests currently getting scattered news coverage, mainly from print and online outlets such as The New Yorker and The Huffington Post, it's not clear the rallies are capturing the public's attention much at all, they say.
But there is a risk for the president, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of public history and public affairs at Princeton University. If he approves the pipeline, he could lose environmentalists in swing states such as North Carolina, where environmentalists stand as a key Democratic swing vote in moderate, suburban areas, he said.
"The president is counting on the fact that environmentalists don't have anywhere else to go in 2012," said Zelizer. "The risk is that they won't do much to help him get re-elected, and that can make a huge difference in key districts."
Nine of the nation's green groups signaled this week that Keystone XL is a political test, writing a letter to the president with the words: "If you block it, you will trigger a surge of enthusiasm from the green base that supported you so strongly in the last election. We expect nothing less." Yesterday, Kenny Bruno of Corporate Ethics International said protesters would not give up and would put their bodies in front of bulldozers and pipes to stop the pipeline if Obama approves it.
Supporters of the pipeline, meanwhile, are pushing back against environmental assertions.
They say that the pipeline will wean the United States off of Middle Eastern oil, create jobs and do little to spur climate change, considering that Canada produces about 2 percent of global emissions. There also is an ongoing debate about the carbon footprint of the oil sands, with some saying the oil will be extracted no matter what and others arguing that Keystone XL is a critical piece of the greenhouse gas picture (ClimateWire, July 25).
State Department leans toward approval
Others say that Hansen is unlikely to change the political dynamic, considering that the State Department is set to conclude in a final environmental impact statement that the pipeline has "limited adverse environmental impact," The Washington Post reported yesterday.
"James Hansen was fresh and new in 1988," said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at Bracewell & Giuliani. "He's been around the block around the few times. He doesn't carry as much as weight as he once did."
Hansen has been arrested a few other times protesting coal plants and mountaintop-removal mining, including at a 2010 event at the White House. During the climate bill debates of 2009 and 2010, he received criticism from many environmentalists and industry figures for pushing for a politically inviable carbon tax instead of cap and trade.
Now, he also is facing fire from analysts who critiqued his assertion in a June public letter that the oil sands, where crude is stuck in deep sand formations, means "game over" for the planet.
It could take 95 Keystone XL pipelines -- and until the year 3316 -- to release the full amount of carbon in Canada's oil sands discussed by Hansen, blogged Andrew Leach, a University of Alberta business professor. "If you want deep cuts to [greenhouse gas] emissions, you need a broad-based policy, not a hopelessly leveraged argument against a single project," Leach said.
Hansen said that his critics are missing the point, that the issue is not the amount of oil sands that is currently economically recoverable. He indicated it's more about what would come after the pipeline, and what Keystone XL symbolizes in terms of the administration's priorities.
"If you decide you are going to continue your addiction and build a big pipeline to Texas, the economically extractable oil will steadily grow over time," he said. "Moreover, in addition, the known resources would grow -- there is plenty more to be discovered."