This post ends with an exclusive look at James Hansen’s response to NYT journalist Andy Revkin’s piece commenting on Hansen’s (draft) article on why we need a CO2 target of 350 ppm. But first the backstory.

Revkin used me as the “balance” for his piece:

Some longtime champions of Dr. Hansen, including the Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm, see some significant gaps in the paper (it is a draft still) and part ways with Dr. Hansen over whether such a goal is remotely feasible.

I complained directly to Revkin about the first part of that characterization. I was going to let it go at that, but then I got e-mails from people directing me to a media interview of Hansen (and Mark Bowen, whose new book is Censoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming). The reporter cited Revkin’s quote directly to Hansen to argue the paper is “controversial.”

Well, obviously, the reporter should have called me directly, rather than taking some hearsay characterization from another member of the media. But that just isn’t the state of journalism today. [Note to media: You don’t need to cite me in order to call a paper saying we need to go back to 350 ppm “controversial” — it’s kind of obvious, given that we’re at 385 ppm, rising 2 ppm a year, and not currently doing anything to stop emissions from rising, but I digress.] Anyway, at that point, I felt obliged to write Hansen an email titled “I don’t see ‘significant gaps in the paper’“:

I complained to Revkin about that characterization.

I think it is a solid and important paper and told everyone to read it.

I just say you don’t know how much we can overshoot and for how long, which your paper acknowledges. You quite naturally take a conservative approach — best not to overshoot too much for too long. Since I don’t believe we can possibly get to 350 ppm this century, I interpret your paper to say that we should shoot to stay below 450 ppm this century [almost certainly politically impossible but worth a shot] and 1) plan on going to 350 by 2150 and/or 2) waiting to see if the science becomes clearer on the overshoot issue and we need to act faster.

I don’t think we disagree about much on the technical side. On the action side, you need a WWII-scale effort ASAP for decades. Whether we can get 450 or 400 or 350 with such an approach is something neither of us knows for sure.

Hansen forwarded my email to Revkin with this cover note (which he has given me permission to reprint):


It does seem to me that you now go out of your way to make a “fair and balanced” summary of everything that I write, which is why I hesitate to send you things these days.

Sometimes there are actually conclusions worth reporting without denigrating them down to speculations disputed by other experts.

In reporting the first significant paper that I wrote (in 1981) on this topic Walter Sullivan included grumpy caveats of a couple of people but then wrote something to the effect “these caveats were all noted in the paper by Hansen et al.” (remarkable in indicating he actually read the paper, which covered 10 pages in Science) — unfortunately the version of the Sullivan article that I kept seems to be an abbreviated version which does not include this little bit.

I guess that the “fair and balanced” approach is not aimed at me — it seems to infest a current popular style, which goes something like: well those are some opinions, what are yours? Which encourages responses, and propagation of responses, by people who don’t really understand what they are talking about. Maybe this style is inherent with modern electronic communications. But I liked the old style, which had a little more permanence.


This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.